Saturday, August 14, 2010

USRowing Considering Mandatory Membership

Nereid members -- what do you think about this?

In a recent letter (reprinted below) to the rowing community, the USRowing CEO, Glenn Merry, outlined a plan to hold a series of Town Hall discussions on the topic of mandatory USRowing membership.

The second of the 2010 fall series of town hall meetings with Glenn Merry will be hosted by South Jersey Rowing Club on Thursday, August 19, from 7 to 9 PM on the second floor of the Camden County Boat House, 7050 North Park Drive, Pennsauken, NJ 08109. Everyone and anyone is invited to attend. The issue has implications for all of us should mandatory individual membership be implemented.

If you plan to attend please email Dennis Smith at or call 609-226-6187.

The August Open Letter from Glenn Merry follows:

Recently, there have been animated discussions taking place in the rowing community about USRowing membership, its value and its cost. The debate should elicit many thoughts.
As I reviewed how other sports handle their membership, I found that most provide the same general benefits: insurance, newsletters, discounts, information, competitions, rules, safety programs and perhaps a magazine. The major national governing bodies (sports like triathlon, swimming, gymnastics and volleyball) have mandatory requirements for individual membership. If you participate in the sport, you pay to do so. USRowing does not currently require individual membership for the sport of rowing.
Why do most NGBs mandate membership? In many cases, it has been driven by risk and insurance. Frankly, anyone participating in a sport, from the novice to the Olympian, adds to the perceived liability risk, and it is more economical for everyone when an NGB shops a policy that covers all of the exposure rather than have each team, club or person to do so on their own. In conjunction with this, the NGB then provides the infrastructure to safely run the sport, things like rules, referees, coaching education and safety regulations.
For two decades, USRowing has not mandated individual membership. This was not always the case. When I rowed in college in the late 1980s, everyone was a member of USRowing. The change took place in 1990, kind of. USRowing dropped individual requirements, but the requirement shifted to organizations. If a club participated in registered regattas, then it had to be part of the structure.
Fast-forward 20 years. The sport has grown to five times the size. We had three major accidents in the mid-2000s where rowers died, changing our perceived risk. Insurance premiums quadrupled. Organizational dues reformed into tiered insurance categories. The sport survived, and five years later, we are out the other side. But, we need to think about our structure moving forward.
During the past decade, the sport has grown by a factor of three. We are now pushing up against constraints of an aged system from an era that supported the 30,000 who rowed in 1989, not the 150,000 active participants of today. Much of the recent growth in our sport has been driven by the NCAA and its addition of women’s rowing to its program. This, in turn, has pushed the growth of high school rowing. High school rowing has exploded into thousands of participants and hundreds of regattas annually.
As this growth occurred outside the control and stewardship of USRowing, some of these growth areas have not paid proportionally into the infrastructure of the sport. We also face other issues of rapid growth such as the deficit of experienced quality coaches. Programs are faced with hiring "coaches," many of whom have only the experience of being an interested parent or having rowed for three or four years. Do these issues seem like a sustainable model for a safe and professional sport?
I would argue that the answer is no.
Currently, 16,500 individuals pay into the system that supports the entire rowing population. It’s true that the 1,050 organizational members also pay dues of $350, but we are not seeing the scalable support required to take rowing to the next level. In addition, we have no idea the exact scope of the sport, and we need to know this in order to assess our combined risk, attract and activate new sponsors and appropriately program services.
It has been rumored that USRowing is planning to take over the sport, to mandate individual membership. In some regard, we aren't taking it over – we are the sport. Love us or hate us, we provide the backdrop for the sport to exist (albeit we could do a better job in many areas). Where would we row without liability insurance, referees, rules, safety standards, or basic coaching education? The better rumor that I am starting is that USRowing seeks to become a better NGB. We want every rower to support a system and organization that fulfills his or her needs as a member.
So that takes us to mandatory membership. It has to happen to survive and to meet the growth of our community. What mandatory membership will look like is still up for debate. What we offer to our members needs to be redesigned. But, we are at the beginning of this conversation, with the target of January 2013 to roll out a finished product.
