Sports Clubs – Retention Is More Important Than Growth.

When it comes to involvement in sport, we are still using growth as the measure of success. Government and sports governing bodies will use the increase in participants as a badge of honour, to prove how healthy they are. We have increased participation by 10% this year, therefore our sport must be doing well.
I understand why this is the case, because when it comes to public money, the government need to be able to justify their investment. Inactivity is now such a well-known public health problem that it makes political sense to show what you have done to address it. At a national level, we all want to see a reduction in the level of inactivity in our communities.
However, at a local level, many people consume their sport in clubs. My problem with this obsession with growth is that it is being put onto the local, community clubs – most of which are volunteer-run – who are encouraged, and sometimes incentivised, to get more people through the door.
What about the people who are already in the door?
There is far less effort, at a national or local level, given to keeping people in the sport / club that there is in getting them into it in the first place. Many clubs talk about “the churn” of people throughout the year, who come and go for a variety of reasons. As a sector, I think we need to do more to support clubs to create an environment where we put our current members first, rather than trying to chase new ones.
In my experience, unhappiness at clubs is more to do with weak leadership than it is to do with anything else. The cardinal sin of club leadership, or coaching, is to see the “athlete” first and the person second. Lack of recognition is one of the top reasons that people leave jobs, and I believe it is the same within a sports club. But when we see evidence of people caring about us and how we feel, we are more likely to hang around for longer – and that is what clubs SHOULD be focusing on.
It doesn’t take much to build an environment where people care for one another but it can be extremely rewarding. Culture is vital, and clubs need to be aware of the culture they are creating. If members are not being retained, this could be one of the issues. Clubs need to be aware that the behaviour of their leaders and coaches is the most powerful mechanism in creating culture.
According to Simon Sinek in Leaders Eat Last, people would rather work at a place they feel they belong than a place that simply offers them the best salary. I think that this is true when it comes to our sports clubs, too. People would rather spend their leisure time at a place they are made to feel part of the community than at another place that has cheaper membership fees, better kit or superior coaching (willing to be challenged on this final point, though).
My question to clubs is – “What are you doing to make sure your people feel that they are part of a community?” There are some great examples of club member recognitiion, and for me the most valuable is the humble, informal chat. The soft skills of club leaders, coaches and other members are vital here. A quick “How are you? How are the kids?” is an OK start but the club leaders that go a few questions deeper than that, and get to learn about the individual as a person are the ones building flourishing communities.
Ironically, I think if we give more thought to how we are supporting our clubs to create these warm, welcoming communities – and focus on retention over growth – that we will actually continue to see a decrease in inactivity at a national level. We know word of mouth is the most effective method of marketing. A personal recommendation from a friend that the local tennis club is great place to spend your free time is far more valuable than any post-Wimbledon marketing campaign the LTA can ever come up with.
Let’s focus on making what we have better rather than bigger.

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