Rowing: an elitist sport? Or just a specialist sport?

(Apologies in advance, this is a long one, but it demands the time!)

Rowing isn’t a main stream sport (even though it’s popularity has boomed since the London 2012 Olympics) and all too frequently you hear it referred to as ‘elitist’. I always defend it, but recently thought it may be worth actually considering whether it is. Now, upfront, I am going to remove the rowing schools from the equation – the schools themselves are elitist (or rather, expensive) so it’s not really fair to judge the entire sport with them in the equation! I will also rule out University Boat Clubs for the same reasons, since there are academic requirements that must be met before you can even get close to those.

Elitist is defined, according to Collins, as

organized for the good of a few people who have special interests or abilities

Trying to apply this to rowing then I can see there are several ways rowing could be elitist:

  • cost – is the sport too expensive for people?
  • entry criteria – do clubs expect you to have certain ‘abilities’ before you join?
  • availability – are there clubs readily accessible to people who want to learn?


My club, the lovely Broxbourne Rowing Club, is £326 / year. London Rowing Club is £480 (full membership) – £558 (full membership for Senior Squad), Hexham Rowing Club is £196 or £260 is the annual fee for York City Rowing Club. So, very immediately a variation throughout the country is apparent, although that is probably a positive thing since salaries do vary this way too. Also not a surprise that the Tideway club is the most pricey and has two rates. The average price (exclusing the LRC senior rate) is £315 / annum.

Now, rowing club fees typically include:

  • access to the facilities (changing rooms, usually a bar, a social area, Saturday catering offers – for a nominal surcharge!).
  • equipment (boats, blades, trestles, boat shed, lights, cox boxes, to name but a few things – the only thing a rower typically buys, unless they own their own single scull, is their training kit. A brand new racing eight can cost in excess of £20k though, so most money will go towards boats).
  • a level of coaching (volunteers from within the club usually).
  • gym facilities (vary from club to club but they will almost all have ergos (rowing machines) and weights).
So, what do alternatives cost?
  • Gym: my old subscription was £40 / month with a corporate discount = £480 / annum. A colleague looked to join a local gym in Wimbledon recently: £60 / month on an annual contract = £720 / annum. The fairly new Fitness For Less costs £165 / annum up front. Then there is the PayAsUGym concept which, for LivingWell in Leeds, costs £5.95 / session; if you were to go 3 times / week for 52 weeks of the year, that would be £928.20! That comes out as an average of £573.30.
  • Hockey club: West Herts Hockey club costs £295 / year.
So, joining a rowing club is not prohibitively expensive given how many people join a gym. One could also argue that the culture of a rowing club (or any other sports club for that matter) is more likely to encourage attendance, since there is a very obvious community feel.
But, most people join a rowing club to race (or they take-up racing eventually). As such, it would be unfair to compare just on membership fees because competing requires racing kit (there is also a need for specialist training kit but we’ll assume the cost is about the same as gym kit). Let’s do a one-off tally of the core kit (assuming you buy it up front, although most tend to accumulate over a couple of years):
  • Splash Top: ~£70
  • Technical tops (1 short sleeve & 1 long sleeve): ~£50
  • Leggings: £40
  • Gilet: £40
  • All-In-One: ~£60
Total kit cost: £260+ with approx £40 year on year. Assume the ‘core’ kit lasts for 5 years, this is approx £92.
There is the then the annual fee to join British Rowing to get a racing licence (and extra benefits)£50.

That brings the finally annual tally for rowing to….drum roll…£457. Still less than gym membership.

Now, I have not included race fees in this. That is because I believe racing should be deemed a ‘leisure’ activity; like going to the cinema or for afternoon tea, it is an optional thing which is done for fun. Some may think it an odd sort of fun, but it is fun none-the-less. But, I shall mention race costs briefly. A rower will pay per seat for racing; This can be anywhere from £10 – £25 depending on the event (local regattas where you start off are about £10 – £12 with the cost going up for big events like Fours Head, which are for higher ranking rowers. Much of the additional cost is often to pay for river closure; for example, large events run on the Tideway (the tidal stretch of the River Thames) require the river to be closed to other traffic for safely so organisers need to pay the Port of London Authority (PLA) to close the racing stretch for the duration of the race.

