I recently saw an interesting thread on Reddit, asking about how to revive a dying HEMA club. Having been part of a number of different sports clubs over the years, I know that this is quite a common (and unfortunate) situation. With my experience of the success (and lack thereof) in different clubs over the years, I would like to share some of my thoughts on how to solve the problem, and these thoughts are an edited and improved version of the comment I made in that thread.
There are things you can do to reverse the decline, but you need to be willing and able to make changes, and hopefully you can bring your remaining club members on board with it.
First, make an honest assessment of what you are doing at the club and how are you going about it. For example, you could ask yourself these questions:
- How formal or informal is your club? Are you focusing more on higher or lower intensity work?
- What is the club name, how modern or “ye olde” does it sound, does it explain what you actually do, and is it doing you any favours or is it in fact turning people off the idea of your club?
- How much sparring do you do (or not do) in the club, and how much sparring do your members and prospective members want to do?
- How many nights are you running compared with how many nights people are willing to commit to attending?
- What disciplines are you studying and why, and what disciplines are most of your members and prospective members interested in studying?
- What sort of advertising are you doing so far, and what sorts of advertising have you deliberately avoided or only tried once or twice?
- Do you have a proper website (none of this Wix or Squarespace nonsense), and if not, why not?
- How active are you on social media, and is your social media presence the right kind? (For example, do you have a Facebook page or Facebook group, or both?)
- Do you have a club uniform (and if not, why not?), and how much pride in the club do your members have?
- How many instructors do you have and is there a unified curriculum or syllabus for training and teaching, and if not, why not?
- Are the club founders or leaders actually pulling their weight in the club, or have they become dead weight or liabilities over the years?
- Are there any members who are putting off other members or prospective members with how they speak or behave?
- What sort of fees do you charge and why, does this manage to balance the books or not, and what sort of fees could or should you be charging and why?
- What service are you actually selling, when you strip away all the idealism and romanticism and look at the cold hard facts?
With that kind of information, you will have a foundation for moving forward to revive the club. Without that information, you will just be guessing.
It may turn out from your assessment that what the club was set up to do is no longer what the members want to do. For example, maybe you set up as a longsword club, but most of your die-hard longsword people have moved away, and many of your members and potential members are now more interested in rapier. The way to save the club in this example is of course to pivot and turn the club into a rapier club, or at least to reduce the amount of longsword and to start doing more rapier. Is that something you can make happen? Are you willing to make a pivot like this to keep the club open?
It may turn out from your assessment that the club culture is no longer what people are interested in. Perhaps you started out in either a very lax and informal study group kind of fashion and people are now less interested in experimenting widely and just want to train one thing a bit more seriously. Or perhaps you started off as a very focused, very high intensity group with the intention of taking a team to tournaments, and now people are less interested in that and just want to play with swords once a week because that is sufficiently fun. Can you implement the necessary changes and get people on board with this?
It may turn out from your assessment that the way you present and advertise the club just isn’t working to bring in new people. Perhaps you are not getting very many recruits because you post a lot on Facebook and Instagram but you don’t have a proper website and you don’t understand how to make online adverts that attract people and actually convert people into new members. Perhaps you don’t personally enjoy social media very much, and websites scare you, so you just kind of ignore the whole thing. In this example, the solution is that you need to suck it up and get better at managing the club’s online presences. Put time and effort (and money) into what is actually important rather than what hasn’t been working so far.
My own experience – a club that failed
A number of years ago, before I started practising HEMA, I ran my own karate club. I did a terrible job of running the club! I taught some pretty good karate, I think, but I did really badly at running a club.
I chose a bad name for the club (too complicated a place name that most people couldn’t remember or spell), I set the fees too low to support our finances (and effectively undervalued everything we did from then on), and I focused on types of advertising that just didn’t bring any returns. I didn’t advertise properly or effectively, I didn’t manage to instil any pride in the club amongst our members, and I had no idea how to make the club seem relevant to people beyond “I teach karate”.
The club did well enough for a year or two, then declined slowly for a couple of years, and then I closed it, because I couldn’t face turning up to an empty hall (or a hall with just a single student) every single week and was unable to revive it because I didn’t know how to do so at that point in time.
My own experience – a club that we revitalised
Somewhat more recently, I was helping with a club that was in decline. There were a number of factors for this, but the main reason was that one of the main instructors had lost faith in the club and wasn’t doing anything to prevent the decline, and this killed the motivation of other people.
The instructor left the club, someone else took over, we did plenty of useful advertising, we asked for feedback and then addressed and improved the things that were fed back to us. We put a more human and friendly face on everything. We invested more in the club and made sure that people would enjoy the experience more.
The club went into an upward spiral and is still improving to this day! It was quite painful for a while, but with perseverance and effort, we managed to revive it and make the club significantly more sustainable.
My own experience – a club opened in the right way
When I moved to Liverpool almost three years ago, I decided to open a new club (Liverpool HEMA), and I brought to bear all my experience of running clubs and businesses. I thought long and hard about what sort of club I wanted to run and why, and what sorts of clubs I didn’t want to run and why not.
I made sure that from the very first session, everyone was on the same page about what we were trying to achieve in the club and why. I made sure that I wasn’t the only person on the instructor team, and trained up and assistant coaching team (we are now nearly finished training up our second assistant coaching team, so we have a large group of instructors at the club!).
I made a uniform and tried to instil some pride in the club. We have a tightly defined focus for our regular activities, although we schedule in opportunities to look at other disciplines on a monthly basis. We don’t really advertise actively, but our online presence is powerful enough that people can’t help but find us when they want to take up HEMA in Liverpool!
As a result of doing the upfront thinking and being quite clear about what I wanted to achieve with the club, it is thriving. I have done almost everything about as differently as it was possible to do compared to the karate club I opened several years ago, and the results speak for themselves.
You need to run your club like a small business, otherwise it will struggle and runs a greater chance of failing. To run it like a business, you have to be brutally honest with yourself about what you want, what you don’t want, what your people want and don’t want, and what you are actually doing compared to what you would like to think that you are doing.
Reviving the club may mean swallowing your pride and changing things that you personally love. It may mean breaking from “club tradition” and doing something else. It may mean having some difficult discussions with people at any level or role in the organisation about shaping up or shipping out. It may mean handling money differently and having some difficult discussions with people about finances and fees.
At the end of the day, if your club is in a downward spiral, you have to do something about it or it will decline terminally and will eventually cease to be. If you want to keep the club open and revive it, then you need to make your assessments, decide what to do about ALL the problems that potentially led to the decline, and then IMPLEMENT those solutions.
If you would like to support my writing efforts, please consider donating a little something towards my coffee fund!
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.