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Rowing as a Zero Billion Dollar Industry, Part II: Privatizing the Rowing Community

Part One introduced the idea that the rowing community is intentionally missing a substantial opportunity for growth, both existentially and as an industry, by retaining traditional standards of amateurism. Part Two will detail the two most significant growth opportunities in rowing.

There are two commercial opportunities in rowing. The first opportunity is for rowing to become a professional sport with athletes, coaches, and support staff who are compensated for their performance, along with teams of investors and marketers willing to leverage those efforts for public entertainment, sponsorships, and licensing. This is the traditional professional sports model. Many have tried to catalyze professional rowing or create marketable hype around collegiate rowing, but doing this successfully would, in my opinion, require a broader public understanding of competitive rowing.

The second opportunity, and the one with the potential to take the industry past the zero-billion dollar mark, is for the community to start privatizing rowing clubs.

The rowing community does a lot to encourage public participation: free learn-to-row days, community outreach, junior rowing programs, and more. Although we do so much in this regard, our participation numbers are overwhelmingly weak relative to any other sport’s standard. USRowing boasts more than 93,000 members in its mission statement. By way of comparison, there are over 2.5 million surfers in the United States. Surfing is just as challenging a skill to learn as rowing and exists almost exclusively on the coasts, yet 80 times more people surf than row. Another recreational sport with similar barriers to entry (both in skill and economics) is golf, yet last year over 24 million people swung clubs in the United States.

Why is it so hard to hook people into what we do? The short and simple answer is volume: there are simply more people out there trying to make a buck off of teaching people to golf and surf, and they are doing a proportionally better job at it.

Juxtapose this with our community attachment to traditional amateurism and how we represent ourselves publicly. Of the hundreds of rowing organizations in the United States, the vast majority are non-profit. When someone starts a rowing club, it is usually as a non-profit. Subsequently, the majority of people teaching our sport and thus introducing others to the community are (well-intentioned) volunteers or part-time instructors; they are inexperienced, non-professional amateurs who are offering what is typically a mediocre first experience. As I explained in Part One of this article, “amateurism means, by definition, less experienced, less productive, less efficient, less committed, and simply less professional.” How different would the learn-to-row experience be if it was supervised by a professional whose livelihood relied on a good, safe, and clean experience as well as repeat business?

The best way forward for our community, therefore, is to see the majority of new rowing club “start-ups” begin as private ventures with private financing (through small business loans or with private investors). This is a proven business model in golf, tennis, and any other private athletic club that comes to mind.

There is a path to privatization for current non-profit rowing clubs, as well. Non-profits cannot be acquired (nobody owns a non-profit), but their assets can. An entrepreneur or investor can acquire (or lease) the equipment (boats, oars, launches, etc.) from the non-profit, while the non-profit then puts the liquidity from the equipment deal into a foundation or endowment for the benefit of the community, preferably an underserved rowing community. The actual process for doing this is more complicated (and will perhaps be discussed in another article), but it can be done.

Privatization is a dirty word to some. It triggers images of big business-type greedy takeovers and suggests that access for the underserved will be eliminated. The kind of club privatization I’m referring to here, however, will not restrict access to rowing. Instead, it will elevate rowing into an industry where good service is met with higher income potential and professionals are rewarded for high-quality work. People row because it keeps them fit, strong, and healthy and because of the relationships and community it offers. People leave rowing because of bad experiences related to poor management, poor leadership, and lack of professionalism. People will pay more for those positive qualities and experiences than we have ever bothered to ask. More money in the industry means more – not less – access and opportunity for the underserved.

Currently, “there is no money in rowing.” There is limited professionalism in the staffing and coaching ranks, and poor rowing experiences are couched in the idea that “we must preserve the amateur ideal!” Most high school and college rowers leave the sport behind after 4-8 years. Critically these days, there is little to no access for underserved communities. This is the way we do things now, and we have not moved forward in over a hundred years. What do we have to lose by trying something different?

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