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The view from here:
1984 revisited - The Gillespie Report

by Bob Alman
Posted June 19, 2001

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In 1984, when world opinion on Apartheid virtually excluded South Africa from international sports competition, the president of the South Africa Croquet Association toured the United States at the invitation of Jack Osborn, founder and president of the U.S. Croquet Association. His objective: to study the unique culture of USCA croquet - "the fastest-growing sport in America," by talking to people and visiting clubs all over the country. I happened to be one of them, representing the relatively rare "public club player" of those early days. Gillespie, graying handsomely into middle age, asked a lot of questions and listened well. He produced an excellently detailed report, 35 single-spaced pages long. It predicted an abundant near-term future for American croquet. Like most prophets, he was way wrong. But maybe it was just a matter of bad timing. The prosperous future he predicted for the sport could be right around the corner. Here’s why.
In 1984, everyone was willing to believe that croquet was what its founder Jack Osborn declared it to be: "the fastest growing sport in America." It wasn’t just hype - though Osborn had plenty of that, too. The Association had actually enlisted more than two hundred clubs and around 2,000 due-paying members, starting from zero in 1977. "Exponential growth." And this was at a time when Association memberships in England, New Zealand, and Australia were actually shrinking.

In the words of the Gillespie report, "The U.S.C.A. has worked well. It has succeeded where others failed. It has filled a need for hundreds and now thousands of Americans".The full story of how the Association came to achieve its present stature is known to only one man, the inimitable and indomitable, charismatic founder of it all, Jack R. Osborn."

Crystal-ball growth projections for croquet in American have gone up and down radically over the last 20 years in response to changing circumstances. Now, they have bounced back - for three good reasons.
But the rapid growth of the Association, its success, and its spread from coast to coast - however sparsely - had given rise to many new problems. Osborn’s closely-knit patriarchy centered on his New York headquarters was becoming a far-flung national family, with disparate interests. Where was the focus of growth to be? What was the aim of the Association? Should the "upscale" image be maintained or abandoned in favor of a broader appeal? Most importantly: where would the money come from to fund continued growth in the costs of staffing, administration, and marketing? Central control wasn’t working; decentralization was seen as essential; local club players would have to be responsible for local growth. But already, one regional vice president had resigned under the burden of work that the decentralization scheme seemed to call for.

The Gillespie report asked and answered these questions with more-or-less predictable solutions, always with the assumption that the sport would continue somehow to grow. Among the explicit reasons Gillespie gave for the remarkable growth of the Association in its first seven years were these:

  • "A dynamic leader with a clear vision for the game who has provided dedicated, centalised direction.
  • "An energetic and well implemented national promotional campaign which has fostered an ‘up-scale’ image.
  • "The standardization of rules combined with insistence on a speedy, inter-active game rather than the more complicated and lengthy version played in other countries."

In retrospect, the accuracy of these comments can be accepted at face value. But it’s equally true that none of them applies today. Why?

  1. Because the very growth of croquet meant that the "centralized direction" could not be sustained; and the fruits of "decentralization" are yet to be realized.
  2. The "up-scale" image worked initially to attract a demographic perfect for seeding croquet’s growth - the people who could provide the money and influence to get courts built at resorts, country clubs, and on their own estates - but as with all fashions, croquet’s season in the limelight as the "hot new thing" was not long; the people attracted to croquet merely because it was fashionable moved on to indulge themselves in the newer "in" things. Today, there are no "up-scale" sponsors. If Miller Lite offered a $50,000 annual sponsorship, who knows whether they would they be turned down today?
  3. Osborn’s aggressive positioning of the unique American Rules game inevitably created a backlash from ambitious American players who recognized that to reach the top of the sport, they had to play "the Association game" that began to be called in this country at that time "International Rules Croquet." The furor surrounding this debate ultimately resulted in the retirement of Jack Osborn as president of the United States Croquet Association.

All this meant that the three main reasons for croquet’s explosive growth in the late 70’s and early eighties as "America’s fastest growing sport" were cancelled out by the late eighties: The strong, centralized, charismatic leadership of Jack Osborn, who had put his life wholly and utterly into his crusade to establish croquet as a sport in America, was replaced by a succession of elected chief executives. They were all able men, in their way, but they were part-timers, they were not the founder, they lacked his passion, his energy, and his marketing genius.

