Building a Successful Croquet Club
By Kevin Carter
This brief guide is intended not just for anybody thinking of starting a club, but for those clubs that are already going, but are perhaps struggling with questions such as 'how do we expand?', 'how do we get things on an even keel?' or 'where do we go from here?'.
It is very much an overview and in the case of many of the topics covered further advice can be obtained elsewhere, notably the Croquet Association.
1. Catchment Area
The 2002 CA survey of croquet players showed conclusively that the principal reason why people take up the sport is because there is a local club. By local we think ideally of walking or cycling distance or at the worst a short drive - say three to or five miles. People will travel further, but they will be in the minority and you should not count upon it.
In practice this means that if your club is in a remote village you catchment area is that village alone. If it is in a town or a suburb of a city your catchment area will include a much larger population.
The type of people who live in your catchment area will also greatly influence the nature of your club. For instance, in a typical inland city or town you will generally get a lot of working people; in a resort you may find more retired people are attracted to the club. So, the nature of the catchment area will also influence your recruitment strategy.
2. Club Land and Position
You will need to consider accessibility, including car parking.
It helps to have the club within an attractive landscape. Nobody wants to play against an industrial backdrop.
Sharing a sports ground has many attractions - shared facilities, available of maintenance staff and possibly equipment. It also has recruitment advantages - for instance attracting players from the nearby tennis club. However, it can also carry disadvantages, such as competing for space.
Tenure is an important issue. However, the land for a croquet club is acquired the club must have an inalienable right to continue to use it for a minimum of 20 years. There is little point in spending huge time effort and money in building a club only to have the land snatched away at the end of a short lease period.
3. Lawns and Facilities
If you start with a reasonably flat piece of grassland it is possible to get this up a basic playing standard with little more than weed-killing, over-seeding, top-dressing, fertilising and regular cutting. For instance, turning a rough football pitch into a couple of croquet lawns will generally take three to six months (depending on season) and about £1000-1500.
In general it is better to get the club established, with a revenue stream, before trying to lay new, high quality lawns.
Of course, the playing surface is only a part of the story. You also need to consider croquet equipment, a shelter and storage facilities. Along with these comes the need for security. If you have to buy a lawnmower that is a further considerable outlay, even if it is second-hand.
There are some shortcuts, such as using a string boundary instead of having a white-lining machine.
You will need to consider the availability of toilets. Refreshments can be brought in on an ad hoc basis to begin with and members of a new club will generally put up with a lack of changing facilities.
However, all of these niceties of an established club will be looked for later, so it is important to have in mind expansion potential - both of lawns and associated facilities.
4. The Business Plan
A business plan is needed for a start-up business, but surely it would be over the top for a small sports or social club? Not at all. A small sports or social club is a business. It has revenue and expenditure; its officers are responsible to owners/members. It has just as powerful a need for a map of its future development. Also lenders and bodies providing grants will want to see the business plan.
The business plan should describe what the club is trying to achieve and why, as well as how and when. The financial plan, which is a part of the business plan, will naturally follow. It will be based on parameters such as:
- membership growth
- subscription rates
- other sources of income
- loans and grants
- operating expenditure (e.g. rent and maintenance)
- capital expenditure (e.g. relaying lawns, building a pavilion)
In practice the business plan will act as a checklist and blueprint. It is a living document and should not just be written, then forgotten. It is likely to need updating at least annually.
It is desirable, if not essential, to have somebody involved who has experience of drawing up and presenting business plans. The business plan is also the ultimate sales document. Any local authority or other provider of grants and any lender will be impressed by a sound, viable business plan and many will demand it.
Considerable capital is required to establish a new club:
- land is expensive ('They aren't making it any more');
- purchase of equipment and facilities;
- initial preparation of lawns.
Initially, too, operating expenditure is likely to exceed income. Notably, lawn maintenance costs several hundred pounds per year per lawn (depending on their quality and how much club labour is available).
Some costs can be mitigated or defrayed. For instance, if land is leased from a local council then it might be possible to obtain a lease payment holiday for the first year or two. Croquet equipment will be loaned by the CA for the early stages of a new club.
Nonetheless, a new club is likely to need funding running into several thousand pounds in its early development (then more when it is established and thinking about improving facilities).