It’s also worth bearing in mind here that even for ‘free’ sports such as running, competitions are not free. Entering the mainstream marathons (London, Brighton etc) costs in excess of about £50.

Conclusion: Whilst not free like running round that park, it is not prohibitively expensive for an average person to join a rowing club. So, not elitist here!


As with any sport, there are a few clubs where you meet certain criteria in order to join. Examples include:

– school boat clubs (already ruled out of this discussion anyway);

– University boat clubs (there are a lot of these, but they are also ruled out);

– elite clubs, such as Leander (as can be seen on their membership page, they are one of a few clubs which play host to existing or former International calibre rowers).

Aside from these, most other clubs will cater for all levels of rower from Novice to experienced Senior. Typically you will find the following squads:

Junior: for kids aged approx. 10 – 18 years, covering all abilities. If the squad is big, they will usually have sub-squads. Typically they break down by age range;

Recreational: for people who want to row but more to enjoy the outdoors and the exercise, but have no desire to compete. Cover all age ranges and tends to operate a much more informal schedule – slightly more ‘turn-up when you are free’;

Novice: People who are new to the sport but who want to race. The people in this squad will have no competitive wins so will have no ‘points’. This is usually where you start off. Typically split in to Men and Women;

Intermediate: People who have racing experience and whom may have one at least one race (so have a ‘point’). Again, split Men / Women. This squad will have a base level of fitness requirement but won’t see you hung, drawn and quartered if you miss an erg now and again!;

Senior: The top end of the squad who train the most heavily (from 5 – 12 times a week depending on the club). The senior squads (again split Men / Women) are likely to have entry criteria. Usually people in this squad will have a fair few ‘points’ from previous wins, but that is not always the case if you get a very capable novice;

Masters: Once over the age of 27, one can row as a Master. These events are again categorised by age so this squad has an older age average. Caters for Men and Women (it is more common to have mixed Masters events than Senior events) and all age ranges. Typically the squad will be a mix of former Seniors and older ‘Intermediate’ or ‘Novice’ rowers. Sometimes some of the Senior or Intermediate rowers over 27 will also moonlight in Masters crews.

Over the last few years, British Rowing have also really pushed the Explore Rowing programme to make rowing accessible to everyone. Many clubs, including Broxbourne, are also pushing forward on new initiatives, such as our Learn 2 Race programme – designed to get people from having never been in a boat to actively competing within one year.

Conclusion: I believe the above covers all age ranges, experiences and availability requirements. Not every club will offer every squad, but they will usually find a place for anyone or support people starting up a new squad. Again, I do not think that, in general, the rowing model is elitist.


Rowing requires a decent body of water on which to row, so this can limit availability in some areas. However, there are almost 700 clubs which are registered with British Rowing! Now, not all of these are available to anyone, but over 300+ are. British Rowing has a nifty little Club Finder on it’s website so it’s really easy to find out if there are clubs near you. Also, don’t assume that the absence of a river means no rowing club; Leeds Rowing Club row on a lake and Trafford Rowing Club on a canal.

Conclusion: Absence of a body of water aside, there are rowing clubs all over the place. A short drive may be necessary (mine is 15 – 20 mins each way) but clubs are accessible to most – not elitist in the slightest.


Rowing is not an elitist sport. Sure, it’s not free, nor is it always absolutely on your doorstep. But, not everything you do can be found right outside your front door and for no cost. There are also some exception clubs which are limited to the upper-echelons of the rowing community or to academic establishments, but they are by no means the majority. All in all, in the UK at least, rowing is a very open and accessibly pursuit. Give it a try and after a few sessions on the water and a few weekends in the club house, you will feel like your club is your second home!

Leave a reply:

Your email address will not be published.

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sliding Sidebar

About Me

About Me

Hello, I'm Angela. I'm Mum to two small people (6 & 3). I'm a Gardener, am houseplant obsessed and addicted to tea. By day I work in tech and also look after my littles. I'm trying to get our family to live a more sustainable life. I also have far too many opinions...hence the blog. You can read more about me here. You can also follow me on Twitter so you never miss a post. Hope you enjoy reading!

Browse the archives