What do you call a person who has built a health club into a 250,000-square-foot sports, fitness and wellness complex with a four-acre outdoor resort and pool complex that generates around $19 million in revenue, while also working on their second major expansion in 10 years with plans to add a healthy living apartment complex and a preschool in the near future? You might call that person an entrepreneur with a vision.
What do you call a person who was a delegate at the 2016 Republican National Convention, served as board chair of IHRSA for a year, sits on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, and lobbied for two bills before the U.S. Congress? You might call that individual a person of action.
What if those two people are one in the same? Well, then you would call that person Jim Worthington, owner of Newtown Athletic Club (the NAC) in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
When you talk to Worthington, you get the impression that he is not a man who spends many mornings sleeping in or many days lounging on the beach with a light read. When Club Industry caught up with Worthington earlier this summer to record its July podcast, he spoke with a nonstop passion for almost 90 minutes on a wide range of topics: what led him to become politically active in the past few years, what the President’s Council is working toward, whether he’s ever talked to the president about exercising, his biggest sources of pride in serving for the past year as chair of the IHRSA board, threats to the fitness industry, who he thinks is one of the best health club operators in the business, another expansion of the 40-year-old NAC, putting studios within health clubs and his openness (with conditions) to hosting others in the industry at his facility.
(The interview has been edited down to under an hour and can be downloaded or streamed on The Club Industry Podcast SoundCloud account. The podcast is sponsored by Genavix.)
In the past few years, Worthington, a longtime Republican, has become more politically active, so much so that some people have asked him to run for office. (Find out his reaction to these suggestions by listening to the podcast.) However, the reason he gives for his political activism doesn’t stem from personal ambition; instead, it stems from a personal connection—one of his members, Matt Bellina, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). People diagnosed with this disease often live just three to five years. So, one day, Worthington asked Bellina what else he could do for Bellina during those years. Bellina responded by sharing his desire to get the Right to Try bill passed in Congress. The bill gives people diagnosed with a terminal illness the right to try experimental drugs.
“I said to him, kind of naively, ‘Well, hey, Matt, why don’t we try and see if we can get this done?’” Worthington recalled to Club Industry.
And that was the start of a journey more than three years ago that took Worthington to the halls of Congress to lobby for the bill, led him to become a delegate at the Republican National Convention in 2016 where he cast a vote for Donald Trump on behalf of his congressional district and then hosted Trump at his facility on the condition that Worthington and Bellina would be able to talk to Trump for 20 minutes about the Right to Try bill. The end result was that the bill passed Congress in May 2018, and President Trump signed it into law soon thereafter, possibly adding it to his top priorities in his first 100 days in office after his conversation with Worthington and Bellina. Now, terminally ill people, including Bellina, are getting access to experimental drugs.
Today, Worthington walks the halls of Congress lobbying for another bill, the PHIT Act, which directly affects the fitness industry. The bill would allow flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs), which currently can pay for medical expenses and prescriptions, to be expanded to pay for fitness-related expenses, such as health club memberships, yoga and group fitness classes, fitness equipment, exercise videos, youth sports league registration fees, race entry fees and personal trainers, to the tune of $1,000 per year for individuals and $2,000 per year for families.
The PHIT Act has been introduced in Congress multiple times. Last year was the first year it passed one of the houses of Congress, but it failed to pass the other.
In March, the bill was reintroduced in the House (H.R.1679) by Representative Ron Kind (D-WI) and Representative Mike Kelly (R-PA) and in the Senate (S.680) by Senator John Thune (R-SD) and Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT).
This year is the year Worthington said he believes the PHIT Act will pass both houses of Congress, despite the polarization between the two parties.
“The reality is that the PHIT Bill is just commonsense legislation,” he said.
But the PHIT bill will never pass on its own as a standalone bill, he said. Instead, IHRSA, which is the health club association that lobbies on behalf of commercial clubs, and others lobbying for the bill want to attach the PHIT Act to another larger bill that will make its passage more certain.
That is, if Congress can “keep the disfunction down to a minimum,” Worthington said.
The reality of the political world is that it’s not always altruistic.
“I saw from working on the Right to Try [bill] that Congress particularly does not work to the benefit of people,” he said. “When you are walking those halls, you realize that it comes down to re-election first and then the American people second. That’s why I’ve gotten more involved politically here.”
But his political involvement hasn’t always been easy.
“We got involved in politics because we thought it could make a difference,” Worthington said. “Frankly, politics makes people crazy these days. I don’t look at anybody that is a Democrat any different than anyone who is a Republican. People just have different beliefs. Everybody should work together, and if you happen to be a Trump supporter or on the Presidents’ Fitness Council, people just assume you are something, and the people who don’t like him just don’t like you.”
Still, Worthington presses on. And he offers himself as a resource to others in the industry—again with a few conditions that are motivated to help the industry rather than himself or the NAC. To find out what those conditions are (and to get his phone number and email address), listen to the podcast.
(Editors’ Note: For more information on some of the topics that Worthington touches on in this podcast—including healthcare and fitness integration, leadership, attracting members with studios within clubs and the threats that the fitness industry face today—register for the Club Industry Show Oct. 9-11 in Chicago by going here. Prices increase Aug. 16, so register before then.)