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

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By XU JUNQIAN in Shang­hai xu­jun­qian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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

GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

The China Open 2015 squash tour­na­ment was held on the Bund and com­peti­tors faced off in a glass cube that over­looked the Huangpu River.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Franco Amadei, SECA Acad­emy Squash Pro­gram COO & tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, and young squash learn­ers at the press con­fer­ence for the 2015 China Open.

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