Let’s Grow Rowing

Our glorious leader Mark Davies published this link to his blog post on twitterMark Davies Tweet

…and some gobby random Northern muso type challenged me to discuss it. Given that I am currently arse deep in Sport England statistics for a review of the data presented in the Inclusive Club Guide, I felt the need to jump into something a little bit more light and fluffy. So I will discuss.

The post by Mark Davies (well worth reading) outlined the business challenges facing the sport of rowing as a whole, and whilst I have outlined the cultural challenges facing the international sport, the simple economics of the thing has not been laid out in a manner as accessible as this to me before (note to self, see if you can find BR’s accounts on the internet).

The problem can be summarized as follows – Rowing needs to attract new members to itself, so it can invest more membership fees in modernizing and growing the sport. And rowing needs to invest more membership fees in modernizing and growing the sport in order to attract new members to itself. A tricky virtuous circle to set in motion.

My initial rather pithy response to how to boost the membership and thus the coffers of BR was as follows…

Anno Tweet

The quote “rowing needs to start growing at the front end (more novices in the sport), and stop shrinking at the back end (stop those bastards in Park Run, Triathalon, CrossFit {I love you guys really}, Cycling and MMA from poaching our athletes)” is, I admit, both pointlessly obvious and in painfully dire need of restating. But the real issue is not stating it but doing it, so I would like to present some ideas on how we might be able to.

Growing the Front End –

Target your recruitment drives in the right place – Rowing is a demanding sport, both physically, and in terms of time pressures. Only 31% of people in this country are sportingly active. Of those a small proportion will be up for joining the ranks of the elongated, borderline aspergic, masochists in our sport on a regular fee paying basis. The biggest point of disagreement I have with The Inclusive Club guide’s approach is its determination to make rowing a sport and leisure “pastime for all”. I personally don’t think that this is a realistic approach. According to the Inclusive club guide (Page 20)  “Finding out from your local council about cultural events or celebrations that are taking place such as Asian Mela, Caribbean Carnival, Chinese New Year or Diwali and offer information about your club, taster sessions and contact details…” is a reasonable (and possibly somewhat overdue if Sport England’s figures are to be believed) way to boost the racial diversity of your club, it is not a very efficient environment within which to  bring new and long lasting participants to the sport. As bank robber Willie Sutton is meant to have said when asked why he robbed banks “…because that’s where the money is,” you need to go where the potential rowers are.

So here is an idea or two.

First, understand a truth about rowing, it takes, geeky, lanky, not particularly shapely, and slightly nerdy individuals and turns them into red hot, lycra clad meteorites of lurve. Use this!

  1. Make flyers or business cards, with discount codes, contact details for a specific club novices novices. These can be real or electronic, preferably both.
  2. Get you hottest rowers (see above), the ones, men and women, who look really good in lycra and get them to do all their land training, together, in matching club kit in local gyms. Make sure they all have the club’s business cards to hand out when ever someone asks how they got so fit/strong/buff/jacked.
  3. Even better, get the physically strongest rowers in your club to descend once a fortnight (again wearing matching club kit) on the local CrossFit gym. Crossfit types are usually gobsmacked when rowers use Ergos, ski Ergs or Assault Airbikes and want to know more. Don’t try to deliberately poach Crossfit gym members, but remember that each Crossfit Gym is looking for more potential members as much as you are, and most rowers could probably fund memberships dues to two sports clubs. So could most Crossfit members…
  4. Many Club Chairpersons and Membership Secretaries will bemoan the loss of rowers on a Sunday morning to the local Park Run that clutters up the tow path. Alternatively a smart club manager could persuade their rowers who are half decent at running to join in and thrash nearly all the other runners. The hot, fit, club rowing types should be waiting at the ParkRun finish to offer coffee and cake, and a discounted Novice membership to those that the best runners in your club could not beat.
  5. Get your male rowers to join local cycling club rides. Get them to wear really tight tops that show off their muscular upper bodies. Get them to hand out the business cards.
  6. Basketball and netball clubs are full of tall, competitive, dexterous, aerobically fit people. In Britain, none of these people are likely to go to the Olympics or to US universities on the back of these sports. Talk to local junior clubs about potential crossovers from their sport to Rowing, rather than on to the adult leagues. Go through the coach and familiarize yourself with the coaching ethics of the situation first. Talk to senior clubs with regards to people who are struggling with knee or ankle issues as well.
  7. Yes, I am encouraging you to manipulate the childish, atavistic desires of potential club members by dangling the best and most “sporty” looking club members in front of them. Its called advertising. But do not forget rowing is a fantastic sport for those who do not fit the current modern image of “sporty”, thanks to its none gravity defying nature. The bigger guys and girls out there will find a home and a sport in which they can often thrive. Go look for them, (sailors, judokas, slightly broken rugby players) go invite them in.
  8. If you have a particularly effective club recruiter, reward them, give them free kit, or a voucher towards membership, trailer or race fees. Put their name up in lights. Give everyone a reason to go out and hand out your clubs business card to above averagely tall members of the public,  who hopefully possess the burning light of madness in their eyes which always signifies a great rower.

