The Next Olympic Sport? The Growth of Squash and New Opportunities for Design

From our Ideas+Buildings Blog

Later this year, the International Olympic Committee will decide whether to include Squash in the 2020 Olympics – a decision marking a potentially momentous turning point in the history of the sport. As an avid squash player, I’m very excited about the potential for the game to join the Olympics. As an architect, I see the tremendous growth of squash as an opportunity for a transformation of the way the game is enjoyed at every level – from the increasingly popular college and high school leagues, to new Urban Squash youth programs taking root in cities across the country, to the growing pro circuit in this country and around the world. The game of squash is poised to make a big leap, and the designs of new facilities will have to respond accordingly.

The fact that squash finds itself in this position is because it is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with over 25 million players in 185 countries around the globe. Especially remarkable is the sport’s increasing popularity in the United States, where squash is growing faster than anywhere else, especially at the junior level. Recent data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association indicates an incredible 82% growth rate between 2007 and 2011. This significant growth presents an opportunity to design new squash facilities that have the potential to become dynamic community centers in the 21st century.

Since the U.S. adopted the International squash standards in the 1990s, the stock of outdated American Hardball singles courts is slowly being replaced, first at the private club level and now increasingly at public universities and athletic facilities. In 1999, when I first arrived in Charlottesville, VA as a freshman at the University of Virginia, there were only two regulation courts in the entire area, and none on campus. While at the UVA, I started the Club Squash team and by 2003, my senior year, we were the first UVA squash team to ever go to the National Championships. That year there were only 35 teams competing at Nationals – this past year the College Squash Association included over 75 teams! Charlottesville now boasts about 30 courts in the area, including a brand new 11-court facility completed by UVA this spring. Today, most colleges and universities are including squash courts in their new rec centers or building dedicated squash facilities. From our research into squash trends on college campuses, we see larger facilities being built in future years as new programs become more established and look to expand.  

One of the most significant changes in the sport over the last few years has been the proliferation of the Urban Squash movement. Today, many major US cities are home to Urban Squash Enrichment programs that provide after school tutoring and mentoring to children in under-served communities. These programs use squash as the vehicle to teach health, character, and hard work. Here in Boston, I am involved with SquashBusters, the first program of its kind which operates out of its own facility on the Northeastern campus. In just the past year, SquashBusters has opened a new outpost in Lawrence, MA. In other cities like Philadelphia and New York, these types of programs have built their own dedicated facilities that include classrooms, conference rooms, and other support spaces. As other programs grow, more facilities like this will be built.

Not only is squash growing at a remarkable rate, but it is becoming more visible to the public at large. Moveable all-glass exhibition courts can be erected temporarily to stage tournaments anywhere. Thousands of people pass by the Tournament of Champions held each year in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. Tournaments have also been held at Chicago’s Millennium Park, on the harbor in Hong Kong, and at the Pyramids in Giza. Streaming High Definition broadcasts of professional tournaments around the globe make viewing the highest level of competition available to all.

Squash is gaining visibility, literally, as seen here with a glass court allowing spectators to watch from more sides, here played in Chicago’s Millenium Park.


Squash in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall, right in the center of the Midtown Manhattan

Be it near an academic quad or right in the grid of Manhattan, these new facilities must meet the current standards of the sport, for both those playing it and those watching. New facilities must respond to the various use requirements of squash, be it team practice and training, recreational play, or tournaments. In order to do so, designs must focus on the spaces outside the courts, not just the courts themselves. New facilities must provide a variety of viewing options and support spaces. Our design for The Squash Center, a proposed 17-court facility in New York City that would be the largest in the country, includes social spaces with adjacency to the courts to encourage the “community” aspect of the sport.

In this scheme for the Squash Center, the courtyard becomes a vital place for the squash ‘community.’ Image (c) Perkins+Will


In this alternate scheme for the Squash Center, circulation paths can double as places to socialize and spectate matches in progress, creating localized neighborhoods. Image (c) Perkins+Will

Within our Sports + Recreation practice, we see the sport of squash as a great opportunity for innovative design to complement a healthier and more enjoyable lifestyle. As squash quickly becomes even more inclusive and accessible, there is great potential to create vibrant community resources centered on wellness and fitness. Whether in recreational centers, on college campuses, or for youth organizations, these facilities have the opportunity to become integral to the everyday life of the communities they serve.

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