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Changing the Game for Club Growth: Why are clubs not actively recruiting rowers out of college?

It is time for rowing clubs all over the country to reconsider how they bring new members into the club.

Most Rowing Organizations around the country recruit new members by offering some kind of learn-to-row initiative, either by offering classes, or hosting a Learn to Row Day periodically.

You could argue that our community is better than most at adult outreach. Most other sports/recreational activities pick up their membership at a younger age, before adolescence. Because rowing is a lifetime sport, we’re unique in the way that you can pick it up and compete regardless whether you are 12, 20 or 80.

Another reason we pursue older beginners so much is that we used to be a novel sport. Many have not had the opportunity or exposure to rowing until after college or well into adulthood.

Should we also consider the possibility that we’ve always had an inferiority complex about our marketability? We tend to recruit those people who have never been athletes before, or “failed” at other sports. Dare I say we intrinsically pursue those types of athletes because their expectations are lower?

That dynamic is changing. Our community presence is exponentially greater than it was 50 or even 30 years ago. More people are graduating from scholastic/junior and collegiate rowing teams than ever before.

Why then do we continue to spend most of our outreach resources (learn to row days, coaches and classes) trying to introduce new people to the sport, instead of working on retention. Why are we not working harder at keeping young people in the sport?

A casual glance at participation at the collegiate level reveals there are ~155 varsity rowing teams in the United States, and an additional ~148 competitive club programs. There is a lot of variation in squad and roster size, but for the sake of easy math, let’s say each team is graduating an average of 5 (domestic) seniors every year. That is approximately 1500 experienced rowers every year that could be joining our community of masters athletes. That doesn’t include the 1000 or so more high school/junior athletes who leave the sport for good at the ripe old age of 18.

Why are clubs not actively pursuing these athletes?

Why are we spending time on the “missionary sell” to novice rowers: an uninformed, untrained and subsequently high-maintenance market that has a plentiful other options for fitness, competition, and community? We already have an informed, trained and potentially enthusiastic constituency out there that is egregiously overlooked. Every year those hundreds of potential athletes, people who could be enriching our experience and sport even further, fade into the night never to be seen again.

There are some assumptions: Mainly that athletes want to continue rowing after college. Admittedly some (more than we’d like to admit, especially the ones on scholarship) athletes finish their collegiate rowing experience burned out and occasionally jilted . The recent college rowing grad might have a lot to unpack before they get back in a boat. Maybe that’s why we don’t recruit them. Are they damaged goods at that point? Do we want to holistically ask why in that case?

Even in situations of college rowing PTSD, isn't the flexibility of the rowing club community a perfect salve for that? Show up when you want, when you can, and enjoy rowing your own way? Rowing at the club level offers a diversity of experience from the casual once a week paddle to the aspiring pre-elite. A post-college rower who still enjoys the sport has nothing to lose by continuing at the club level.

As we are closing out on the academic year, social media is full of junior and collegiate athletes from many sports lamenting graduation, the end of their competitive career, and the relationships they have forged through sport. It stings especially this year when seasons have been cut terribly short. For the court and field sports, this is effectively true. The options to continue competition in sports like volleyball, field hockey and football are limited. Rowing is a lifetime sport however; we all know that a love of rowing can carry on for decades of good health and competition.

For those athletes who are missing what they may perceive as the potentially the last strokes of their rowing career, now is an ideal time to reach out. Imagine that athlete, sitting at home, dwelling on what could have been, or potential that may never be. That unexpected invitation to join your club may come at the very best time for them.

Madder Consulting offers plans and insight on how you can recruit experienced rowers out of college and scholastic programs into your club. I have additional insight into how you can grow your club and further enhance your members’ experiences. I’d love to help your community grow!

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