Most of these ideas are a bit (but not entirely) silly, and a bit manipulative, and rely on people conforming to some pretty broad stereotypes. Which most people do. But, the idea of ensuring that any club member has on their person, at all times, promotional and informational material about the club, and clear and explicit permission from the club’s management committee to tap up likely looking members of the public is not silly or manipulative, it is basic common sense.

Against my natural instincts I will warn you to be careful of how you go about ideas 2 through 7, taking gym members out of your local LA Fitness or PureGym will hardly affect that company’s bottom line, but it might screw up someones Xmas bonus. Crossfit Gyms are mostly franchises run by small business people and losing members is a matter of not paying the mortgage in some cases. Try to form clear partnerships with other sports clubs rather than just sneaking in and carrying off fee paying members. There are also very clear ethical no-no’s about poaching athletes from other coaches if you are yourself a coach.

Hopefully some of these ideas will get your club a nice big wodge of new, relatively fit, people coming to your club who will pay their discounted novice/learn to row dues. If you do not have a structure in place to cope with these people the whole exercise will be pretty counter productive. But you knew that. So here are a few more ideas to make the initial years of a club rower’s life better.

Stop putting novices out in wobbly boats – Rowing is, as I have told everyone I have ever coached, a counter intuitive sport. It you take one hundred people and put them into a racing shell or even onto a rowing machine, without experience or instruction, more than 99% of them will do everything wrong. Rowing is really hard to learn. So why then do we insist on shoving competitive newcomers to the sport into highly unstable platforms in order to learn the sport to the point where they can race. Give the newbies more time in coastal type training boats, stabilized, weighted, flat bottomed, a bit slow, but still fun and enjoyable, particularly if your only experience of a fine shell has been bouncing from side to side whilst swerving down a river.

Let the Novices race the stable boats – It happens every now and then, I think Bedford Head has a training boat category but could we please have shortened, fun heads and regattas for easy to row boats. Racing for Novices in flat bottomed 4+ and 2x boats would be great.

Make the Novice Category last a bit longer – Remember novice racing? Remember how good it felt to finally bag that first pot at Peterborough Summer Regatta after a season of trying? altrowing.com does. Do you remember the wistful longing and that you would never be able to do it again, unless you learnt to scull? Do you remember the growing realization that you would now have to race in Senior 3 with all the hard nuts and big lads!!!!??? So let’s extend the fun. Keep Novice racing in non-wobbly boats and give Novice rowers two full regatta seasons of racing or three wins, whichever comes first, before they have to move up and on into proper pointy narrow boats and PRI points. Don’t stop rowers who are ready to move upwards and onward, just give those who want to have a bit of a fun bash in the barges more chances to do so. In order to stop a few novice crews dominating all the others, put two-four second time handicaps on to the start for each win at novices that a crew has picked up.

There you go, ideas for bringing in non rowers, and for making novice rowing more fun, both for your club, and for British rowing as a whole. The overarching idea is to make rowing appear glamorous, attractive, and aspirational to those contemplating it, and for those that come and have a look, it needs to be fun, easier than it currently is, and have a real chance of a reward at the end of it.

Stop Shrinking at The Back End –

This bit is about how to keep rowers happy to stay in the sport, and partly I think that we are pretty good at doing this via Masters rowing, but it is not actually the elderly we need to keep, its the thirty somethings with kids, jobs and naff all time who are leaving the sport, even if they are coming back 15 years later.

Rowers breed! – Rowers, after a few years on the handle, will, as I said before, turn from lanky nerds into red hot, Lycra clad, meteorites of lurve. One of two things will happen to those who make this transition.

  1. They will spend a lot of time going on Tinder dates and drop out of the sport due to exhaustion and drug resistant gonorrhea.
  2. Or, they find someone nice, settle down, get married, have a child, and drop out of the sport because their significant other is tired of raising that child by themselves.

It is time for rowing events, and rowing clubs to be come family friendly. How difficult would it be to bring an inflatable soft play zone to Dorney Lake, or a create a partner and child Marquee full of air conditioning, expensive coffee, craft ales, boutique stores and free kiddies entertainment. You could have laser tag and climbing walls at Peterborough. You could have assault courses and canoe lessons for the kids at Holme Pierrepont. Wait, they do have assault courses and canoe lessons for the kids at Holme Pierrepont. Race organizers just need to organize the option and bill people for the cost of it. When you think about it you could probably make more money from looking after rowers’ kids than from race fees. Specially when you throw in the optional extra of having a chaperone take your kids from their activity, to go and watch mummy and daddy race the mixed 2x, and back again. That, right there, is how you indoctrinate the next generation of rowers into the sport. You do the impossible and make them love Holme Pierrepont.

At a truly massive level of organisation, Nat Masters could be held on the same day as a Triathlon at Holme Pierrepont for two sport families, we only use half the lake and they know how to do triathlons up there anyway. If necessary, we could have a special moment of silence for all the nice rowing people married to triathletes**.

