Will’s World Not Up to PAR

By Will Carlin

“I have stopped playing league and I am not going to play very many tournaments,” Paul Marotta, an avid New York A player, told me recently. “The thing is: I don’t want to travel to a league match and play a four-game match that takes 25 minutes. With the cost of tournaments being between $50 and $100 before travel costs, I am not going to spend the money and the time to get someplace and play a couple of 30-minute matches.”

On December 10, 2008, US Squash announced that all U.S. Championships, both junior and adult, will use Point-A-Rally (“PAR”) scoring to 11 points per game. This was a response to the World Squash Federation’s October announcement that the WSF voted to change the scoring system worldwide, across all areas of the sport, beginning officially on April 1, 2009.

The date of the official change is appropriate; the timing for such a change couldn’t be more foolish.

At a time when the worldwide economy is tanking, the decision to make squash league and tournament play potentially less desirable for its players seems undeniably short-sighted. But the decision was not made capriciously, so how did it happen?

We had to make the game more attractive for [spectators, television, the Olympics].  This was touted as the main reason for the PSA’s switch a few years ago to PAR, but though this view is widespread, it also is nonsense. Television interest is not based on having shorter sporting events. Sports like table tennis, where matches are very short, are used as filler rather than main events, and their matches are so short that spectators don’t have the opportunity to get to know the players, which is of primary importance in creating fan interest.

The Daily Telegraph in Britain quoted Gawain Briars, the former CEO of the PSA as saying, “I have spoken on more than one occasion with an IOC member who…  when asked specifically if alleged scoring confusion in the minds of IOC delegates is really what is holding back squash from joining the Olympic family, was an emphatic ‘no.’”

PAR scoring makes the points more exciting because every point counts. Actually, if you talk with teaching pros, playing pros and top-level coaches and ask them specifically how point strategy has changed, the answer is that it hasn’t. The main reason for better shotmaking and more exciting rallies are the racquets and the athletes, not the scoring.

PAR means reduced tournament fatigue and fewer injuries. This is true, and it is the primary reason that PAR makes sense for the top pros. For the rest of us, though, so what? One of the main attractions of squash is that it means that you need to be fit to play in tournaments. As for injuries, most happen early in the draw – not later – and usually are due to being unfit. Some experts think injuries are likely to increase, not decrease.

Everyone is excited about the change to PAR. I keep reading this, but, um, who are they talking to? The overwhelming player response I have heard is not enthusiastic. Older players liked longer matches because their points are shorter and it helped keep them fit; younger players find too many super-short matches; competitors bemoan the inability to come back. But one group definitely likes it; they say: “Well, I am really unfit right now, so I like it.”

We need a unified scoring system. Okay, even I think this is a good thing. In fact, I wrote a column about it a few years ago. The PAR system is working fairly well for the male pros, so shouldn’t we all just get on board?

What to do? The PSA is unlikely to revert back to nine-point scoring any time soon. But there is one way to keep the amateurs and the pros using the same kind of scoring, at least some of the time: The PSA and WISPA could adopt nine-point scoring for a small selection of its most major tournaments (think the British and World Opens).

With this simple addition, a number of interesting things would happen:

First, it would be a great nod to history for its most storied tournaments to provide a measure of continuity in scoring. It also would provide the PSA a way of differentiating an exclusive set of tournaments.

Second, it would another kind of test for the pros. In order to win one of these titles, the players would need a different level of fitness and mental toughness than they would for the other tournaments. This is exactly what separates tennis’s grand slam majors.

Third, squash would be able to maintain the brand identity that has provided almost all of its opportunities to be featured in the popular press: the toughest and most athletic ball sport in the world. Now that is a brand identity.

Finally, the WSF could feel that it reasonably is keeping things unified by letting amateur squash play to nine. In fact, they could authorize all forms of scoring, much as it is in tennis, where all different kinds of scoring are used, and let local leagues and tournaments decide what is best for their constituencies. League matches could reasonably be 9-point games since they are just one match a week. Smaller tournaments also could have 9-point scoring, while others could choose to play to 11.

It is probably clear that I think there are a lot of weaknesses in PAR scoring, but I know there are many who like it. With two minor changes (a few PSA events being played to nine and the WSF allowing different forms of scoring), in this time of economic challenge, it makes sense to let opinionated fools like me continue to argue the points, but to let the marketplace decide.