Even before Osborn retired, the "up-scale" fashionable image stopped working and to some extent became a detriment when middle-class candidates dared not apply because they weren’t wealthy and local organizers could not effectively approach public entities for tax money to support "a game for the wealthy." As Gillespie himself pointed out, because of croquet’s "affluent" image, people assumed there was plenty of money to be had for marketing and development. Osborn knew better than anyway that this wasn’t true. The Croquet Foundation of America that he established did its part, but it did not produce funding miracles.

Predicted growth: 100,000 USCA members

But in 1984, the problems with organization, management, and funding seemed superficial and temporary, and the growth curve still pointed dramatically upward. Gillespie put it this way: "Assuming that the Association successfully overcomes its present temporary difficulties it is anticipated that the total number of clubs could rise to 1,000 with a membership of 10,000 associates within a few years; and that if this short-term goal is reached, potential growth can be envisaged to a membership of 100,000."

In 1984, no one had reason to question this projection. I certainly didn’t. I was learning to play the game in San Francisco and had become a catalyst for a local reorganization that resulted in two new lawns being built, a constant flow of revenue from organized corporate events, and a club membership that approached 100. I was turned on. All my buddies were, too. We worked hard on organizing, advertising, giving introductory clinics, learning to produce tournaments. Without any formal coaching, many of us achieved high rank. Soon our club was producing national champions. We were proud of our local success, we knew we had helped to put "public club croquet" on the map in the U.S., and we had no reason to think that our story wouldn’t soon be duplicated everywhere.

But the growth curve began to droop. In 1992, only eight years after the Gillespie Report, I was perhaps the most active member of Jim Miles’ USCA Planning Committee, and we were complaining that the growth of the USCA had shrunk to a paltry eight percent per annum (a increment most would be delighted with today). What had gone wrong? What could we do? My personal answer was that we could give local clubs and players the tools to manage their own growth. So with the support of the Croquet Foundation of America, I compiled and edited the three-volume "Monograph Series on Club Building, Organization and Management."

Two years later, a small group of techno-smart San Francisco Croquet Club volunteers somehow convinced me that we should produce a Website - after they explained to me what a Website is. This project soon turned into the official USCA Website, followed within a year by Surely, I had done my part to provide the informational and marketing tools necessary. And others around the country and in our club performed useful services for the sport as well - Wayne Rodoni, Ed Breuer, John Taylor, and John Taves, to name a few.

The sobering reality: 3,000 USCA members

In the grand scheme of things, however, none of it seemed to make much difference. By the year 2000, the growth curve of the USCA had plateaued at 3,000 members. Croquet’s elders were dying off - even our founder was gone - and we were just barely replacing them. A new reality had set in: This was the "natural" size of the sport, people said. It really WAS an elite sport, after all. Few people would ever take to such a mind-bending, tactically difficult sport. Perhaps it was just as well.

But then Chuck Steuber, new president of the Croquet Foundation of America, declared out of the blue that he intended to multiply USCA membership ten times within ten years to a level of 3,000 clubs and 30,000 members. Most players said this was unrealistic - although only 17 years ago, we all accepted without question Gillespie’s predication that there would be 100,000 USCA members by now! How quickly the conventional wisdom changes - and changes again in response to unexpected circumstances.

What can be learned from the study of the Gillespie Report and for the USCA Planning Committee Report that followed it in the early 90’s? Many of the observations in these reports are excellent. They are accurate reflections of the opinions of good and thoughtful people all over the country. A few people were moved to action by the recommendations of these reports - action which has had no dramatic consequence.