Let's open the conversation about mandatory membership by describing some common models for consideration. Set aside the issue of how much dues cost right now; we will address that in relation to the value of services rendered to the members. There are two primary models commonly used to implement mandatory membership by NGBs. The first is a direct model where every individual joins and pays his or her dues directly to the NGB. This is close to what we do now with our full-privileged members. The NGB then provides regattas and clubs a roster of eligible members that can participate and compete. USA Swimming uses such a model, with about 400,000 members. The second model is indirect, where an individual is a member via his or her organization. Each athlete pays dues to the organization, and the organization then submits its roster to the NGB with funds to balance its account. USA Curling uses such a model and has about 15,000 members.
The current system used by USRowing is a hybrid of the two models. We have non-privileged members who sign waivers and are part of USRowing through their clubs, but without paying dues and without USRowing gaining access to their information. Our full-privileged membership is used by the 16,000 who have typically raced at one of the USRowing-owned regattas such as a national championship, or by those who want to receive the yearbook and newsletters.
There are some pros and cons to both systems and perhaps a hybrid is necessary for USRowing to meet all of the needs of our community. However, the current hybrid needs to be revised, so that we more actively engage those members coming indirectly through their organizations.
Now turn your attention to the issue of value and cost. Let’s assume for the purpose of this example that the status quo is sufficient for the service and programs provided by USRowing. If it is an accurate assumption that there are 150,000 active rowers and we keep USRowing's expenses relatively the same as they are now (no new programs, some build-out costs for automated member systems, add someone to answer the increased calls and e-mail, etc.), then one could project a drop in individual dues by a significant amount. Five times as many people paying into the current system could result in half the dues per person.
But let’s take this to another level. What if we said that USRowing should be better (and it really should be.) We should offer new programs, say for example ... a recruiting clearing house for youth members and college coaches, advanced coaching education systems, masters rowing camps and real marketing tools for clubs to recruit and engage their local communities. What would that look like? What would that cost with 150,000 rowers paying into that system? Could we do those things and others while reducing the per-person cost of dues?
I believe this is a conversation that we must have. We must address the question, “Is USRowing good enough.” This is the conversation USRowing is beginning with focus groups like the newly formed youth task force. We also will bring this conversation to the people in the rowing community through town hall meetings this fall at local boathouses nationwide.
When the board hired me in 2005 as the new CEO, USRowing was precipitously perched at the edge of collapse. We had run year after year of overspending. Our cash reserves were spent, and our balance sheet was a disaster. Our governance was out of date. We lacked revenue diversity. We were an unstable organization. I have spent the last four years rebuilding the internal structures and stabilizing the association with the help of the board and key stakeholders such as the NRF. We are no longer in triage mode, attempting to keep the association alive. It is time to move forward to not only assure that our sport has a future, but to create a robust future.
I have taken some criticism recently for again asking for input from the members and the community on these issues. It has been said that people have already screamed about what is wrong with USRowing, and how could I not know by now. It's true that I have heard complaints about USRowing from some key individuals year after year. I guess what I wonder is if the people who have been screaming the loudest really represent what’s best for the masses of rowers or if they are just the loudest one-issue complainers?
I have to admit that after 24 years in the sport and five years in this role, I am more interested in hearing from, and working with, people who want to make USRowing better, stronger and fresher than those who revel in pointing out our missteps.
As I wrote earlier, we are about to embark on a series of town hall membership meetings nationally. If you would like to host a meeting at your boathouse, contact me and let me know. You can reach me at 609-751-0701 or

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great letter from Glenn. This is a discussion which has been a long time coming, and I will be glad to see us move on it. I look forward to a "better" USRowing that includes all ages and levels of participants in programs that will ultimately secure the future of this great sport, from the bottom to the top.

Thanks for having this at Nereid. I hope everyone comes out to have your say.