Club Insider

The Fight for Independent Club Operators

From The Battle of New Orleans to The Battle for Independents

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Geoff HamptonGeoff Hampton

History has a way of repeating itself, doesn't it? As we begin to move forward from the challenges 2020 brought to the industry, I see so many similarities from where it all began.

In the beginning, there were two distinctly different types of "fitness" businesses. One was the long established, traditional health club and the other was the racquet sports business, featuring mostly racquetball and tennis clubs. The racquetball clubs used a membership system called, "pay as you go," with a small annual fee; then, you only paid again when you used the club to play racquetball. Tennis clubs had the same basic format. Around 1980, it became obvious that this segment of the industry was at risk for massive failure for several reasons, most of which centered around the lack of consistency, marketplace changes and organizational structure. In essence, it needed purpose and direction.

Two industry visionaries, Rick Caro of the NTA (National Tennis Association, which represented tennis clubs) and Norm Cates of the NCCA (National Court Club Association, which represented racquetball clubs) forged a radical idea of combining their forces into one with a plan to create positive growth for both. Their plan was initially called IRSA (International Racquet Sports Association). The mission was to help independently owned clubs find the success they desperately needed by professionalizing each offering and implementing effective systems, establishing measurable goals, creating urgency for growth and generally developing accountability with regards to how entities would not only be run, but grow. And, they could attract fitness clubs, also.

From the onset, there was both a level of excitement and concern. Change of any kind is always intimidating, and many clubs were initially apprehensive to join the movement. John McCarthy, a visionary and the first Executive Director of IRSA, and I met several times in the IRSA "office" (a small house outside of Boston). With only a handful of IRSA staff, we brainstormed how to successfully serve and support independent clubs who were splintered and lacking definitive purpose. From those sets of initial meetings, the foundation of what was to become a remarkable boom evolved. Conferences grew and became the epicenter for all things industry related.

I presented at most of the early Conferences (not the first), published many articles (the first one being Secrets of Membership Sales in 1983), and then, from 1985 - 1986, I had a monthly column entitled Sales Training: By Geoff Hampton in the IRSA magazine. As events unfolded, it became obvious that the racquetball clubs needed to evolve to stay alive. Nautilus lines were added, and the clubs began to convert to monthly dues from pay as you go. I had two columns published in the industry about how to successfully convert to monthly dues (Dues and Don'ts and Cashing In On Conversion) and converted many clubs successfully under contract. That is the time I met my long-time industry friend, Jim Worthington, of the Newtown Athletic Club. He and his team have proven what an independent club can accomplish! Beyond the imagination really...

They say you can't be brave if you've only had wonderful things happen to you. As IRSA began to flourish, there was a departure from the original purpose of an association of independent clubs for independent clubs. Just prior to the New Orleans Convention, a massive marketing campaign was undertaken to admit Bally's health club chain to IRSA. Back-to-back cover stories in IRSA's magazine were printed professing the glories of Bally's. The first edition featured a picture of the late Donahue Wildman and the late Roy Zurkowski, Founders of the Bally chain. The next issue featured another key Bally's staff member with boxing gloves and a giant front-page headline that read, "The Champ!" All of the efforts to differentiate, build credibility and independence, and support clubs owned and operated by people from their respective communities was suddenly being compromised.

This did not sit well with my friends Norm Cates and Rick Caro. Norm contacted me, and we recruited a small group of folks (six or seven club owners) who were as passionate as we were to repulse the admittance of Bally's to the Association founded by independent club owners for independent club owners. The IRSA Convention, which was in New Orleans that year, had plenty of Bally's promotion, but our group was not given a voice initially. We finally got a large room, scheduled purposefully at night to have our say. I put together a flyer, and our group handed them out like crazy. The room ended up being packed with anti Bally's club owners, managers and staff. They got to vocally and passionately express their feelings. It was a David vs Goliath moment, and IRSA decided to stop the admittance of Bally's at that time. We call it, "The Battle of New Orleans." Many years later, and with the support of Norm Cates' Club Insider, Bally's was admitted into IRSA, followed thereafter by other club chains. IRSA was no longer an Association only for independent club owners.

I took some years away from the fitness business and did intensive research into inactive populations. My first wife had been stricken with inflammatory breast cancer in 1986 and my focus shifted to her. She passed away in 1994. I still dabbled in the fitness business but focused on healthy living and medical fitness. Now, with the pandemic, the failing economy and low-price fitness operators decimating independent clubs around the world, I have returned with a strong team to enjoin "The Battle for Independents."

It's back to the future, and there has never been a more important time to establish credibility for the industry and what the industry provides. Consulting, management, webinars and on-site in-depth business building events. Our first business building event will be held Thursday, May 13th from 10AM - 3PM at the exclusive Newtown Athletic Club. The global fitness business is about independent owners and operators, and we are the battle for their success! Go to to learn more and sign up for events.

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