Also, at a club level ask yourself if another top spec. 8+ for £28k is really a good investment when you could spend the money setting up a fee charging Sat & Sun morning creche and parent social space… THAT WILL PAY FOR ITSELF AND A NEW 8+ inside two years!

If we can’t make rowing family friendly, we will keep waving goodbye to the all the thirty somethings, just as they hit peak power and earning potential. They will just buy an expensive carbon fiber bike of some description and say goodbye to rowing.

Fix the PRI – I know that I have waxed lyrical about the PRI not being the biggest issue with race categorization, but at the moment, it is a burr under the saddle of British rowers who just want to get out and race. I like the various ELO solutions, albeit they often sound deeply complex, but just going back to the old NOV, IM, SEN, ELi categories would seem like an improvement at the moment. BR needs to have the courage to change the current system to one that doesn’t make people unhappy that they have won a head race. The argument that we will have “just get used to it” is frankly silly, and unbecoming of our National Governing Body, who we pay for!

Henley Royal – Find a way to make it more about club rowing again. If you have to start on Tuesday and spend two days making everyone race twice a day, of three times if they don’t win, over 1,000m , then please do this. It is impossible as far as I can see to remove the whole focus of the rowing year away from HRR so please try and open it up to more club rowers, who have jobs, and have families and want to race in one of the most iconic settings in the sport. Sacrificing some of the elite demonstration events would not be a bad idea. Oh, and now that most of the events at HRR have gone fully co-ed, how about opening up HWR to some less elite men’s club racing. A bit of reciprocity would be nice.

Reduce Faff – It’s a nice idea isn’t it? Maybe one day.

Make Racing Frequent, Fun, Local and Social I read a really good idea the other year. Fixture rowing. Club A invites Club B to pop one Sunday morning and have a coxed fours and quads race. Club B rocks up, pays a tenner each to Club A, races against Club A in Club A’s own boats (!!!!!), has a slap up breakfast, talks rowing bollocks, plans a composite 8+, invites Club A back to theirs for a handicapped rematch in a month’s time. and heads home before 12.00pm. Rowing races, without trailer loading, that take less than half a day. By having pre-agreed handicaps based on recent results, the racing can be fair, and by not having too much marshaling (everyone has been here before, they know where to go, and how to start,) the action can be fun and furious. Basically like Christmas pudding races every month.

Take a look at other sports that are stealing rowers – Crossfit. Druggy, know nothing, injury chasers who wouldn’t know technique if it bit them on the arse, amiright? Or a worldwide franchise with more outlets than Starbucks has coffee shops, and 4 million paying customers that didn’t exist in 2004. Arguably more Cross-fitters row competitively on the ergo every year than actual rowers and they pay for the privilege. Go to a Crossfit Gym, see what they do, do some of that at your club.

Triathlons. Everyone knows that Triathletes are mostly knobs who have decided that its better to be mediocre at three sports than good at one; or at the elite end, they are wannabe long distance runners who can’t keep up with Kenyans; and are mostly shit at swimming and rubbish in bed**, amiright? Or a sport which did not exist 50 years ago, whose GB participants spent £192 million in 2013, who all own their own bikes (average cost £1650 in 2013 dollars), who PAY their coaches in actual money, who are willing to spend £200 or more on wet suits (and you thought your club AIO cost a lot). There are 23 days of triathlons/dualthlons/aquathlons taking place at Dorney lake alone this year. Including private, corporate entertainment regattas there will be 13 days of rowing spread between 9-10 events. These fuckers are pushing us off our own lake! Its not a question of “if you can’t beat them join them,” it’s a question of “they’ve already won, what are they doing that’s so good?”

Tough Mudder. Its not even a sport, its just a bunch of wankers running around getting dysentery and hypothermia. All of whom, again, would be doing serious cross country running if they could keep up with Kenyans. Amirght? Probably I am right but there are a hell of a lot more of them than there are rowers. More worryingly there are a lot more rowers thinking about doing a some kind of muddy outdoor obstacle course with lots of running in between, than there are people doing a Tough Mudder, thinking about giving novice 4+’s a go at P’boro Spring Regatta this year.

What do these sports have in common, they are endurance sports whose event organizers invest massively in each event, and expect to make a profit! And did, and then lots of other people joined in and made more events, and made more money, which made more customers. Now think for a minute about the way that most regatta’s are run… yes, that’s right, often at a negligible profit margin, or even at a small loss. This is a massive question, to be addressed further at a future date but it all comes back to the same point, you get what you pay for, and rowers may need to start paying more or all their venues may get used up by triathletes.

Go the full sculling – I have been thinking about this for a while. Sculling boats go faster for less rowers. The oars are shorter and easier to store, there are no eights hanging around with no one to row them and the requirement for hugely long buildings to store them. If you have four scullers, you always have a boat, rather than three stroke-siders and a problem. If we just stopped the whole sweep oar thing, would we be better off as rowers, and would this whole rowing thing be easier. Probably, but it would mean no pairs racing and no eight’s sprint racing at Sudbury…. forget I mentioned it.


**I hang out with swimming coaches who have dated triathletes.


One thought on “Let’s Grow Rowing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s