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British Open
[last update was
5-oct-05

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  SQUASHTALK
  OPINION


The
British Open:


will it survive as a "Major" …

The
Greatest Squash Event In Uncertain Ground
©
2005 SquashTalk.com

by Ron Beck

(Ron
Beck is the editor of SquashTalk and spent five years on the WPSA pro tour)

amr shabana
Egyptian Stars,
Amr Shabana and Karim Darwish are passing up this year’s British
Open. Shabana was the 2004 finalist in Nottingham.

The British Open
is without a doubt the most famous and historic squash tournament
in the world of squash. It is important for
the heritage, public consciousness and continuity of squash around
the world. It’s the event where Hashim Khan burst into
prominence and gave an identity to a new nation, Pakistan. It was the
stage for epic battles between Hashim and Roshan, Hunt and Barrington,
Jahangir and Hunt, Jahangir and Jansher.

But, perhaps as a
danger sign for the British Open, the epic battles between Jonathon
Power and Peter Nicol (and they’ve met 43 times in PSA play) have all
happened in other events — in Qatar, at the TOC in New York, in Toronto,
even in St. Louis.

Shifting
Sands and the Importance of Money

For the past few seasons the British Open has been operating
on frayed lines and borrowed time. It started in 1999, when the sponsorship
agreements the SRA thought it had in place collapsed, and the event was
almost cancelled before being rescued at the last moment by Scottish
Squash and the City of Aberdeen. The traditional London event moved north
to the offshore oil capital, Aberdeen, Scotland, on a cold and windy
December. From there the SRA made an ill-fated move to give promotional
rights to the short-lived "Eye Group," an organization that had a history
of ill-fated sports ventures and moved things backwards with their involvement
in squash. The Open moved to Birmingham, Manchester and then to Nottingham.
Now it moves back to Manchester – an attempted move back to London this
year foundered.

The prize money
and promotion has been problematical, and as a consequence the top
players have appeared at the British Open, more as a courtesy than
out of driving ambition or conviction. This year the men’s prize money
at the British Open is an almost embarassing $40,000. That means there
are ELEVEN other PSA events in 2005 with more prize money than the
British Open. The women’s prize money is $31,000. There are SEVEN women’s
tournaments in 2005 with more prize money than the British Open is
offering.

History suggests
that a tournament of this nature, no matter how steeped in tradition,
must maintain prize money prominence to survive as a major. The US
Pro Tennis Tournament, formerly one of the most important Tennis Tournaments
in the world, is a good object lesson. It’s organizers were unable
to keep the prize money at world-standard levels, and the event rapidly
diminished in importance despite having been the site of some of the
most famous historic battles. The tennis organizers of Wimbledon and
the US Open understand this well, as do the organizers of Golf events
such as the Masters.

It will be nice this
year to win the British Open, and place one’s name up alongside Hashim
and Jahangir or Susan Devoy and Heather McKay. But in the final analysis
it won’t be critical in the calculation of the year’s #1 rankings.
The battle between Rachael Grinham, Vanessa Atkinson, and Nicol David
for women’s world #1 will more be decided in Hong Kong and Qatar than
in Manchester this year.

The "Hometown
Discount" May be Wearing Thin

So far, most of the world’s top players are giving the British Open organizers
the benefit of the doubt. In fact the players, the pro associations,
and the squash world, are all rooting for the British Open.
But the willingness to bow to the tradition, in the face of practical
considerations, is wearing thin. NONE of the top Egyptian players, men
or women, are participating this year. Amr Shabana (world #5 and last
year’s finalist), Karim Darwish (world #9), and Mo Abbas (world #20)
aren’t coming. Nor are the women. Omneya Abdel Kawy (world #9) and Engy
Kheirallah (world #26) are both absent.

The US players are
absent as well. After World #4 Natalie Grainger, who is going and is
seeded fifth, perennial participants Latasha and Shabana Khan are both
skipping the event.

What’s the
Problem?

Don’t blame Paul
Walters and iSquash this year – this event was dumped into his lap
only about 45 days ago. But we hope some real progress happens by this
time next year.

And the real problems
run deeper. Going back certainly longer than to 1999, the SRA, who
"own" the British Open, has failed to understand that what
they have is largely a marketing problem. The SRA has failed to make
the necessary commitment to getting a real, world class sports marketing
person involved in the British Open and in major squash events in general.
What we have instead is a line of shoe-string promotional companies,
each of which must take a very short-term outlook in order to survive
financially and none of which has the financial resources or marketing
professionalism to do the work to develop the British Open, squash,
and pro squash as a valuable brand and therefore in a broader marketing
context.

Now with iSquash
in the mix, with a professional marketing man at the helm, things may
just be on the upswing.