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Double Vision

SportBusiness International looks at the recent deal that sees squash now broadcast on the Tennis Channel in the United States: two racquet sports with great synergies, or a square peg in a round hole?

They are both racquet sports, but in the grand scheme of things, tennis and squash are as culturally different as football and rugby.

So, in March, when United States TV network the Tennis Channel partnered with the Professional Squash Association (PSA) to broadcast top-level squash, a fair few heads were scratched.

Would tennis fans appreciate watching a different sport or, in fact, be even vaguely interested? After all, it’s the equivalent of showing cricket on the Golf Channel.

“We see this more as an opportunity than a risk,” says Jeremy Langer, vice-president of programming at the Tennis Channel, insisting that hardcore tennis fans won’t be upset at having their paid-for tennis programming interrupted.

“We’ve found a way to add top-level squash coverage to our overall product without replacing any of our top-level tennis coverage, so our viewers ultimately come out ahead. Hopefully, those tennis fans who are new to squash will be intrigued by what they see and tune in for more.

“We don’t consult directly with subscribers on each programming decision, but we constantly monitor their feedback on social media and online message boards, and look at viewership numbers.”

The deal kicked in last month and will see 10 PSA tournaments broadcast this year, including the British Open, the US Open, PSA World Series Finals and PSA World Championships. Since the PSA now governs both men’s and women’s squash, both genders will be broadcast – a benefit for American viewers since the top United States squash player, Amanda Sobhy, is currently ranked 10 in the world.

Thanks to its reach of 35 million viewers, increasing to 55 million during grand slam tennis coverage, the deal is an opportunity for squash to grow beyond its traditional fanbase at a time when it’s desperate to achieve Olympic status. After failed previous attempts, the sport is gunning for inclusion at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Alex Gough is chief executive of the PSA. Like Langer, he is optimistic that Tennis Channel viewers will appreciate the squash broadcasts.

“Squash is another racquet sport so hopefully there will be crossover and an affinity for it. Obviously there are huge differences [between tennis and squash] but it shouldn’t take too long for Tennis Channel viewers to grasp it.”

Gough points to the support that squash’s last Olympic bid received from the likes of Roger Federer and Andy Murray, and says that six-time tennis grand slam winner Stefan Edberg is a great supporter of the sport. Edberg’s Stockholm-based company Case Asset Management is a sponsor of squash’s Swedish Open.

Valuable Returns

Langer remains tight-lipped on the financial terms of the deal. Gough wouldn’t reveal any numbers either, but explained that the

PSA will eventually take a share of any Tennis Channel advertising revenue earned from squash programming, admitting that the broadcast alliance has the dual purpose of both promoting the sport and garnering revenue.

“The deal we’ve done is around the advertising sales. At the moment the figure wouldn’t be very high but, hopefully in time, we’ll be able to commercialise that side of things,” he says.

“It’s about selling [the deal] to our sponsors and to new sponsors. It’s tricky to put a figure on [the deal], but there’s a mechanism in there for us to go off and monetise it.

“It’s always a fine line between exposure and revenue. We need a certain amount [of money] in, but ultimately we’re more about getting millions of people watching squash. And hopefully, off the back of that, the commercial returns will be more worthwhile to us anyway. That’s the game plan for the next three or four years.”

We don’t consult directly with subscribers on each programming decision, but we constantly monitor their feedback on social media and online message boards  

There’s no doubt the deal is a valuable marketing coup for squash. In the United States, even obscure sports can quickly become popular given the right exposure.

“When Americans latch onto a sport, you can guarantee it will have a global domino effect,” says Gough. “This is the beginning of a partnership that will be of huge benefit to squash not just in America, but all around
the world.”

So far, however, Americans haven’t really latched onto squash. Canada once enjoyed a squash legend in former world number one Jonathon Power, but the United States has produced no-one of note, in either gender, unless you count Natalie Grainger, a South African who switched allegiance to the United States later in her career.

Additional Exposure

Joey Barrington is a commentator for Squash TV, the PSA’s existing online TV channel, which means his commentary will also heard by Tennis Channel viewers.

Son of the 1970s squash legend Jonah Barrington, and a former world top 30 player himself, he believes the new deal is “wonderful” for squash.

“Squash has been held back because of the lack of TV exposure,” he says. “Getting it out there, wherever it may be, is good for the sport. Squash flashes up on Tennis Channel and viewers have their eyes opened up to
the sport.”

With both squash and tennis now on the roster, does this mean the Tennis Channel might add other racquet sports in the future? Badminton, table tennis and real tennis are all racket sports keen for additional exposure.

Langer certainly doesn’t dismiss the idea: “We’ve shown highlights from racquetball’s US Open during the past few years.

“We’re open to any opportunities with governing bodies that, like the PSA, have invested heavily in developing their product with today’s TV standards in mind.”

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