NOT QUITE A SMASH HIT
Despite having a prestigious tournament held here in Shanghai, squash is still a relatively unknown sport in China that wealthy families are now beginning to see as a ticket to top schools
The Stars on the Bund China Open 2015 was quite literally an over-the-top squash tournament. For the past decade, organizers of this competition have brought the century-old sport to esteemed locations around the world, including under the chandelier of New York Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall, the Hong Kong Harbor, and even in front of the pyramids in Giza, Egypt.
This time round, it was held atop the Peninsula Shanghai, where competitors from across the globe competed in a specially-built glass cube on the terrace of the hotel’s 110,000-yuan-per-night presidential suite. It was dubbed as the “largest world tour of squash in China”. The view of the Shanghai skyline was stunning. The action taking place in the cube was exciting.
But the general mood in the crowd attending this exclusive by-invitation-only event was somewhat lackluster.
The underwhelming reception is perhaps unsurprising, considering how squash— birthed as a variation of older racquet sports in a British school in the 19th century — is still a relatively niche sport in China. Furthermore, squash isn’t even an Olympic sport.
In fact, many of the people in attendance were not there to appreciate the finer points of the game nor support their favorite squash stars. Instead, a good number of those within the crowd were actually wealthy parents who were attending the event for a rather peculiar reason — they saw the sport as a potential ticket for their children to enter prestigious Ivy League schools in the United States.
One such parent was Cao Xiaojing, who had learned about the game from her daughter’s international school in the Chinese capital, which recently added squash as an optional course in the curriculum. The daughter has since picked up the sport over tennis, which is vastly more popular in China, and Cao believes that squash could turn out to be more than just a weekly workout, but also as a possible asset to use as leverage for school applications.
After all, Ivy League institutions do pay a little more attention to applicants who excel in sports, and squash’s relatively low take-up rate in China means there’s less competition to outdo.
“We have flown down from Beijing just for the game,” said Cao, who was accompanied by her 13-year-old daughter. “She is growing fond of it. What’s more, it’s easier to make achievements when there are fewer peers playing this sport.”
Wang Junjie, China’s topranked squash player, said that all the 12 members on his coaching team have trained students who are vying for a place in an Ivy League school. Wang, who has been moonlighting as squash coach for three years, added that some of his students who are studying abroad would travel back to China during their summer vacations just to participate in training sessions.
SECA, the sports agency that co-organized the squash tournament in Shanghai, can also testify to a growing interest in squash, with the sport now being the second most popular choice at its academy after fencing.
The company’s CEO Li Sheng believes that the rise of junior squash in China is partly related to educational prospects overseas, saying Chinese parents are under the impression that their children may have an edge over the competition if they excel in the sport and demonstrate leadership and sportsmanship, qualities that are often absent from Chinese students.
However, Lei Zhiping, the investor of the Tera Wellness gym chain in Shanghai, argued that college is not the only reason the game is experiencing a boom.
“It wasn’t until around the
Lei Zhiping, year 2000 that Chinese people, young and old, started to work out regularly. Now, with golf and tennis becoming massively popularized, the elite class is looking for a more niche sport to differentiate themselves,” he said.
Other reasons for the rise of squash could be due to government intervention. In October 2014, China’s State Council issued a guideline to accelerate the development of the domestic sports industry to capitalize on the economic potential of the sector, which is projected to reach 5 trillion yuan ($782.39 billion) by 2025 and account for roughly one percent of the country’s GDP, up from the current 0.6 percent.
Hao Dazhao, an associate from the Hong Kong office of global financial services company Credit Suisse, attributed this bullish prediction to two key growth engines.
The first is the room for growth in areas like sponsorship, ticket sales and purchase of broadcasting rights of sports events in China, using the example of the National Football League in the US and its $10 billion annual revenue.
The other growth engine lies in the large base of sports fans in the country. It is estimated that there are currently 6 million sports fans in China, and about 2 million exercise on a regular basis. Moreover, there are some 120 million with the financial ability to spend on attending sporting events and participating in similar activities.
But while the sports industry looks set to expand further, the future of squash is still rather murky. For now at least, the sport looks limited to competitions for junior players, leisure games in condominium estates and glitzy events along The Bund.
Wang mentioned that unless squash becomes an Olympic sport in the near future, there is unlikely to be a spike in interest in China, or an increase in government support which will be pivotal in raising awareness for this racquet game.
the investor of a gym chain Tera Wellness in Shanghai
The China Open 2015 squash tournament was held on the Bund and competitors faced off in a glass cube that overlooked the Huangpu River.
Franco Amadei, SECA Academy Squash Program COO & technical director, and young squash learners at the press conference for the 2015 China Open.