The Trick To Transforming Your Industry, From A Former Pro Athlete

September 21, 2018

By Christa Fletcher, contributor at the Underground Group

In short:

  • John Nimick(opens in new tab) made a career transition from professional athlete to businessman after pinpointing an opportunity to grow his sport, squash, as an industry.

  • Now, his sports marketing company(opens in new tab) hosts squash championships in unique locations like Downtown San Francisco and New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. 

  • Since Nimick’s foray into the business side of his sport, participation and viewership have boomed. Here, he offers four tips for growing the industry you’re passionate about.

Few can say they changed the face of their favorite sport. For John Nimick, a U.S. Squash Hall of Famer, that’s just one of many achievements.

Nimick began playing 30 years ago, when hardball squash--often confused with racquetball--was relatively unknown in the U.S. It wasn’t played in arenas and got little to no press coverage.

After playing professionally for a decade, Nimick realized someone could majorly grow the sport of squash if they were able to draw more spectators and recruit more players. So he made a transition from professional athlete to businessman. 

Nimick playing professional squash in the '80s (L) and on the corporate side of a recent squash tournament. 

Nimick is now the president of sports marketing company Squash Engine(opens in new tab), the leading promoter of international squash. His company is known for hosting squash championships in non-traditional venues like Downtown San Francisco and Boston Symphony Hall. Its tentpole event, the Tournament of Champions, is held in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. It’s the biggest squash tournament in the world.

Nimick grew a company out of a passion, and he’s changed his industry in the process. Here’s his advice for business leaders who seek to grow their industries, too.

1. Put yourself out there. 

Like many founders(opens in new tab), Nimick grows his career by meeting people, he told Grow Wire. 

“As an athlete, I would always talk to the people running the events,” he said. 

Thus, he learned about the events side of his sport while still a player. He focused on making his presence known, not only in order to network but also to learn how the sport functioned beyond the court. He also honed his business savvy in a role at the Professional Squash Association (PSA) from 1988 to 1999.  

“You need to meet people in every environment,” Nimick said. “Meet the sponsors of the event; make an effort to say hi. Interact with the people with whom you entertain and those who put the show on.”

At a recent tournament, Nimick presents a donation to SquashDrive, an after-school program in California. 

Nimick’s communication with many figures on the squash circuit proved useful. A networking-connection-turned-friend led him to one of the successes that defined his marketing company: using Grand Central Terminal as the venue for the highly celebrated, 88-year-old Tournament of Champions in New York City.

2. Think about the box. Then, expand it.

A squash court has four glass walls and an interlocking sprung wood floor. Spectators can see into the box from every angle, but the glass is coated inside, so the athletes see colored walls and aren't disrupted by their surroundings. There are no distractions for the audience or the pros; everyone only sees the fast-paced action between two opponents. The court is also transportable. 

This uniqueness and versatility gave Nimick the idea to move the Tournament of Champions from the World Financial Center in New York City to a more vibrant location. After all, it was possible: He’d once seen a glass squash court in Egypt with the Pyramids as the backdrop.  

He pegged an empty commuter waiting space at Grand Central Terminal as the perfect spot. 

Squash fans watch the annual Tournament of Champions in Grand Central Terminal's Vanderbilt Hall. 

“[Squash] has the ability to immerse itself into its environment for all to see,” said Nimick. “So, the idea of putting a glass court in the middle of Grand Central was exciting.”

Twenty-five years later, the Tournament of Champions is considered the biggest squash tournament in the world and widely considered the best one on the professional tour for players and fans alike.

Nimick used the success of the Tournament of Champions as a model for his other popular tournament, the annual Oracle NetSuite Squash Open(opens in new tab) in San Francisco. 

“I wanted to bring that energy, which is a valuable dynamic to a pro tournament, to what is now Embarcadero Plaza,” he said. “It seemed like the perfect setting. People could see world-class squash right in the heart of San Francisco.”

Thousands of spectators now watch the Open every September and October(opens in new tab) beside the iconic Ferry Building, with the Bay Bridge in the background.  

The Oracle NetSuite Squash Open features a typical all-glass squash court in an especially picturesque setting. 

3. Find ways to add value.

Exposing squash in such a theatrical way has generated interest in the sport, said Nimick. Audiences realize the sport’s unique accessibility when they see it played in beautiful locations. 

And while it’s difficult to prove causation, his efforts are very possibly expanding the squash industry: It’s one of the fastest-growing sports(opens in new tab) in the country, with participation up 32 percent in the last three years, according to U.S. Squash. It’s seen 66 percent growth overall since 2010, and there are now 1.71 million squash players in the U.S. 

With several big-name tournaments up and running, Nimick is focusing on other ways to make squash viewing more accessible and inclusive.

He is working to achieve gender equality in the sport. Since squash began in Ivy Leagues and private men’s clubs, the newfound inclusion of women has helped it blossom, he said. 

Nimick worked closely with the PSA and other organizations to establish equal prize winnings at tournaments, to draw more female participants. Women’s squash participation has doubled since 2008 and now equals more than 30,000 matches a year, U.S. Squash estimates.

Female competitors battle it out during a recent Tournament of Champions. 

Nimick is also making the game more interactive. His company’s proprietary squash court is the only one in the world with interactive video in it.

“We’ve moved to try to create an arena-type experience with LED screens in the front of the wall, like you would see on a basketball court or at other major sporting events,” he said.

The screens allow for ads, tournament branding, and replays of contested points, which “generate the most possible TV and media value,” he added.  

Fans watch an instant replay on a screen during the Tournament of Champions. 

Nimick also rents out his company’s portable squash court to businesses and other squash promoters, who use it for their own events and tournaments. The traveling court includes the same interactive screens as the ones at Nimick’s tournaments.

Growing a presence in your industry is all about adding value, he said.

“How can you add value? Certainly by being good at what you do at a high level … but you’ll find those who add value to their enterprise as a whole are the most rewarded and valued,” he said. “Keep that concept in mind. It’s not just about performing for the audience.”

4. Lead with passion.

Entrepreneurs with personal experience in an industry(opens in new tab) have an advantage, as their passion for a sport, product or lifestyle(opens in new tab) makes it easier to draft a business plan that aligns with the industry’s actual needs.

“I have the world’s best job. I work in a sport that I love and play,” said Nimick. “I’m totally focused on making the sport more successful, visible, and I help the sport get more people to play. Every day I wake up with thinking about squash.”

For Nimick, a marketing opportunity grew into a major shift for his industry, which he continues to support. 

And that is how you build a game-changing business.

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