Typical sources of grants and loans are:
- founder members' loans and life membership;
- the CA, whose available funds are relatively small, but are readily available;
- local authorities and town councils, but this source suffers from 'postcode lottery': some local authorities are very supportive and have generous funds (though often with stringent conditions), some have no funds;
- Sport England, providing larger amounts for clubs with a lot of stamina!
It is often necessary to be creative in a search for funding. Two examples are:
- Surbiton CC obtained a loan form £5000 from a local brewer on condition no other beer was sold in the club until it was paid back.
- Aldermaston CC (a club in Berkshire) obtained a grant from the Hampshire Playing Fields association, on the basis that it was near the boundary and served Hampshire residents too.
To establish a successful club a mix of people skills are required. While we have touched already on the business planning skill required, this is not necessarily the same as negotiation skill or organisational ability. And social skills are different again. Most successful clubs will have among their founders or on their committees a blend of these abilities.
Then there are practical skills. Most clubs have a George who sets out lawns, a Bill who mends the hole in the roof and a Joan who can make wonderful scones.
One of the most important aspects of recruitment is to provide good coaching. Somebody who can (and is willing) to provide regular coaching is an invaluable asset. They have to be reasonable teachers, but not necessarily good croquet players. It helps if they have been on a CA coaching course.
While some clubs do well without any particularly good or experienced players, it helps to have at least one or two players below a handicap of, say, eight who can provide a quality focus - a level to which beginners can aspire.
So, a small group of people have found suitable premises, prepared one or more lawns, formed a committee, agreed a constitution and club rules; you have an agreed business plan and perhaps you have raised some grants or loans. You are now ready to launch your club.
All you need now is members. How do you set about recruiting?
Studies have shown that most people who join croquet clubs are active retired people. While it is nice to have working people and youngsters and there is no suggestion that you should turn them away, marketeers would tell you to initially go for the 'low hanging fruit' - the easiest targets.
By all means have multiple targets, but be clear what, why and how you are targeting.
Your recruitment targets need to pervade all of the recruitment plan. For instance, for the active retired:
- the clubs your invite to your open days: the WI, U3A;
- the pictures you provide to the local newspaper: showing OAPs enjoying themselves;
- coaching on a Wednesday afternoon, rather than a Friday evening;
The single greatest reason why people take up croquet is because there is a local club. Use this fact by concentrating your recruitment publicity within a tight local focus. The local newspaper is obvious; library notice boards are less obvious, but have been found to be very good. Most local authorities now have websites, with information on local sports and leisure activities.
At the time of launch you will have a one-off opportunity to create very good publicity. However, do not be in a hurry to launch. You can quietly begin low-key recruitment while facilities are being prepared. The right time to launch is when everything is ready. It is said that launching a new product (or company or club) is like losing your virginity; you can only do it once!
So, get along the mayor, the local MP, the croquet world champion; cut ribbons take photos and get lots of press coverage - but focus this activity. Make sure the publicity has an objective - for instance, to inform people that there is an open day the following Sunday; everybody is welcome; come and try out your croquet skills; prizes for the best.
A mention should also be made of another recruitment target: established players living in the locality who belong to other clubs. Some would frown upon the idea of 'stealing' members from neighbouring clubs. However, in practice, many players would welcome the opportunity to belong to the big club away in the city AND the small local club. Experienced players often have the energy to contribute towards the running of the local club, coaching and other activities, but could not do so in the established but geographically distant club.
Also, to assuage any remaining pangs of conscience remember that after a year or two, as your most promising beginners grow out of your little local club they will gravitate towards the big club in the city where they can find more competition. Yours will become a 'feeder club'.
Many croquet players bemoan the lack of national press coverage. However, neither a photo of David Maugham's 'beastly' haircut in the Daily Express nor another reference to flamingos and hedgehogs in the Mail do much to increase grass root membership of clubs up and down the country.
No, the most successful publicity for clubs is local publicity. As mentioned above, local libraries and local authority websites are good, but it is the local newspaper which remains the best publicity organ. Such organs are generally hungry for copy and very supportive of community initiatives and minority sports. It is helpful to try to build a relationship with the sports editor or a particular journalist.