Here is the blunt truth: After all the time and effort and study that has gone into these reports and well-intentioned efforts of organizers to find out the secrets of promoting the sadly under-appreciated sport of croquet, we must acknowledge a significant irony. These reports covered EVERYTHING - and yet, in retrospect, we can clearly see that the three important developments in the sport most likely to influence its growth were not predicted, known, or even imagined in 1984’s Gillespie Report or even in the USCA Planning Report ten years later. These three unexpected events change all the equations radically:

Everyone discovers the World Wide Web

In the early 80’s, Jack Osborn engineered abundant press coverage for croquet, by attracting celebrities to the sport and promoting a glamorous image. The celebrities are gone now, and the story is stale. But we no longer need depend wholly on mainstream media to get our message out. Now, even a fringe sport can make a strong promotional statement on the World Wide Web. And we have a new and fresh story to tell, about a glamorous new showcase facility in West Palm Beach; and about the novice-friendly game urged by the Gillespie report - golf croquet.

Thanks to the Egyptians, golf croquet comes of age

Gillespie wrote in his report, "Experience elsewhere has shown that golf croquet can be a useful introduction to real croquet and often draws support from many who at first find real croquet difficult to grasp. Although included in the U.S.C.A. croquet is little in evidence in USCA clubs. It is recommended that the attention of club presidents be drawn to the advantages of including golf croquet in their programmes."

Gillespie appears to betray his main point when he contrasts golf croquet with "real croquet." Perhaps he is unconsciously mirroring the problem he observed at local clubs, where players of "real croquet" - even very poor players - ridiculed golf croquet as unworthy and stigmatized those who played it. I have seen this happen often. Many USCA members who enjoyed golf croquet have been driven away by these infantile attitudes, firmly entrenched in the local club culture.

The 1995 report of the USCA Planning Committee devoted very little attention to golf croquet but noted in its review of the Gillespie report that the USCA "has not developed for the clubs a planned program that creates, at the club level, interest in golf croquet, a modified version of the ‘real’ game and finally, the complete American game." (The Committee appears to be recommending a specific curricular approach to novice training at the local level.)

The attitude problem of the local player with regard to Golf Croquet could never have been corrected frontally by any amount of well-meaning advice and guidance from the national association. It took a happenstance of history to correct the situation: Egypt threw out the British in mid-century, took over their compounds, turned them into family clubs for Egypt’s upper class, and created the ultimate form of competitive golf croquet on the manicured lawns the Brits left behind. So far, nobody has beaten the Egyptians at their game. They have thus made golf croquet respectable for Association players throughout the world, who might now be persuaded to include golf croquet in their programs as an encouragement to new players.

This means that the entry-level game urged by Gillespie can now be accepted by local croquet players and embraced as a workable strategy for building the sport.

The sport’s biggest benefactor creates a new strategy

When Chuck Steuber put more than a million dollars on the table, rolled the dice, and pronounced a vision for the future created out of the world’s largest dedicated croquet facility, he challenged all the assumptions and recommendations of these hoary reports at the same time that he made possible the actual achievement of their rosy growth projections. Nowhere is a National Croquet Center mentioned as the remotest possibility in any of the marketing or planning reports. Nowhere is there suggested the possibility of a national marketing strategy created and focused through a single large showcase facility - America’s 21st Century version of the Wimbledon All-England Croquet Club.

These three factors combine to create an idea whose time has come at last - a genuine resurgence of the sport. Internet and the croquet websites that now produce the majority of public inquiries to the USCA enable a marketing breakthrough supported by the publicity surrounding the National Croquet Center. The broader promotion of golf croquet as the novice-friendly game of choice further fuels croquet’s resurgent popularity. Gillespie predicted a decade before the World Croquet Federation was created that America’s success with croquet could spread worldwide. There’s no reason to suppose the same isn’t true today.

But mundane reality has shifted in many ways over the last two decades. Most of the observations in the The Gillespie Report and in the USCA’s Strategic Planning Report were sound. Many of their proposals were excellent. But the growth projections were premature. Now their time has come.

A NOTE ON IAN GILLESPIE: Ian Gillespie has seen many changes in South Africa and in the South Africa croquet scene during his long term as president of the South Africa Croquet Association. The current president of SACA, Brian Bamford, writes that Ian gave up the office in 1994. Gillespie is a consultant to the Rondebosch Croquet Club in Cape Town, where he practices as a clinical psychologist.

[COMING SOON: The editorial above tells why the time is right for an effective national marketing strategy for croquet to fuel a second stage of growth for the sport. The next editorial will explain why Palm Beach County is the right place for the National Croquet Center. ]

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