There are many good reasons for introducing more people to our bridge clubs, of which perhaps the most difficult to accept is that doing nothing will mean that many will have to close.
The reason is demographic. The EBU does not have very precise figures on the age of its members; in fact, only around 20% of members have given the EBU their date of birth. Of course we want players of every age to enjoy their bridge, and age is no barrier. That said, based on the information we have, we think the average age of EBU members actively playing bridge is at least 72.
The next question is: how does that impact our bridge clubs? According to the EBU’s calculations, it means that for every 100 players, we are likely to lose 4 every year. If the average age continues to rise, that number will also increase. This may also be an under-estimate, since as we get older, health problems or simply diminished energy will mean that some of us play less bridge.
The dynamics of a bridge club are complex. Duplicate bridge is perhaps most enjoyable with between 6 and 10 tables. This is because we like each board to be played often enough to enable a meaningful comparison of scores, and to play 3 boards a round to avoid slow movements. When numbers go below that, it becomes difficult to find a satisfactory movement, especially when there are half tables. Players start to question whether it is worth turning up and then the problem gets worse. What this means is that for a club near this borderline, the loss of just a few players may have a magnified effect.
Sometimes clubs enjoy an influx of new members because a nearby club has closed. This is a good thing; but it is not a long-term strategy for healthy membership. Only by bringing new members to the game can we ensure the future of bridge.
We must also recognize that adding members quickly is hard – particularly if we expect them to play in a standard club session. Of course there may be people locally who are competent players and just need a nudge to come along and enjoy the game again, and we should certainly do our best to attract them. The bulk of new players though will come from those nearing retirement, or already retired, who want to find an enjoyable, social and mentally stimulating activity. Bridge is ideal, but these folk have a number of needs:
- Teaching, so they can learn how to play.
- After an initial course, supervised, gentle play sessions so they can improve.
- The opportunity to play more slowly and with less rigour than more experienced players.
Now some good news. When Yorkshire encouraged its clubs to run membership campaign, with support from the EBU, 20 of 34 did so, and 18 of those 20 had good results.
A membership campaign is not just a one-off event. A healthy bridge club will continually attract new members so that there is a steady flow into teaching sessions, and from there a journey stage by stage into full participation in club sessions.
For some clubs, getting to this point means a big change. It is quite different from the situation in, say, the 1980s, when plenty of people who learnt bridge at home, school or university were knocking on the doors of their local bridge club anxious to get a game.
The world has changed, but bridge remains an uniquely rewarding pastime. Our challenge today is to ensure that its popularity does not diminish.