USA Swimming held a very brief Board of Directors meeting on August 26th, saving most of its business for the United States Aquatic Sports Convention that convened just 2 weeks later, but the key item up for discussion had to do with the organization’s new “Flex Membership.”
Introduced in 2018, the Flex Membership offered a reduced fee ($20) in exchange for a lowered benefits. The program, and the associated marketing campaign, was designed to attract athletes who were not full-time year-round swimmers and participated in other sports and activities.
Last year, USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey said in a press release that “The Flex Swim membership allows us to introduce the sport to a new generation of athletes, using a product that is more conscious of the current environment and competitive in the youth sports market.”
He continued that the goal of the program is “to adapt to busy family lifestyles and introduce the sport of swimming with a lower barrier to entry and flexibility to still enjoy the many other available activities. Historical data tells us that if we can get a kid to try team swimming, they will stick with it and enjoy it.”
One year in, however, USA Swimming’s Managing Director of Sport Development Joel Shinofield, who was hired late last year just as the program was being implemented, gave the Board a cautious report on the program’s success.
According to minute from the latest Board of Directors meeting, Shinofield reported the “statistical impact Flex membership has had on membership, as w ell as the potential financial risk of keeping Flex Membership in its current form after a year of implementation.”
That data led Shinofield to conclude that the program needed to be modified in order to “both keep the integrity of the intent to bring more youth to the sport while also having a financially sustainable membership category for USA Swimming.”
USA Swimming COO Mike Unger wrote in a memo that the program was originally implemented after USA Swimming identified a 7.5% average decline of new members from 2014-2016, with a big piece of that coming in the youngest age groups: a 9.2% decrease in year-round membership for 10 * under swimmers. However, the financial realities seen in the first year caused concern. Out of the $20 annual membership fee for the flex membership, $10 go to the LSC while $10 go to USA Swimming. USA Swimming is paying for insurance out of their $10.
Unger estimates that “38-42%” of the organization’s total athlete membership does not swim more than 2 meets, and that if all of those members converted to the Flex Membership, that USA Swimming would lose over $6 million in membership revenue. The 2020 year-round athlete membership fee for USA Swimming is $60, plus any additional fees levied upon membership by the Local Swim Committee (LSC).
Flex Members are not eligible for individual recognition programs like Scholastic All-America or a subscription to the USA Swimming magazine, and its members are only allowed to compete in 2 sanctioned events per year below the LSC Championship level. The program was designed for part-time athletes, but Unger says that Flex members are attending as many practices as “premium” (or standard) members are.
Unger’s memorandum reports both positives and negatives of the program, as follows:
- The Flex campaign is a thoughtful and powerful tool in changing the way outsiders/first-time parents view our sport. It can also be used to influence clubs/coaches to offer part-time swimming opportunities as a way to broaden the sport’s appeal in their community and across the country. The campaign is key to changing the “stigma” that participation in swimming means ten practices a week.
- Flex is a net-positive for clubs that are using the membership for learn-to-swim, pre-competitive, camps, clinics, and first-time families.
- More and more clubs have fewer athletes who compete. Many clubs register the athletes as flex, but continue to collect the full membership fee. Savings are not passed onto new members and thus clubs derive additional revenue if the athlete does not compete in more than two meets. This process has been confirmed by conversations with coaches, as well as with Team Unify who currently processes those payments. (Many clubs registering athletes for Flex, don’t even have that reduced fee listed on their site.)
- Flex memberships pose a significant financial risk to USA Swimming in the current format as more clubs adopt this approach. Flex membership cost $20.00, with 10.00 to the LSC and $10 to us, but we cover insurance cost etc. out of that $10.
- 38-42% of our total athlete membership does not swim more than 2 meets. If all of those members converted to Flex Membership we would face a $6,008,840 loss in membership revenue.
- Flex Membership does not influence clubs offering part-time, or new programming for swimmers. The Flex campaign and Flex membership can be separated. Letting families know that they can swim parttime is good, but the reduced membership isn’t the key, changing perception is the key.
- Flex has allowed USA Swimming and our clubs who use Flex for first time members to attract 18,000 new members. (Although we do not know if these members would’ve joined at the premium level without a flex option)
- In many cases, athletes registered for Flex, are participating in practice at the same levels as premium members.
- We need to offer the learn-to-swim, Camp, and Clinic membership/insurance offering that Flex currently provides.
- Flex memberships have reduced our seasonal membership numbers.
In his memo, Unger suggests 2 potential options to change the program. One is making the membership available for only first-time members aged 12 & under, charging $35, and limiting athletes to 1 meet only. All other benefits would be the same as a premium membership. Unger believes that this will reduce the membership revenue risk to a loss of only $1.2 million while preservivng the intent of the program.
His other suggestion was to pause the program for a year to “asses the future of…membership offerings.”
The minutes do not report that the Board agreed to any specific changes to the program, but that they did want continual updates on the data. The Board committed to move forward with the Flex Membership and to “continue strategic discussions regarding future changes.”