News releases should be written in a format where they could simply be lifted and printed word for word (and sometimes they are!). There is helpful guidance available from the CA on how to prepare a good news release. Of special note is the importance of sending photographs.
It is often a good idea to have a publicity focus in the Spring, to culminate in a May (when the weather becomes kinder) Open day or Come-and-try-your-croquet-skills session. The club launch, the opening of a new pavilion, a visit by an eminent player or a tournament could all be excuses to focus on a recruitment event following shortly afterwards.
Outside of the recruitment blitz period you should maintain a continual drip feed of croquet news: 'Maisie wins a handicap weekend at Cheltenham', 'Tom is selected to play for Sussex', 'Local player does battle on the croquet lawn with her Australian cousin' are all examples of newsworthy stories - in a local sense
Marketeers talk of a process, whereby they generate leads; a certain proportion of these become prospects and some of these become orders. Exactly the same process applies to recruiting new members to a croquet club.
To generate 'leads' or enquiries or visitors to an open day you will have a variety of publicity mechanisms. These will deliver to you an initial interest - a feeling that 'this game is interesting, it could be for me'. You then need to concentrate on converting that interest into a croquet player, who will pay a subscription and play an active part in your new club.
This means coaching. At a minimum there should be a series of four of five formal coaching sessions, interspersed with other opportunities to practice and to play with other beginners. Some clubs make a small charge for initial coaching; some provide it free. It is important to have a range of club mallets available for beginners to borrow. If all they have to do is to turn up in flat-soled shoes (try not to insist on whites) then you make the decision to embark on coaching easier.
A proportion of the 'prospects' which have survived the coaching course will then join the club. A ratio of about five enquirers to one new member should be considered a success. But beware, the off-season attrition rate will be significant. Many first year joiners will say: 'that was an interesting thing to do last summer; let's try something else now'.
10. The Social Programme
One way of retaining members year on year is to organise a twelve month social programme. Your attitude to this will also reflect what type of club you are trying to build. There are clubs where players come to play croquet in an afternoon or evening, then go away; in others a visit to the bar or local pub afterwards is the norm. In September some clubs hibernate and in April they come back into life; other clubs organise:
- winter croquet: club days, one-ball competitions, etc.
- barbecues and dinners;
- a Xmas party;
- wine tastings;
- a coach to the World Championship;
- working parties;
Successful clubs have a 'club atmosphere'. People belong to them not just to play croquet but to socialise and make new friends.
The majority of croquet clubs are 'not for profit' organisations. Therefore the concept of maximising profit is an alien one. The members own the club and they want to see surplus funds ploughed back into improved facilities or the subscriptions kept low. However, in the early days of a club it should behave in a revenue maximisation manner, since there is always pressure to buy the next new piece of equipment, or extend the club house, or re-lay lawn two, etc.
It is not enough to work out what expenditure will be in the forthcoming year and set subscriptions to cover it. There is always a case for more expenditure to be desirable, if possible, and equally there is a danger that if subscriptions are set too high then members will leave (or recruitment will be less than planned) and income will fall short.
We therefore argue strongly for subscriptions to be set at a 'market rate'. There are no hard and fast rules about how high this should be, since it is virtually impossible to have meaningful comparisons either between croquet clubs in different locations and with differing facilities or between two clubs in the same locality, one offering croquet the other, say, bowls.
A rule of thumb might be that subscriptions are set at an appropriate rate when members and prospective members grumble that they are on the high side without actually declining to pay them!
Certain concessions can be introduced:
- Family membership - typically a married couple (or partners at the same address) for 150% of a single subscription.
- Junior membership - for those under 21 and in full time education.
- Country membership - for those living more than a certain distance away.
- Far Country Membership - a useful device to extract £10 or so from people who never visit the club but wish to support it; and it also serves to boost membership numbers in the business plan.
An OAP concession should generally be avoided. Otherwise most members might be eligible! It might be better for the committee to have the power to allow a special lower rate for those in need.
Finally, a plea for clubs to avoid the barbaric practice of charging a 'joining fee'. This is a barrier and limits recruitment potential. It raise little revenue and gives out the wrong signal: 'we are not sure how much we want you to join our exclusive little clique'.