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Top Health Clubs Are Battered but Standing

While putting together this year's Top 100 Clubs list, I got the impression that a lot of club owners didn't really want to offer their numbers this year. The majority of those who declined my request to fill out our Top 100 form did so by saying that their companies were private and, therefore, they keep their financial information private.

I can't say that I necessarily blame anyone this year for wanting to keep their 2009 revenue numbers to themselves. For every club operator who had a tough year financially, another operator made it through the year more profitably. No one wants to be compared with a competitor and come out looking bad in the comparison. Of course, the refusal to disclose numbers often is much more complicated than having a poor year financially, so I would never offer that as the only reason for a club operator not to disclose his or her numbers.

As imperfect as any list is, our Top 100 Clubs list is important to the industry because it offers a snapshot of the health of many of the largest U.S. fitness facilities. This year, the list takes on even more significance as we've been in a recession for more than two years, and the only information we have about how clubs weathered this recession comes from anecdotal evidence (reported bankruptcies or club closings) and from the industry's association of for-profit club operators. It's often best to have several sources for such an important assessment.

The word from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) is that the health club industry has weathered the storm fairly well, particularly compared to other industries. U.S. club revenue was actually higher in 2009 compared to 2008, according to IHRSA. Whether you take comfort in that assessment probably depends on whether you're a club operator who's weathering the storm or one who is so battered that you can barely operate.

Our list, which ranks clubs by their 2009 revenue, shows an amazingly high number of the largest club operations with lower revenues in 2009 compared to 2008. Based on the numbers that clubs submitted to us for 2008 and 2009, we found 36 companies reported lower revenues.

In addition, 11 companies did not submit their 2009 revenue numbers, but we estimated for them a 4 percent decrease based on the form they submitted last year with 2008 numbers. Despite the lower revenues for many of the clubs on our list, the positive is that the decreases were mostly in the single digits — and many of them were 5 percent or less. That's encouraging, even if some people would argue that the relatively small decreases may be exclusive to the larger club operators.

Numbers can be skewed however you'd like to skew them. What we do know is that few club owners walked away from 2009 unscathed. Almost every club operator had to cut costs (sometimes even staff), cut programs or cut back on employee benefits. And, yes, some even had to close clubs or file for bankruptcy. But I want to thank those club operators who opened up their numbers to the industry and allowed us to get a little peek into the health of the fitness business.

Because of space constraints, we were not able to analyze the list as deeply in this print issue as we would have liked to, but we've expanded our analysis in the online version of the story and have even included comments from some of the executives at companies on the list. You can read the expanded version at

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