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The vision thing

My last two posts have been about ideas that will appear, to many, to have come from left field. Indeed, the first was posted on a Facebook group shortly after I wrote it, under the following commentary:

Admirable and a nice idea yes, but given the lack of resources for the club side of our sport isn’t this just dissipation of energy for something only the most well resourced would use?

In the bubble of Hammersmith, it’s easy to forget the struggle at club level just to keep the rent paid, the boats rowable, the volunteers supported as well as supporting BR with volunteers to run events. Having access to an international travel card is not high on most members’ list. 

Stephen Hawkin said “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet” – club rowing doesn’t have that luxury, we need to get our feet onto firmer ground

Following that criticism, I published another idea which, it might be similarly argued, doesn’t help pay the rent and keep the volunteers supported. So today, I’m going to try to explain why such ideas are relevant to current members who might, on the face of it, be keener that we address more down-to-earth issues that affect them day by day.  In short, what role do these apparent flights of fancy play in any vision for the sport?

Let me start with the dream. When I arrived at British Rowing fifteen months ago, what I wanted to do was to use the power of our sport as a force for wider good. As anyone who has been involved with rowing immediately understands, it is absolutely brilliant for three of what I believe to be the key issues that we face as a country – obesity, mental health, and discipline in young people – and I arrived wanting to spread the love. The grand ambition was that we could change the country for the better using rowing as a vehicle – a concept that I thought would capture the imagination of a big-ticket sponsor as well as everyone else. “Want to impact the nation positively in these three key areas? Let us show you how a partnership with rowing, which you’ve never even thought about, is the perfect way to do it,” struck me as a pretty good pitch. I had images of rowing centres all over the country, and everyone catching the bug.

OK, I was looking up at the stars. But I hadn’t been in the role more than a few weeks when I realised that while this was a nice aspiration, a lot needed to happen before we could even start. There were, as the quote at the top makes clear, some fundamental things we needed to address, and while the team I joined was working hard to try to address them, it was hampered by lack of resource. I discovered that while I had laboured under the illusion shared with many that BR had plenty of staff and plenty of cash, I was wrong about both; and I arrived to learn that it costs us about £400,000 a year more than we have to spend, just to deliver Business As Usual.  On that basis, the chances of us doing any new things on a long wish-list were bleak. But they are not impossible: we just have to get the finances sorted out first.

We have three main sources of revenue: Government, commercial, and membership. We work hard to protect (and grow) the first two, but the Government money (which is what makes everyone think we are a wealthy sport) is restricted income (which we can only use on the National team); and commercial income is much harder to come by than a decade ago (for a number of reasons I can expand upon another time). So of the three, only membership income is really in our control.

When I say ‘in our control’, the current position is that generally, people look at BR much as we all look at the DVLA: it issues us with a licence, and while we want to be on the road, we pay it our dues. We find the rules it imposes irritating, and are firmly of the belief that we could drive just as safely if they didn’t exist. We forget that if speed limits didn’t apply to us, they wouldn’t for anyone else either, and we give the licensing authority no credit for reducing accidents, making life safer, sharing best practice, and ensuring that standards are upheld. The day we stop driving, we will not pay any car tax on a voluntary basis, and we feel that whoever “they” are – those faceless people in Swansea who may never have been in a car, let alone driven with the roof down and felt the wind blowing through their hair – we owe them nothing.

Sound familiar? I bet it does. But the thing is, British Rowing isn’t actually like the DVLA at all. To understand why not, we need to consider for a moment what the National Governing Body is for.

I suspect if you ask the question of 100 different members, you will get a multitude of different answers, but my guess is that the majority would say that as the admin side of a membership organisation, it is here to look after its members: the 32,000 people who are currently members of British Rowing should be our focus, and everything we do should be about them.  This is basically the view expressed in the quote that I put at the top of this blog, and to the extent that a major requirement of us is clearly that we facilitate life for the people who do the sport, I have a lot of sympathy with it. Indeed, the first question I was asked when interviewed for this role was, “who are our most important stakeholders?”, and my answer was, “the members”.

But for the members to be our most important stakeholders is not the same as saying we are here to act on their behalf. Take a deep breath here, but we aren’t. In my view at least – and I’d be interested to hear what people think – the role of the NGB is to act as the Trustee of the sport, and while the two things clearly overlap, they are different. The fact that the composition of the 32,000 changes by nearly 30% a year as 10,000 people leave and 10,000 others join should be enough to prove that.

