By Scott Leighton
Over the past ten years, squash has shown significant strides toward becoming more accessible to a larger group of potential players. One only needs to look to the urban squash programs which have been leading the movement in the inner cities. And more recently, a new wave of clubs built by Life Time Fitness are having a significant impact growing squash and helping promote the game in suburban and rural areas that typically haven’t had a presence in the past.
Life Time Fitness was founded in Minnesota in 1992 by Bahram Akradi. Since becoming a public company, Life Time has expanded to 84 centers in 19 states, with a large number of these locations possessing squash courts and active squash communities. Life Time clubs in states such as Arizona, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Utah, are helping the game grow geographically in regions that previously had few squash courts while other locations in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey, are supplementing already thriving squash communities. As part of Mr. Akradi’s vision, Life Time Fitness is committed to squash. Currently, there are 122 courts at 52 Life Time locations, providing a huge supply for the increasing demand of squash throughout much of the country.
Leading the squash movement with Life Time Fitness is Danielle Maur, the National Squash and Racquetball Director for the organization. Maur, who spent 10 years as a squash promoter in the Atlanta area, points to the affordability of membership to Life Time Fitness as one of the main draws toward joining the club. An all-inclusive, basic membership at Life Time provides full access to squash facilities and many of the benefits that U.S. SQUASH provides to Life Time clubs. One of these benefits is access to online league software, which increases efficiency by eliminating the need for old “pencil and paper” leagues while exposing players to a large online community of players and coaches. Another benefit is Life Time’s “Be Our Guest” program. The program, which partners U.S. SQUASH membership and guest access to Life Time clubs, allows current U.S. SQUASH members a free “guest pass” to Life Time Fitness Clubs when traveling outside of their home region. The program allows U.S. SQUASH members to take advantage of the geographic diversity of Life Time clubs and makes sure they are never far from a squash court. For more information on this U.S. SQUASH membership benefit send an email to: BeOurGuest@ lifetimefitness.com.
Life Time Fitness has been very active in finding new ways to encourage participation. Once a month, each club hosts a squash and racquetball challenge, a competition where players from both sports are encouraged to play as much as possible on that selected day to see which sport logs the largest number of players on the court nationwide. The construction of new courts has also inevitably spurred the formation of more junior, adult, and pro tournaments. Several marquee events include the 2009 Texas Open held this past May at Life Time Fitness in Plano (TX). The squash event at the 2009 Georgia State Games was held at Life Time Fitness in Johns Creek (GA), and Life Time Fitness in Houston will be hosting the 2010 Central Regional Skill Level Championships. Beginning in September, all Life Time Fitness clubs will begin hosting U.S. SQUASH leagues, U.S. SQUASH-sanctioned Club Championships and will begin to maintain club rankings. Arturo Manzur, the head squash pro at Life Time Minnesota Athletic, has seen a large upswing in his junior program in the recent year. Sharing the goal of many urban squash programs, Arturo believes that many of his juniors who play squash can utilize the sport as an after-school enrichment program. In a region that is typically not a hotbed for squash, Arturo attributes this increase in activity to local and national promotions within Life Time and also the new U.S. SQUASH programs such as the online box leagues which make inner-club competition between players much easier.
In order for Life Time Fitness programs in less populated squash areas to become successful in the long term, Maur says local players in their respective clubs need to “step up and contribute.” Squash pros and coordinators are needed to help sustain growth and encourage juniors and adults to promote and play the game as much as possible. Since Life Time began expanding its squash programs in January of this year, the number of squash players at the 52 clubs that have squash courts expanded from 5,000 players in January to over 11,000 players in July. Maur believes that many of these players are new to the game—initially attracted to the other programs that Life Time has to offer and discovering squash in the process. In addition to a boost in participation, U.S. SQUASH hopes the growth of Life Time clubs in new regions will promote the formation of new District Associations and will encourage other fitness and racquet clubs to build squash courts to go along with their swimming pools, weight rooms, and tennis courts. U.S. SQUASH also hopes that many of the online box leagues and club competitions will translate over to other squash clubs throughout the country.
Overall, Life Time Fitness is committed to helping squash expand its elite roots into Middle America. Although Life Time Fitness is certainly not the only fitness club that promotes squash beyond the normal boundaries, it has shown noticeable success on a national level over the past year with increased squash participation. With U.S. SQUASH and Life Time Fitness membership continuing to grow in numbers, squash will continue to expand geographically and demographically over the long-term. While the days of squash becoming as popular nationwide as baseball and basketball are still in the distant future, the sport is making progress toward becoming truly nationwide.