People will want to go back to their gyms and sports clubs – but can they afford it?
ISCA members discuss threats and strategies for surviving COVID-19 crisis.
What does it mean to be a member of a gym or sports club these days? What will the coming months or years look like for the sport and physical activity sector? ISCA connected its members and NowWeMOVE campaign national coordinators online before the Easter break for a candid conversation on how they see the threats and opportunities for their sports clubs, gyms and NGOs during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
The discussion included physical activity promoters from 17 countries and is the first of several online meetings ISCA is planning with its members to build a support network sharing ideas and strategies to survive the crisis.
The countries spanned from one of the hardest hit and most shut down, Spain, to others that are starting to contemplate a gradual reopening, such as Denmark and Iceland, and a cross-section of countries with strict and more relaxed rules for outdoor exercise.
The timing of the crisis could be misleading in countries where people are still allowed outside and are adjusting to self-organised ways of being active, warns Maria Lourdes Gonzalez from Germany’s biggest sport for all organisation, DTB.
“It will be interesting to see the long-term impact of the crisis on physical activity in terms of behavioural change,” she says. “It is spring now and people are walking and running outside. But in winter things could look a lot different.”
In countries that use police and military personnel to deter people from parks and playgrounds, the consequences of exercising outdoors can hit people hard financially as well as physically, ISCA Executive Committee Member and V4Sport foundation president Jakub Kalinowski points out.
“In Poland you can get fined €1200 for running in a park. So physical activity can cost a lot of money these days.”
Nervous wait for sports clubs and fitness centres
As sports clubs, gyms and outdoor facilities around the world have been forced to close under lockdown regulations, thousands of fitness providers are emerging online, offering free workouts that can be done at home. Many of ISCA’s members have been quick to react by moving their activities groups online, but not all of their individual members have joined in.
“Many of us don’t know where our customers are,” ISCA Vice President, Director of UBAE and Eurofitness in Barcelona, Toni Llop says. “Online providers have increased their sales by four times. So when you come out on the other side, you may have to recruit your members again.”
While the short-term impact of the closures is draining funds from in-person providers through suspended or cancelled memberships, the long-term prognosis for sports clubs and the fitness industry is equally concerning. Indoor activities could be particularly slow to start up again as people are nervous to exercise in close proximity to others.
“Our biggest concern is the dropout rate,” Sabína Steinunn Halldórsdóttir from the Youth Association of Iceland (UMFÍ) says. “Will the kids be afraid when they return? Unemployment is also a real threat to people keeping their memberships.”
Toni Llop notes that another challenge upon resuming business will be ensuring staff members are trained to provide the safest possible indoor environment for the participants. This will demand a “new way of communicating with members” and responding to a different mindset about what is safe and what could be putting their health at risk.
“All of us suddenly became doctors. We think we know how the virus is passed on. Our members will comeback with panic, that’s for sure,” he says.
Mojca Markovic from the Sports Union of Slovenia (SUS) says she is optimistic that people will return to their sports clubs and gyms with a motivated, but more cautious approach to how they train.
“We always asked people to wipe the machines down with sanitiser after their workout but many didn’t. Now I think they will take more care.”
SUS’s staff quickly moved their activities online when the lockdown began, but Markovic believes their members will prefer to come back to “real-live” training when they have the opportunity to do so. Her main concern is that the economic downturn will prevent some participants from continuing where they left off.
“They will come back because they like their trainers. They will still come to the gym to get their social contact. But can they afford it?”
Jakub Kalinowski also believes a craving for human interaction will prevail, and that lack of money will be the biggest barrier the sector needs to overcome.
“We love what we had: the liberty to socialise. So people will want to come back. They just might not have the money to come back. Fitness centres and clubs won’t be the number one priority to recover after the crisis.”
At an extraordinary time when home, office and active spaces are blended into one, the allure escaping “back” to a familiar fitness routine, social network and space away from the home or office may seem like a daydream right now. And we don’t know when it will become a reality again.
That’s why, in the coming months, we will work together with our members on strategies to navigate through the threats and opportunities this crisis presents now and in the future. They have the drive to make people more active through their everyday work and campaigns such as NowWeMOVE, so potential solutions may not be so far out of reach.
The organisations taking part in this initial discussion included Association Sport for All Suceava (Romania), BG Be Active (Bulgaria), Czech Sokol Organisation (Czech Republic), Deporte para la Educacion y la Salud (Spain), DTB (Germany), Eurofitness/UBAE (Spain), ENVERCEVKO (Turkey), Hungarian School Sport Federation (Hungary), Romanian Federation Sport for All (Romania), Sport for All Serbia (Serbia), Sports Union of Slovenia (Slovenia), UMFÍ (Iceland), University of Presov (Slovakia), V4Sport (Poland), as well as ISCA staff from Australia/Denmark, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Russia.
By Rachel Payne, ISCA