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Making the Big Leagues

Some people never get enough of sports. Even once they've graduated from high school or college, they long for the thrill that playing their favorite sport gives them. That's a passion that health clubs can capitalize on through leagues — an opportunity for members to get fit while competing in their favorite sport.

LA Fitness has 43 clubs in California and the majority of them offer league play of one kind or another, says Greg Sheffield, national director in charge of sports activities for LA Fitness. Thousands of LA Fitness members are involved in leagues.

“With our programming, we've created such a demand for our facility,” says Sheffield. “Someone may complain about not being able to get a court, but they are the first person who wants to be a part of the league. It creates excitement. In our league programming, we have a lot of people waiting to play.”

About 2 percent to 3 percent of the 10,000 members at the Desoto Athletic Club in Southaven, MS participate in the club's volleyball, basketball or racquetball leagues.

“We have such a huge member base that we haven't had problems getting interest generated,” says Bill Alexander, director at the Desoto Athletic Club.


Leagues generally aren't a huge revenue generator, but then again, they don't cost a lot to run either — generally just one staff person's time, lights and maybe a referee and scorekeeper (although sometimes those two expenses can be traded for a membership).

Most clubs charge members an extra fee to participate in leagues (mostly to cover the minimal costs). The Desoto Athletic Club charges a minimal fee for leagues, but not in an effort to collect a lot of extra revenue, says Alexander.

“We knew that with the facilities we have they (leagues) would generate a lot of interest,” says Alexander. “We do it as a service to our members. It's not for profit, but if we make money off of it, then that's great.”

The Wheaton Sport Center in Wheaton, IL has offered tennis leagues since it opened more than 25 years ago. Now with 2,100 memberships, the club has about 250 participants in its tennis leagues. The Wheaton club offers five 10-week sessions throughout the year. Members have to be a tennis plus member to participate in the leagues, which cost $15 per session for singles and $25 for doubles. In addition to various men/women/singles/doubles and mixed leagues, the club also offers private leagues.

The club would not reveal how much revenue the tennis leagues generate, but Mike Gilligan, general manager at Wheaton Sport Center, would say that the tennis leagues account for 4 percent to 5 percent of the club's revenue.

Of course, by supposing that the 250 participants in the club's league were all in the singles league, the estimated revenue generated would be $3,750 per 10-week session (at $15 per session per participant) or $18,750 per year. While the revenue taken in isn't large, Gilligan says he would never stop running leagues at the club.

“What we get in return for retention is worth its weight in gold,” he says.

Rick Aubin, co-owner and tennis director at the Brandywine Tennis & Health Club, agrees that leagues help retain members. His club has seven tennis leagues (each with about 10 members).

“The leagues are one of the reasons we keep a lot of the members,” Aubin says. “There are a few people who only play in the league.”

However, Gilligan finds that the core group of women who participate in the tennis leagues at his facility also use the personal training services and the spa.

“The league brings them here, but then they branch out into other areas,” he says.

Sheffield has found the same at LA Fitness.

“Usually, if someone commits money to play in a league, they will come in to practice and use the gym more often than just game nights or match nights,” Sheffield says. By using more than the basketball court or racquetball court, the league members plunk money into personal training, the juice bar, the pro shop and any fee-based group exercise classes, often to keep fit for their leagues.

“If they (members) get involved in our leagues, that gives them a whole group of people who they can play with outside the league,” says Sheffield. The more people a member knows, the less likely the member will drop out because their play partners can't play. Leagues allow new members and people new to a sport the opportunity to meet and play with other players without having to set up the matches or games themselves. Leagues also allow members to vary who they play with, a factor in fighting the boredom that can come from playing the same people over and over again.

That boredom can be an especially big factor in tennis leagues.

“You really can't offer a tennis program without leagues,” says Becky Sandberg, tennis administrator at the Wheaton Sport Center.

Not only do leagues retain members, but they can sell memberships, too, says Sheffield. At LA Fitness league participants can win state and national championships for each league and the company has pros in several of the sports playing at the facilities, both of which can attract some individuals to the leagues and to the clubs.

In addition, the leagues offer convenience for members. Through leagues they can have a set court time on the same day of the week, week after week, Sandberg says.

For members who are interested in improving their games, the leagues offer them an opportunity to play against tougher competition as they improve because as they win a certain level, they can move up to the next level, says Sandberg.

So, although leagues may not be the direct boon to revenue that some club owners might like, in the long term, leagues are a low-cost method for a club to earn more revenue by retaining members and providing a sense of socialization, competition and fitness that many club members are looking for.


  • Dedication pays off. By hiring one person to be in charge of the leagues, a club shows members that it is serious about the leagues it offers. That person must then follow through with the leagues ensuring they are structured and organized. For that reason, it is important to have someone in charge who is a legitimate pro in one sport or another, says Sheffield.

    “If you have the right person that everyone likes, then that works,” he says. “It's all about having the right personnel.”

  • Tournaments are important. Tournaments allow a higher level of competition among members and the opportunity for prizes, which can be a huge motivating factor depending on the prize.

    Of course, sometimes prizes don't matter. The Wheaton Sport Center used to offer prizes (generally gift certificates to the pro shop) for its tournaments, but a survey of tennis league members found that they preferred lower league fees and no prizes to higher league fees and prizes.

  • Lessons require leagues and vice versa. To feed into your leagues, you need to ensure that you have members who know how to play your league sports. After a few lessons, members who want to continue with a sport need places to go. If you don't offer a league in their sport, they may decide to join a club that does.

    “They feed off of each other,” Sandberg says about her club's tennis lessons and leagues.

  • Know your facility availability. Before starting any league, you need to ensure that the club can spare some of the tennis or racquetball courts each day or the basketball court for a few days a week. Based on what you can spare, you can determine how many leagues you can offer, says Sandberg.

  • Timing is everything. While it may seem that scheduling league times during peak time will only add to the heavy traffic, in reality, not offering league times during peak time will hurt league play because fewer people will be able to participate and may head to a club with more convenient league play times. Of course, Sheffield suggests offering a few off peak time options for each league, too.

  • Learn to share. At times it may be difficult to find enough court time for leagues, particularly if a club has one basketball court and it offers basketball leagues as well as indoor volleyball leagues. To deal with this challenge at some of the LA Fitness clubs, Sheffield picks a “hub” club and has other clubs feed into that club on certain nights. For instance, he might schedule a basketball league for Monday and Wednesday at one club and then volleyball at that club on Tuesday and Thursday.

  • Continuity counts. A club should make sure that the lag time between leagues is minimal. Once people get out of the habit of coming in every Wednesday, it is easier for something else to replace that Wednesday league play and they may never come back.

  • Non-members can make good teammates. Some clubs charge a lower league fee for members and a higher league fee for non-club members. By allowing non-members to play in leagues, a club is inviting in a potential new member. Once that non-member gets familiar with members and the facility, he or she may decide to join.

  • Coaches are cool. Clubs that offer swim teams should have a coach on the pool deck at the pool during swim times. The coach should also be someone who can really engage people and who can help run the swim time, says Scott Williams, aquatic/triathlon sports director at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. The coach also can spot swimmers who aren't on a team but who might make a good team member.

  • Team up. Single club owners may want to contact other clubs in their area to see what leagues they are involved in or to get a regional league going in various sports. By doing this, a club owner keeps the league play within a reasonable driving distance for members but also gives members more people to play, thereby decreasing boredom.

    Players at the 14-court Wheaton Sport Center play other members at the club, although the club also has a traveling team that plays in a northern Illinois travel team league. Teams at LA Fitness clubs play teams from other LA Fitness clubs located in the same region of California.

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