'Taking spectator / broadcast facilities forward in 1974'
Three years after glass backwalls using self-suspension (i.e. with fins) first appeared, in 1974 the first court tailored for broadcast along with spectators appeared. It was the championship court of the English National Squash Federation National Centre.
The Wembley Squash Centre in North West London was a partnership between the SRA (English Squash Rackets Association) and Wembley Stadium Ltd, and the showcourt was the centrepiece of a 15 court pay & play complex.
For spectators, not only were there 15 rows of 16 seats behind the glass backwall, but a gallery above the top of the court on the other three sides for standing and watching over these walls just above the court lines. (15 rows were the maximum as there was limited height in the existing building)
However, the innovations were directed towards broadcast.
Seats in the middle of the tiered block could be removed so that a TV camera could be placed there – and behind it under the seating a control room was available too. Additionally seats on both sides at the front were removable for cameras and a ‘camera pit’ included so that a camera (along with photographers) could look through glass panels in the tin.
Added to this was the provision of a commentary booth on the balcony and ducting for wiring to the cameras to run through.
The BBC Engineering Department gave their desired lighting intensity levels which were incorporated into the plans. As was reported at the time, ‘Consideration was given to the resulting glare from the fittings at the illumination levels required for television transmission’.
This was 1974 of course, and at that time high intensity floodlights had been used for TV making the playing conditions uncomfortable for the players.
In others innovation of the time, provision was made to allow the tubes in each fitting to be separately switched in pairs, so that for general play the illumination level could be halved while maintaining the light distribution.
Sounds & Scores
It was also stated that ‘a two-channel sound system has been installed to enable a referee and scorer or commentator to speak either to the players on the court, or to the spectators. Input points have been provided at the end of each side gallery and in the tiered seating area, allowing for alternative referee and scorer positions’.
There was also an electronically-operated scoreboard was placed above the front wall balcony, remotely controlled by a panel on the opposite side. Cumbersome, but innovative at the time.
Use & cost
The SRA did not own the centre, but had specified maximum time of free use of the centre court and others too, within their agreement with the operators.
The championship court cost GB£50,000, with half being provided by a Sports Council grant and the rest raised by the SRA. The complex as a whole was built for GB£350,000.
On 26 November 1974 the centre was officially opened by H.R.H Prince Philip, who was also Patron of the SRA. Here is the brochure for the day:
Following on from the opening, amongst other events the Wembley Squash Centre hosted the first World Open in 1976 when the title was a double one with the British Open.
The British Open itself was completely held in the Centre from 1975 – 1979, then the early rounds in 1980 when the finals were played next door at the Wembley Conference Centre stage on a court with a glass backwall.
The after three years away, the Centre again hosted the early rounds from 1984 – 1988, with finals on an all-Perspex court at the Wembley Conference Centre.
Australian Geoff Hunt won five of his eight British Open finals at the Wembley Squash Centre, and it was Jahangir Khan’s training base too.
The 1988 British Open was the last one held at the Wembley Squash Centre, although the Conference Centre continued to be the home for the final rounds until 1994 (with early rounds transferred to Lambs Club in the City of London).
Wembley Stadium Ltd started a re-development of their site and the Squash Centre was a casualty, but the 14 years it was operational did give the centre a place in the major competition history of squash.