Is It Our Turn to Be On the Bubble Now?

Recently, in the middle of another one of my too-many-days-on-the-road-without-a-day-off consulting trips, I found myself in the food court of yet another mall. I had about 40 minutes to kill before the start of a movie that would mush my overworked brain.

Suddenly, as I looked around that food court at Mr. and Ms. America of all ages and sizes and types, I decided to conduct my own random, mini-survey of American behavior related to health clubs. I quickly spotted the 32 adults obviously over 21 but under 70 who I was going to approach, grabbed my always present yellow legal pad and a pen and went to work.

“Hi. Just doing a mini-survey with maybe only one but no more than four quick questions. Do you mind?”

Question One: “Do you belong to a health club?” Question Two (if answer to Question One was “no”): “Did you ever belong to a health club?” Question Three (if answer to Question Two was “no”): “Would you ever consider joining a health club?” Question Four (if answer to Question Three was “yes”): “How much do you think it costs to belong to a club?”

The results:

Question One. Five out of 32 belonged to a club. That's a little more than 15 percent — the same as our national average of members-to-total-population.

Question Two. Eleven had belonged to a health club but had since quit. Many volunteered that they either didn't find the time to use the club, didn't like it or didn't get much help and left.

Question Three. Ten said they would never consider joining a health club. Volunteered answers ranged from “I just wouldn't fit in there” to “I'd have to lose some weight before I did that” to “They just want your money and hope you never show up.” Six said they'd consider it but offered no reasons why. Three that had belonged but had quit said they'd probably consider rejoining.

The remaining eight that had belonged to a health club said they'd never go back to a club again. They seemed pretty convinced of that, and they seemed pretty edgy about it, too. For the sake of time and for fear of missing my already-paid-for-theatrical experience, I backed off.

Question Four. The nine that said they might join a health club had a wide range of perceived pricing. The three that had been members and might rejoin referenced the club they had belonged to and priced a club at “about $35 a month.” The other six varied from “a couple hundred bucks” to “I don't know” to “What do they cost, anyway?”

End of survey. Time for movie.

Thoughts, conclusions and postulations after the fact:

  • We really aren't doing well with only 15 percent of the nation as club members after 30 years of promoting the heck out of health and fitness. (Or have we promoted the heck out of membership?)

  • My survey says that 50 percent of the people have already joined clubs — and 69 percent of them quit! That's scary. (We must be doing something wrong.)

  • One out of three people would never even consider joining a health club. (Must be our image. Who wouldn't want to be in an environment of grunting and slamming and banging and sweating and loud offensive music and who knows what else? I mean, come on!)

Let's see. Scudder's in-the-mall scientific study leaves us with just 28 percent of the people left to sell memberships to. Hmmmm. That's about 81 million people and 28,000 clubs with club growth at a double-digit rate. And member attrition at 40 percent annually. New member sales closing rate at about 40 percent. Looks like by 2010 — just five years away — we'll have more than 40,000 clubs and 60 million members. And…wow!…that's exactly 486 new members per new club over the next half-decade or that's 1,518 members per average club. Geez…that's no different than right now. Wait a minute! That's no real growth. What? Isn't that similar to what happened with the tech bubble of a few years ago?

Uh. Yeah. It's very much like what happened to the tech industry. Who's kidding whom? When are we as an industry going to address this issue of overbuilding and get ourselves back on track? Or, are we doomed to repeat history but this time in our business, rather than computers or cell phones? Sound familiar? Resonate with anybody out there? Or are you in denial? Think about it.

Man, I should not eat that movie popcorn. It does something to your brain cells. Gives you nightmares while you're wide awake.

Michael Scott Scudder is a 30-year veteran of the fitness industry. He is a personal business trainer operating Fitness Focus, a consulting company that offers private workshops on pertinent fitness business matters. Questions and comments are welcomed by Michael at 505-690-5974 or

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