Fergus Bisset and Jeremy Ellwood debate whether a one-off cash injection through offering Life Memberships is worth risking long-term loss of revenue.
Are Life Memberships A Good Idea?
Yes Says Jeremy Ellwood
We’re not talking about long-term members here, who pay their dues year after year and are clearly a very good idea. Rather, we're talking about life memberships, where a large up-front payment guarantees membership for life with no further annual fees due.
Are clubs wise to offer such options that bring in less overall income in the long run, but which may well provide a much-needed cash injection when most needed or desired?
There are clearly positives and negatives, but the answer has to be yes if the health, possibly even survival, of a club is at stake, and there are wealthy enough individuals prepared to take up the offer.
Yes, lifetime membership may mean less income from that particular member in the long-run, but what if the sum generated allowed the club to undertake major projects it could otherwise only dream of, which might, in turn, improve either the course or facilities sufficiently to entice more members in?
A potentially virtuous circle only made possible via the kind of cash injection life memberships, or similar, might allow.
Okay, this wasn’t via life memberships, but a local golf club manager told me recently that the unexpected membership uptake during lockdown had generated sufficient funds for them to undertake much-needed drainage work to improve the year-round playability of the course.
Greater year-round playability will hopefully, in turn, make membership more appealing and pave the way to greater green fee revenue throughout the year.
Yes, if someone lives to a ripe old age, doesn’t move away from the area and has a few bob to spare, they might be getting a cracking deal, but I would prefer to see it as an almost philanthropic gesture that will allow the club to better itself and help secure its long-term future.
Are Life Memberships A Good Idea?
No Says Fergus Bisset
Offering Life Memberships may provide clubs with a temporary financial shot-in-the-arm, but it will be detrimental in the long run, not only to the coffers but also to the dynamics of club life.
I can see the situation where offering life memberships may be tempting.
A club struggling to make ends meet, with various projects overdue or looming, would find a cash injection most welcome
But it’s a short-sighted way for a club to dig themselves out of a financial hole when they should be looking at alternative methods to improve their position.
Becoming more appealing to a broader range of members and economising effectively should be the long-term sustainable strategy, rather than relying a one-off windfall.
When it’s gone, it’s gone, and the club will be left with a number of its wealthiest members contributing nothing further in annual subs.
A well-off 35-year-old taking life membership might enjoy 50 years of golf for 1/10 of the price they would otherwise have paid.
And what about if the country’s economic position changes?
Yes, taking in say £15,000 today for a life membership might look like a nice boost, but perhaps in 10 years-time, a period of inflation will have meant that £15k now looks like a paltry amount to hand over for a lifetime’s golf.
That could lead to bad feeling at the club with those who are paying an ever-increasing annual fee snarling ever more angrily at those “life members” who (quite quickly) will have paid far less in total than the annual contributor.
Offering life memberships will leave clubs out of pocket in the long term and with fractures and resentment within the ranks.
Club committees may be tempted by the temporary relief, but they will hurt future generations of members. They are a bad idea.
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Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly.
Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?
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