Dubai: While Ziad Al Turki has been in the spotlight for almost a decade, the Professional Squash Association (PSA) chairman has perhaps never been more pleased with himself, having helped pioneer the sport’s renaissance.
The 50-year-old entrepreneur from Saudi Arabia takes a look back at how squash has transformed itself from being a niche sport into a sport that is in ascendance. Al Turki was open with expressing his passion and affection for squash in a candid interview with Gulf News during the PSA Dubai World Series Finals at the Burj Park in Downtown Dubai.
Are you happy with the current state of squash? Is it moving forward with the status quo or with real change?
Yes, we’re very happy with the growth that we’ve seen over the past couple of years. But we’re never going to be satisfied, we aspire for more and more growth especially now that the PSA and WSA are looking to strengthen the women’s tour and bring it to the level of the men’s tour and actually to grow both tours to higher levels.
How do you propose to grow the sport. What are the pans are in place?
I think we’ve done all that what we do in terms of the changes that can be made. The prize money is growing, the interest is. I predominantly got involved in squash in 2005 because I thought squash should reach higher levels than where it was and also to make the life of the players better by having higher prize money.
To get all that, you needed to have a solid foundation and we’ve invested in the Tour itself. We’ve redesigned the look of the glass courts, we’ve redesigned the look and feel of the tournaments around the world made them more professional. And we went out and got the proper media exposure behind this. We now have a three-year deal signed with major television networks around the world and we go live in almost 150 countries. This is something people told us a few years ago that we will never achieve but we’ve achieved it. And with that you start getting the sponsorship behind you. With that you start raising the prize money, with that you can do a lot more than you want with limited budgets.
Given the fact that squash is played in an all-glass court, have there been issues with the way it is telecast?
If you look where we’ve come in the last three years, I think we’ve made huge strides. We’re not there yet, we’re limited in what we can produce because we don’t have a massive digital truck that follows us around the world like football does when you can have 16, 20 cameras around. But with the proper sponsorship behind us and the backing that we have, you’ll start seeing even better production. A testament to that is that major networks are taking us seriously. At the last Commonwealth Games, squash was the most viewed sport on television and if we’re not producing it properly, we wouldn’t have got these numbers. The interest from major television networks is a giant seal of approval that we’ve actually reached that level.
Are there lessons to be learnt from the way football, tennis and golf is marketed?
It’s not really a marketing issue. You look at the English Premier League for example: Sky came over and put hundreds of millions behind them. Nobody’s come up with millions in squash. I came over and put in my own money, whatever I can, to help bring it to the level of these sports. We’re never going to be football or some of the mass sports around, simply because we don’t have that mass appeal, we are a niche sport.
But look we’re here in Dubai. A few years ago a lot of people tried to bring squash to Dubai but failed. We had to wait for the right time, with the solid platform. Because when you come to Dubai you need to come in a big way. And we have come in a big way. Look at the set-up and I think this is going to be a key for us moving forward because Dubai has really put us in the limelight. Dubai is a master key that opens doors for you around the world.
Sport thrives on characters, marquee players. Does squash need larger-than-life characters to propel it to a different level.
We do have the larger than life characters and they’re larger than life in their own countries. You have people like Nick Matthews in England, he won double gold in the Commonwealth Games, but the media didn’t pick that up. So no matter how big we make them, the media has to be behind us and the media has to go behind their fellow countrymen.
Nour Al Sherbini has got a lot of coverage back home event. The President of Egypt [Abdul Fattah Al Sissi] congratulated her when she became the world number one, as he did with Mohammad Al Shorbagy. I think it’s those type of things that do it. Someone in the media has to run with it. Ramy Ashour and Nicole David are larger than life, Gregory Gaultier certainly is back in France. They are amazing characters, amazing athletes. The media has to really help us out and get it out there.
How can you attract more youngsters to the game and make them think of squash as a proper profession?
Your need a strong Tour. If the Tour is weak, they will just see it as a hobby, not a profession. I think when you saw the Nour Al Sherbini winning, and you saw the rise of prize money, the Tour becoming more professional and also having big tournaments around the world it opens the door for the junior to say, ‘you know what, I love your sport and I can see a future in it. It’s got a very strong association behind it and I’m going to give it my best.’
Does squash have a unique selling point?
Yes it does! We’re as eco-friendly as you can be. We don’t even take up too much space. We’re mobile, we don’t need water to water our courts, just a damp cloth will do. We’ve even changed the lights, we don’t consume much power. So we’re really fit in the modern era. People are really into extreme sports and although we don’t sell ourselves as an extreme sport, when you watch these guys play, you say this is an extreme sport, without a doubt.
It’s appealing and it fits everywhere. And look at the people playing in it, people from non-traditional Olympic medal winning countries. Squash ticks all the right boxes, it just needs it little more respect.