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Rowing as a Zero-Billion Dollar Industry, Part I: How We Devalue Our Own Sport

Where are the professionals, the marketers, and the investors in rowing? More succinctly, where is the money? This is a question that has hung over our community for decades, with few answers and many excuses. Indeed, the cliché “there’s no money in rowing” has taken on a self-fulfilling quality. We all say it (myself included), and we then make it true.

When we say this, however, we are assuming “the money” is what the community actually wants. That is not always the case. There are many in our community who actively work to keep rowing small, and “amateur.” I would argue that not only should career athletes and coaches in our community have the opportunity to earn a living wage (or more) based on the value we provide, but also that rowing is the last completely unexploited sport; it is an industry that could, if given the right investments, be leveraged with substantial returns. Rowing is a huge white space in professional sports and athletics. Rowing is one of the few remaining zero-billion dollar sports.

I had a mentor who would repeatedly say, “we cheapen ourselves and our own sport.” He would say this every time he saw a veteran coach “volunteer” their time, noticed a club try to get an extra decade or two out of a rowing shell, or heard someone complain about rising regatta fees. Those people squeezing coaches and pinching equipment pennies would, at the same time, scoff at the notion of charging more for club dues or finding ways to monetize their facilities, equipment, or aesthetic experiences. Are we in the rowing community actually that hard up for funding, or do we subconsciously pump the brakes whenever someone dares to suggest that we compromise for a greater payout?

Rowing is an amateur sport, maybe even the last truly amateur sport in the United States. Can you think of another sport that doesn’t have a professional level? Many in our community cherish an amateur ideal, believing that the absence of professionals keeps the sport “pure.” Perhaps this is why our traditions have run so deep for so long. Many traditionalists assume that the minute you compromise to increase marketability, the stakeholders will try to change things to maximize their investment.

We cheapen our sport, therefore, by remaining intractably tied to our amateur traditions. Consider that amateurism means, by definition, less experienced, less productive, less efficient, less committed, and simply less than professional. Why do we, in a sport where the word “excellence” is cherished to the point of exclusivity, in the same breadth tenaciously hold on to our amateur ideal? In almost every other sport I can think of, “amateur” is used as a pejorative. Is an “excellent amateur” really something worth aspiring to? What if I said that our community and our experience in the sport would be enhanced, expanded, and –critically these days – diversified, if we could only let go of our amateur shackles and truly embrace professionalism and marketability as qualities necessary for growth?

In Part 2, I will discuss in detail the two major investment opportunities in rowing.

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