Growing sport and club membership and participation – mutually exclusive or the dream ticket?

How to design membership programmes and formats, which can help people to stay within sport and also help, directly and indirectly, to grow the income of clubs and governing bodies.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less”

General Eric Shinseki, former chief of staff for the US Army

 People’s lives are changing and community sport ill have to change with it…

A survey undertaken by the Sports Think Tank amongst senior sports industry figures, published 6th July 2015, has found that very close to 80% Strongly Agree/Agree with the statement “National governing bodies should think more creatively about products, platforms, pricing and content to satisfy sponsors, broadcasters and customers.”

A staggering 85% Strongly Agree/Agree that “the sports sector should foster stronger relationships with innovators and entrepreneurs to meet consumer demands.”

Some people prefer to enjoy their sport in a structured club environment where you train and are being coached and play/compete on a regular basis and you are part of a social network. Others prefer to go to the gym, go for a run or a swim or play some five-a-side football as and when they want to, and have the time and motivation.

However, there seems to strong growth in the number of groups where people get together on an informal basis, enjoy their sport and physical activity and communicate via social media. They don’t have constitutions, policies for this and that, are not affiliated with any governing bodies of sport…in official terms, do they really exist?

This also represents a serious challenge for sports governing bodies as they struggle to work out on how they work with these informal sports enterprises. One example below:

Run Dem Crew, based in London, they say on their website:

“We are not a running club and we do not jog. First and foremost we are a family and community who run hard, run fast and run strong. 

Formed in the winter of 2007 by DJ, poet and writer Charlie Dark, as an alternative to traditional stuffy running clubs, Run Dem Crew is committed to change and the upliftment (sic) of the next generation. RDC works closely with young people across London providing mentoring and advice along with the opportunity to explore London in a safe, unique, positive and supportive environment. As well as exploring the streets of London the Run Dem Crew also celebrates the diverse urban environment that surrounds the 1948 space with post-run workshops, films and talks.

Be you a marathon veteran or taking your first steps towards your first race, Run Dem Crew caters for runners of all abilities with runs split into five groups according to fitness and pace.”

We understand that England Athletics told Run Dem Crew that as these 200 runners do not operate as a constituted club, the governing body could not get involved with them. A bit of a shame, one would say!

So could the ‘established’ sports system work with and support these sports and physical activity communities and could both parties benefit?

With modern technology, it should be relatively simple for traditional sports clubs or leisure centres to engage with these informal communities and perhaps even help them being set up. They can then live in happy harmony with the more traditional activities, servicing these groups. Who knows, some of the community members will want to join the club, the centre, play in a team or league, etc.

So without stifling the creativity of these informal communities could established sports providers grow their membership, engage with new people and groups, be invigorated and help to grow the sport and physical activity – win win?

So, in our view, the traditional community sports system run via clubs, leisure centres and governing bodies needs to take a fresh look at how they engage people in sport and they engage consumers in relevant ways. Yes, some people still want to play their sport in a fixed routine, but increasingly we see that the way play their sport varies considerably.

There is a case for distinguishing between team sports and individual sports

Based on a model developed by Maja Pilgaard of The Danish Institute for Sports Studies SMN has produced a couple of slides designed to provide overviews of different ways that team sports and individual sports are being delivered.

In the case of team sports, there are four key options based on issues around

 team vs. individual participation

flexibility vs. routine

 Some people want to enjoy their cricket or football at the same time every week whereas others require more flexibility in due to their hectic lives, but want to enjoy their occasional game of rugby or hockey. (Research from the ECB tells is that only 30% of cricketers play every single game during a season).

So our football, rugby and hockey governing bodies and clubs need to develop new thinking and tools in order to engage with people playing their sports in different environments and circumstances, if they are to stay relevant to players, sponsors and their der commnunity.

Sport in the 21st Century

The same applies to individual sports including triathlon, tennis, or cycling.

There we are suggesting a distinction between

 organised vs. self-organised sport

flexibility vs. routine

 Individual Sport in the 21st Century

We can all go for a run, play some park tennis and message some mates and go for a cycle ride. We can also decide to enjoy the routine of going for a run every Tuesday at 7pm at the running club.

