Helen Rowbotham, British Rowing’s Director of Innovation, spoke with World Rowing about the exciting opportunities ahead for indoor rowing in that country. With gym and fitness culture on the rise around the world, the implications for our sport are truly global in scale.

Thinking outside the boat

First of all, an important consideration is that while all on-water rowers will inevitably use the indoor rowing machine at some point or other in their training, the reverse is not necessarily true for indoor rowing users.

“I think in the past there has been a focus to get indoor rowers on the water,” says Rowbotham, “but we need them to enjoy the experience and think of themselves as part of the broader community.”

It may sound like a foreign concept to on-water rowers, whose ergo experience can seem secondary to their love of the on-water sport; yet for many, indoor rowing has its own intrinsic rewards, unburdened by any such barriers as water access.

Are you a rower?

The perception change must go both ways, says Rowbotham. “Often people haven’t connected [their gym ergo use] to the sport of rowing. The research shows that 1.3 million people in the gym market identify as indoor rowers.” That’s roughly 2 per cent of Britain’s 65 million people, a statistic British Rowing wants to change.

According to Rowbotham, “the market potential is identified as 15.8 million,” nearly 25 per cent of the total population. That figure may seem high, but one reason in particular suggests it might be achievable. It all comes back to changing perceptions to close the gap between ergo users and those who identify as rowers. “Of the 15.8 million,” says Rowbotham, “it is estimated that over 13 million have already used an indoor rowing machine.”

Evidence of growth

The growing number of self-identified indoor rowers is evident at events like the British Rowing Indoor Championships, where Rowbotham points out that “the split between on-water rowers and indoor rowers is now close to 50:50. It shows that there is an appetite and interest in both markets; it is a fantastic example of how we can bring together participants in both.”

“If we can connect these different audiences through the role we can play, then that will help bring those two strands of the sport together,” she says, “and there are lots of commercial opportunities if we can grow the interest in the sport.”

Solid steps onto dry land

As for next steps, British Rowing is building partnerships within the fitness industry and national organisations to raise awareness and develop standards and training courses for indoor rowing instructors. This focused training goes far beyond lessons in erging form. “We are also working with many of the colleges containing fitness professional training programmes and embedding indoor rowing within fitness professional training.”

British Rowing is rethinking traditional ways of teaching rowing. “With limited resources, we are trying to look at indoor rowing in an holistic way,” says Rowbotham. “It is almost translating what we are already doing with British Rowing into the fitness market. We are asking simple questions like, ‘how do we take out rowing language and put it into regular health and fitness language?’, and by using the resources and expertise that exist figuring out how to make it work for a new audience.”

Niche sport to mass market

“This is a fantastic opportunity and one that will benefit the wider sport in the long run,” says Rowbotham. “We are at the point of transition from niche sport to mass market. British Rowing has a role to play to bring all of the pockets together into a single movement. Indoor rowing is not a separate sport; it is another discipline of rowing.”

As indoor rowing grows around the globe, initiatives like this are taking rowing in new and bold directions.

The British Indoor Rowing Championships take place on 9 December 2017. More information here