Country clubs in peril?

country clubThe Wall Street Journal has been covering the ways in which our country’s struggling economy is affecting sports culture. The paper is reporting that many country clubs are on the brink of closing as members fail to renew their membership due to financial concerns.

For instance, you hear a lot of talk about the “walkaway” risk. This is a calculation of the leverage that clubs have or don’t have over members to keep them from leaving. At most clubs at least one newcomer has to join before a current member can cash in his bond, deposit or other type of equity stake and quit. If the annual dues are $7,500 and the equity stake is $20,000, most members will be inclined to stay put until a new member signs up. But if annual dues are high — say, $12,000 or $15,000 — and the projected clearing time on the resignation list is four years (not uncommon in this economy), some financially strapped members will choose to bail immediately.

Clubs don’t like that because dues and the additional spending of an active member are more important than $20,000 in the bank. That is particularly true for the many clubs these days that are servicing big debt loads piled up in better times for multimillion-dollar course renovations or clubhouse expansions, and for new clubs, some in stalled real-estate developments, that haven’t yet reached their full quota of members.

For clubs unable to adapt in their current form, the next step is often allowing paid play by outsiders at off-hours — that is, becoming semipublic — and after that full conversion to a public facility. At that point clubs often look for ways to sell off the property to housing developers or for other uses, giving equity members a windfall, but zoning laws make this impossible in all but about one in 10 cases, according to the National Golf Foundation study. Each conversion of a private club to a daily-fee course, usually a high-end one, gives would-be club members in that area one fewer reason to make the expensive, long-term commitment to join a club, and the cycle propagates itself.

There’s a country club where I live in southern California. However, there are also three public courses. The game has never particularly appealed to me; I can count the number of times I’ve played on one hand. Though the sport’s television ratings haven’t dwindled, its ability to entice kids to pick up the game has. The same has happened with tennis, as American youngsters typically opt to play football, basketball, baseball, and soccer. I had always been under the impression that country clubs would become obsolete because my generation would find better ways to invest their time and money. Turns out, the current economy is accelerating the process as would-be members can’t afford the fees. Instead, they’re playing the public courses like every Tom, Dick, and Harry.

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