Ziad al Turki, the CEO of the Professional Squash Association, on transforming the sport he loves, focusing on gender equality, and the impact sport is having in Saudi Arabia.
When Ziad al-Turki returned to Saudi Arabia after studying in the United States, the first thing he did was build a squash court at his house. Having first played with his uncle as a youngster, his passion had grown exponentially. But the home court was not enough and soon Al-Turki was plotting a way to bring his sporting heroes to his homeland. In 2005, the Kingdom hosted its first professional squash tournament.
Saudi Arabia is currently in the midst of a sporting zeitgeist but squash’s Saudi International arrived long before the recent shift in outlook; Al-Turki was ahead of the curve and it was an ability to put together a long-term vision that helped him quickly rise to the top of the Professional Squash Association.
“It was the only sport I used to play here in Saudi,” Al-Turki recalls to Sport Industry Insider. “My uncle got me into squash and I loved the game – playing and watching. This was the foundation for me wanting to host a tournament in Saudi Arabia. I had no idea what I was doing but wrote to the PSA and they agreed I could host it as long as I could raise my own prize money. Which I did.
“The PSA had a model for hosting tournaments back then and I didn’t like it much so basically went against their advice and did it myself. I challenged myself to make it the best squash tournament in the world and really made sure I thought about the experience of the players, including offering great prize money. We were the first tournament to break the $200,000 barrier.
“It was afterwards that many players urged me to join the PSA and thankfully, the board then elected me chairman. The rest is history. The players are still my main focus now; I don’t make any money from squash, I just want to better the lives of these amazing athletes who go out and entertain us. I felt they should be able to make a real living from the sport and thankfully now they can.”
After becoming PSA chairman in 2008, Al-Turki – who is also Executive Chairman of Saudi company ATCO – immediately set about trying to modernise squash. The idea was to make the sport more appealing for fans, broadcasters and sponsors. Significant research was conducted into the viewing experience for live spectators and TV audiences.
Al-Turki insisted on seeking views of people outside of squash who could look at the sport with fresh eyes. Long-time Formula One partners KHP Consulting and design company Greenspace, who had worked with big brands like Nokia and Toyota, both came on board to add their expertise to the squash revolution.
“We pretty much started with a blank sheet of paper,” Al-Turki explains. “We spoke to all of squash’s key stakeholders to gauge their opinions on where they felt squash needed to go and also asked people not involved with squash. I remember speaking to Boutros Boutros and asking him what he would need in order for Emirates to sponsor a squash tournament.
“With the help of KHP we came up with this ‘squash in a box’ concept, which has meant we can easily transport our tournaments around the world. There have been tournaments in front of the Burj Khalifa, the Pyramids of Giza, Chicago’s Union Station. It has become a great spectacle.”
The devil was in the detail for Al Turki, who left no stone unturned in his quest to make squash a more visually attractive sport. The PSA standardised the colours of the courts, and experimented with different types of glass and different camera angles. Many of the changes were subtle but some, like the increased prize money, were more high profile.
“I’d say we changed pretty much everything around squash,” Al-Turki says. “The only thing we didn’t change is the game itself because it has always been exciting. We just presented it in a better way, brought it to television in a better way.
“When we started raising the prize money, I had many people tell me ‘you’re pushing squash out of the market’. I told them they had to follow. Once the prize money for our platinum series events was $90,000; now the minimum is $180,000. Last year we had a $1million tournament [the 2019 PSA World Championships] – $500,000 for men and $500,000 for women.”
Attracting broadcasters was one of Al-Turki’s key aims and with squash now appearing on TV across three continents, that wish has been fulfilled. The likes of BT Sport, SuperSport, Ten Sport, Fox Sports, beIN Sports and DAZN have all broadcast squash in different markets, while the PSA’s eponymous Squash TV YouTube channel also receives millions of views each year.
“Squash had been saying for years ‘we want to be on television’ but it seems no-one ever thought to ask ‘how can we be on television?’. Working with KHP, who had been with Bernie Ecclestone from the beginning at F1, was eye opening. The approach was to go after seconds of airtime because then they turn into minutes, hours, and eventually live broadcasts.
“That’s what we did. At first we tried to get short clips on TV and, also important, we made the tournaments look great. We did what was then called the World Series Finals at London’s Queen’s Club – a visually stunning event that started to get the attention of broadcasters. Initially we paid to appear on TV but now they pay us. When the deal with Eurosport changed so that we would be paid rather than the other way round, it was a big moment. It felt like a justification for all the hard work.
“Honestly, so many people doubted what we were doing. Guys within squash saying, ‘we’ve tried everything and people just aren’t interested in watching squash on TV’. I got this a lot but just didn’t accept it. I remember having many conversations with people who said ‘squash will never be on television’. But just because it hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
A similar view is pervasive in Al-Turki’s native Saudi Arabia at present, with a number of elite sporting events arriving on the shores of the Kingdom. Having brought one of the first professional sports tournaments to Saudi Arabia 15 years ago, Al-Turki is happy to see his homeland finally investing substantially in the sector.
“What’s amazing is the speed that it’s happened,” Al-Turki says. “A great example is that I had wanted to host a women’s squash tournament for years but could never get it over the line. Then when Princess Reema joined the GSA I begged her to help us do it. She fought for us and in 2017 we hosted the first women’s tournament in Saudi Arabia. We pulled it off.
“It was important for Saudi Arabia to show it was open and also to show the ladies competing that the country was not what they thought. Even at that time some of the universities we approached to host the tournament were afraid to do so. Now they are asking us to come back and they are hosting amateur tournaments between universities.
“Everything needs that first step. Someone who says, ‘I’m going to do it’. The change going on in Saudi Arabia is more than welcome. It’s fantastic.”Ziad Al-Turki
“We’re also in the process of signing a major deal with the GSA to do men’s and women’s tournament in Saudi Arabia for the next 20 years. Everything just needs that first step. Someone who says, ‘I’m going to do it’. The change going on in Saudi Arabia is more than welcome. It’s fantastic.”
A focus on the women’s game may prove to be a key part of Al-Turki’s squash legacy. In 2014, he oversaw a ground-breaking merger of the PSA and the Women’s Squash Association, linking the two organisations together and endeavouring to create more opportunities for the women’s game.
“It is important to me as my first ever involvement with squash was sponsoring [ex-top 25 player] Melissa Martin. If we want to improve squash we have to focus on both men and women; you can’t grow a sport if you are neglecting 50 percent of the population.
“We are seeing more and more sports pursuing equality, which is great, but this is nothing new for us at the PSA. We continue to increase the prize money of our female players and the top 10 now earn 75 percent more than they did three years ago. At the PSA we love squash – it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, we are gender blind.”