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Growing the grassroots: Rowing

With a new push towards indoor rowing, Phil Hornsey, British Rowing’s director of membership and rowing community, tells Steph Eaves how the organisation plans to attract new audiences and modernise the sport

by Steph Eaves, Health Club Management and Sports Management | Published in Sports Management Jul Aug 2017 issue 132
Phil Hornsey, British Rowing’s director of membership and rowing community
Phil Hornsey, British Rowing’s director of membership and rowing community

What are the main areas of focus at British Rowing at the moment?
Over the past two years British Rowing has been through a modernisation process. The sporting and commercial landscape has changed a lot recently and we want to be in the best position to take advantage of that.

The next four years is about taking a fresh approach to club support and broadening the appeal of rowing through new programmes and events. We have innovative plans to raise the profile of the sport to attract new participants, and practical ways to help clubs deal with the demand.

Where are participation levels currently at?
Overall participation is nearly 830,000 people per month, according to Sport England’s new Active Lives survey, which includes both on-water and indoor rowing. British Rowing membership has hit its highest ever levels in the wake of the Rio Olympics, and the sport has grown by around six per cent since London 2012. But the real success has been women’s rowing, which is up more than 50 per cent since the London Games.

There’s an increasingly healthy gender balance at grassroots level – we’re not far off a 50-50 male-female split, and on our current trajectory we’ll hit parity in the next few years. It’s a great reflection of where we are at an international level, with the men’s and women’s Olympic squads both coming back from Rio with 13 medals apiece – the first time we’ve achieved that.

Tell us about your new indoor rowing strategy?
On-water rowing continues to grow, but we know that indoor rowing has the potential to engage a far broader, larger audience. That’s why we launched our new indoor rowing initiative, Go Row Indoor, at the end of last year.

Rowing machines are an incredibly useful piece of kit for anyone looking for a complete body workout. There are 9 million gym users in the UK, and there’s a rowing machine in nearly every gym nationwide, so the scale of the opportunity is obvious. However, rowing machine usage is low, peaking at just over 20 per cent, and many fitness instructors have a limited understanding of correct indoor rowing techniques and the most effective training programmes.

To tackle this, we’ve appointed five master trainers who’ll be working alongside gym operators and their instructors to help them promote indoor rowing to their members and get the most out of the equipment. And, thanks to Sport England, we’re recruiting two new members of staff to help us effectively communicate all the benefits of indoor rowing to consumers and fitness professionals across the country.

What outcomes are you hoping for?
Our aim is to significantly increase the number of indoor rowers in the next five years. The British Rowing Indoor Championships had its biggest entry to date in 2016, so we’re already seeing growth at local and national level, and there are more and more opportunities to compete and be recognised within this area of the sport.

That said, a significant increase in indoor rowing undoubtedly has the potential to translate into more people on the water. A key part of the initiative is to make indoor rowers feel more connected to the wider sport, encouraging them to support our GB team, connect with on-water rowers, promote the sport and just be proud to call themselves ‘a rower’.

What other development programmes are in place?
Explore Rowing has been our flagship participation programme since 2010, designed to make the sport more accessible and enjoyable for people new to rowing. Learning to row in the kind of skinny racing boats found in most clubs doesn’t make for the best beginner experience, so from 2010 onwards British Rowing part-funded 51 packages of stable, easier-to-row boats, along with a structured learn-to- row course. We now have over 100 affiliated Explore Rowing centres across the country, and the initiative has introduced more than 10,000 new rowers to the sport.

What programmes exist for para rowing?
We’ve seen considerable success with our disability rowing programme, known as adaptive rowing. Since 2012, we’ve increased the number of locations with adaptive rowers to 57 and increased our adaptive British Rowing members by 30 per cent, working alongside organisations such as Help for Heroes and the Invictus Games.

A great grassroots programme will always help the other end of the pathway, which is what we saw in Rio: medals in all four Paralympic rowing events, with three of them gold. We remain committed to supporting adaptive rowing and will be working hard with our community to further improve accessibility to rowing.

How are you getting more young people involved in the sport?
Most clubs report they’re at capacity and have substantial waiting lists for junior members. This is something we must address. If we want to grow the sport, satisfying the demand we already have is a pretty obvious place to start.

Another great way for kids to access the sport is through indoor rowing. We’re looking to encourage more schools and sports clubs to get involved through our Indoor Rowing for Young People (IR4YP) programme that allows participants to log their activity and provides staff with support and training. In 2016, we saw over 3,500 school kids from Years 7 to 13 take part in indoor rowing at the School Games.

How do you use technology to engage?
We’ve partnered with LiveRowing, a multifunctional app for both gym goers and on-water rowers training indoors. There are practical tips, workouts and challenges for complete beginners right through to rowing pros. It allows indoor rowers in the gym, at home or in the workplace to connect in real-time with others from across the world.

We’ve also developed technique videos and virtual classes for indoor rowing that people can follow in the gym or at home. We hope these will help people to take their first steps onto the indoor rowing machine and get the most out of it. There are also free-to-download indoor rowing workout plans available via our website.

What are the biggest challenges to growing participation numbers in rowing?
Our clubs, schools and universities do an absolutely brilliant job of growing the sport, but the majority of them rely on volunteers and most tell us they don’t have nearly enough to grow their clubs to the extent they’d like.

You also need a pretty wide range of skills to run a club, especially clubs that have their own facilities. It’s not unusual for a club captain, chairman or president to find themselves in charge of an organisation with a hundred or so members, and a turnover of tens of thousands of pounds.

On top of that, there are the essential commitments to water safety, child welfare and safeguarding. They have to market their clubs through a growing number of channels and ensure they’re financially viable and compliant, and that’s all before they even start to think about being successful at rowing.

Our goal for the next four years is to provide meaningful support to clubs, to help them operate sustainably and successfully. We want to help bridge these skill gaps and centralise information and support.

How will you do this?
We’re developing a suite of new products designed to provide rowing clubs with the tools and guidance they need.

This will include a new online membership management tool and a comprehensive knowledge base with advice on all aspects of running a rowing club.

Are there any future goals for the sport?
For me, growing a more diverse, inclusive sport is our biggest goal. It’s the right thing to do, it’ll change the perception of the sport and it could unlock a whole new level of participation and talent in rowing. We want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to get involved in rowing. If we get it right there are benefits all around. I think this will also be our biggest challenge, but we’ve got the right structures and people in place to make it a reality.

Are there any changes you’d like to see in rowing?
Rowing has a great tradition and fantastic heritage, but that doesn’t mean we can sit back and enjoy the golden glow. Sport is changing, people are changing, so rowing needs to do the same. If we can be a bit bolder in our approach, at the very least we’ll learn what works and what doesn’t.

I’d also like our international athletes and support staff to get the recognition they deserve from the wider public, so increasing our fan base is a really important area that we’re focusing on as we look to raise the profile of the sport and get more people active through rowing.

Go Row Indoors

Helen Rowbotham, director of innovation at British Rowing
Helen Rowbotham, director of innovation at British Rowing

Helen Rowbotham, director of innovation at British Rowing, says: “The opportunity for indoor rowing is vast. Our research has identified that 15.8 million people would consider using a rowing machine, and a good infrastructure for growing the sport is already in place, as 79 per cent of people with this intention already have access to a rowing machine. Despite this, only one in four gym-goers are currently rowing indoors.”

To change behaviours, British Rowing will focus on five key areas:

• Increasing awareness by promoting the benefits of indoor rowing

• More training to educate fitness professionals and gym users

• New offers, including innovative classes and products

• Technology with engaging challenges, tracking and leagues

• Creating a community with tailored content and events

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