So, while managing licensing and safety and all the sharing of best practice and all the dispute resolution stuff I’ve written about before are tasks we have in common with the DVLA, my view is that we also differ from them fundamentally in that the key duty of British Rowing and its directors (as I see it) is to pass the sport on to the next generation in an as good or better condition than we inherited it.  The DVLA cares nothing about the past, not a lot about the future, and absolutely nothing about whether people prefer to drive or take the train – even if one day the road infrastructure falls apart in consequence. In contrast, an NGB has a duty to ensure that its sport survives and thrives, which means doing more than working for the people who are taking part in it right now.

The dual role it gives us, of having an obligation to past and future rowers as well as current ones, is not much thought about – but it does have interesting financial implications. In a competitive world, any sport that is not growing will shrink; and a sport like ours – already unfairly deemed “posh” – risks becoming anachronistic (in the way that racquets, fives or Real Tennis are) if we do not keep working to broaden our appeal. But if the work we currently do already costs us more money than we make, and cutting any of it has worrying implications for the future, then we need to increase our income – or we will fail in our principal job of protecting the sport.  Without either putting up current fees (which nobody wants, and which – as I have written before – is a fast way to oblivion) or cutting programmes (ditto), there is (given the income streams laid out above) only one way to do that: by increasing the number of people who are members.

The drive for members, then, is the key strategic requirement upon us right now, because we have to solve a financial quandary that didn’t exist in a fairly recent (but too distant) past when we had fewer regulatory requirements, deep-pocketed sponsors and more government money.  And that drive has two lines of attack: persuading past members of the importance of their support for the sport (by demonstrating that our role is not purely functional, and so neither should membership be); and addressing some of the strategic reasons why 10,000 people fail to renew as members every year.

The emotional argument for the former group is briefly touched on above. We act for everyone who has rowed and will row – we preserve the relevance of the past, at the same time as we look to the future – and we need to explain why the current broadly-held mindset that “rowing is fine without BR, thanks very much” simply isn’t true.  I’ll try to expand on that tomorrow, when I write about how that cohort – so many of whom will be at Henley next week – can help.

But the latter group need something more tangible than a story about their past: some will need a basket of benefits that money can’t buy elsewhere; and for others, we need to address the structural (rather than tactical, frustration-based) reasons that they leave (and in some cases, never even join). Two recent conversations tell their own story: the first was with a coach who finds it increasingly difficult to persuade boys at his school to row rather than play rugby, because not being at a leading rowing school, they think they have no chance of ever winning anything in our sport. The second was with the father of a schoolgirl who was loving her rowing but was giving up because, as a keen dancer, she simply didn’t have the time to commit to as much training as her school required.

While the “all or nothing” nature of rowing is part of its beauty for many, it isn’t for everyone. There is a vast swathe of people who are interested in something, but ‘something’ isn’t really on offer. Accordingly, membership of British Rowing is taken up as an obligation by those who can do the ‘all’, and dropped the moment they can’t.  It is clear that we need to provide something alongside the current framework that is attractive to those who would enjoy rowing less intensely, which means competitions that are more casual, rowing that is more social, and opportunities for engagement that currently don’t really exist.

That’s why mooting ideas around rowing passports and ladder racing help current, grassroots, members who row passionately every day, and clubs – including those in both categories who don’t want to participate: because if those ideas mean we can hold on to some of the 10,000 people who will churn away from membership of BR this year, and encourage back a percentage of those who have done so annually for the last 30+ years, then they will help us put the sport on a secure financial footing. That would provide the platform that will allow us to do everything else –  a platform which right now simply doesn’t exist.  In short, this stuff is a long way from being ‘a dissipation of energy’: it is tied in directly to the very things deemed important in the opening quote – to the extent that it is a vital component in delivering them.

Tomorrow, I’m going to write about how I think we can do this, how clubs and current members can help, and what a positive difference we can make if, together, we succeed. But for now, I’ve gone on long enough.

Let me know what you think. You can mail me, comment below, or come up and chat at the new British Rowing stand at Henley, which you will find right next to the entrance to the competitors’ enclosure and next door to the official regatta shop. I will be there for most of the five days (other than over lunch) with lots of members of the team, and I’d encourage you to come along and talk to us.

Thanks for reading.


Posted in British Rowing.

2 Responses

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  1. angust says

    The opening quote is from the WEROW Facebook page

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Mavens needed, apply here. – A view from opposite Harrods linked to this post on July 2, 2019

    […] the last couple of days I have posted two blogs about why the single biggest strategic requirement on us right now is to deal with our […]

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