Again our governing bodies need to develop programmes and platforms which add value to all these types of participants if they are to stay relevant. (Only 7% of runners in Denmark are members of a running club).

From ‘nice to join’ to ‘need to join’. Demonstrating the value of membership, whether you are a compulsory and non-compulsory governing body

For non-compulsory sports governing bodies (for sports you can enjoy regardless of whether you are member of a club or governing body), issues of acquisition and retention are primary concerns that can often be eased through better engagement and demonstration of value, enabled by digital technologies. For mandatory bodies (covering sports where you have to a member of a club and or governing body to participate, often for insurance purposes), relationships can also be improved through better engagement and member focus. And for all, there are improvements that can be gained internally and externally by reviewing existing processes with a view to putting members first and becoming more agile in their approach.

Regardless of whether you are an optional or mandatory governing body, you will in some way exist to meet the needs of your members and the wider community. Whether that’s by engendering a feeling of belonging and shared purpose, supporting them in their sports and activities or coaching and educating them.

Communicate the value: With the ever pressing need to build revenue, and retain members, governing bodies and clubs must promote the value of membership and the related commercial offer to their members.

In any event, governing bodies must demonstrate their own value and expertise in order to differentiate themselves, attract, retain, and with luck, convert the unengaged into ambassadors and advocates for their activities. Successful execution of this will, of course, result in enhanced revenues from memberships – and carried out intelligently, open up new opportunities from niche audience segments to drive income from commercial offerings. All this can only be truly successful by grounding their activity in a solid understanding of their audiences.

Is this what they are saying about your club and/or governing body?

·       I don’t need to be a member, so I don’t see the point

·       I can’t afford the fees any longer

·       I can get the same sporting enjoyment somewhere else cheaper for free

·       I am not really sure what the club/SGB do for me

Focusing on younger digital-enabled audiences

Fundamental to the survival of member organisations is the age-old challenge of attracting new, younger members – particularly those who have grown up in a world of choice and independence, enabled by digital. This is a world enriched by a multitude of networks and opinions, and inherently threatening to the traditional perceptions of the club or sport.

If I ran a sports club/governing body

·       I would be focused on customers and members (current, lapsed and potential)

·       Provide a flexible membership structure

·       Facilitate and empower self-organisation and tap into that segment

·       Solicit opinions and feedback, implicit and explicit

·       Develop board-level ownership of membership and participation

·       I would take a strategic view and ‘de-mystify’ new technology and flexible membership options

·       I would act half a step faster than technology, consumer trends and competitors

·       Digital technology would be at the heart of my engagement with players, coaches, volunteers, lapsed players, etc.

Build a member-first culture

 So much of human interaction is derived from a need to feel connected, listened to, understood, and as though we belong to something greater than ourselves. It’s this principle that is behind the existence of many clubs and sports in the first place. So it’s little wonder that members put so much value on being able to connect, develop, share ideas and insights.

People join for different reasons and with different expectations. The decision to renew every year will depend on how well clubs and governing bodies meet those needs.

Some of the issues and questions that need to be addressed as put forward by Gemma Simpson, Events & Marketing Manager at Scottish Triathlon.

Communication is key. Is the Club Secretary a barrier? The answer is probably yes

  1. Membership formats – annual vs. rolling membership and what works best for retention / reducing churn
  2. Membership choice – compulsory membership vs. choice membership to take part in the sport.  What works best for income generation / member retention / satisfaction
  3. Membership groups – what age ranges and pricing points work best for retention e.g. do family membership packages keep people in the sport for longer?
  4. Membership systems – which are the best and worst on the market
  5. Membership benefits – what do people actually want?
  6. Membership marketing – what works and what doesn’t in a competitive field
  7. Membership customer service – who gets it right and what can we learn from them?
  8. Member satisfaction – how can we test if we are doing a good job
  9. Who has turned their membership around from poor sign ups to smashing targets? How did they do it?
  10. Influencing boards and the membership about the need for change!
  11. Creating online communities

SMN are keen to hear your views – drop us a line or give us a call.

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