When people come into the spa at Old Palm Golf Club's fitness center in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, it's most likely that they're coming in for a massage. And nine times out of 10, even when members and nonmembers schedule a traditional Swedish massage, they're looking for more.

Shayne Kohn, spa and fitness director at the facility, says that the “more” they are looking for is improving their golf games.

“Sports massage is probably our No. 2 or No. 3 most popular offering on our menu,” Kohn says. “Traditional is most popular, but we're a golfing community, and we hire massage therapists that have extra training in deep tissue massage and sports massage just for that.”

Although the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) reports that fewer clubs are offering massage (45.5 percent of IHRSA club members offer massage today, down from 50 percent in 2001), experts say that sports massage is becoming more popular in the clubs that do offer massage. Forty percent of all massage therapists in the United States offer sports massage, according to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), a nonprofit professional association for massage therapists. Sports massage is a specialized form of therapeutic massage that focuses specifically on muscles that are used most during a client's sport or regular activity.

Health clubs and massage go hand in hand, says Robert King, founder and past president of the Chicago School of Massage Therapy and past national president of the AMTA.

“Since health and fitness clubs promote exercise, weight training, and group sport and exercise activities, it stands to reason to have massage therapists on staff who specialize in repetitive strain and other types of injury as well as myofascial or deep tissue massage, which is anatomically precise to specific areas of breakdown in the athlete,” King says. “The always popular relaxation massage does not adequately address soft tissue adhesions or tendinitis injuries. Nor does it offer the specific stretches or techniques to maximize peak performance.”

As more health clubs offer sports-specific personal training and programming, the demand for sports massage in fitness facilities is even greater. Sports massage can offer another dimension of service to a health club, King says.

“[Sports massage] receives tremendous acceptance and approval from athletes in all major sports,” he says. “Many baseball, football and basketball teams now have their own sports massage therapist on staff. Why shouldn't a premier membership club?”

Here's the Rub

Part of the reason that massage — including sports massage — is becoming more popular is that many members no longer see massage as a luxury item. Many members treat sports massage as an essential part of their sports training or as the key to better workouts in the gym, experts say.

Many of the members of the Old Palm Golf Club get sports massages to increase their flexibility and have a quicker recovery from games, Kohn says.

“Getting a massage used to be for only the high end — an indulgence — but we're seeing more [members who see massage] now as something they need to incorporate in life for health and wellness,” she says.

Sports massage sessions have picked up in popularity at Zenergy Health Club and Day Spa, which is located in a resort community in Ketchum, ID. During the facility's peak usage times of summer and December, sports massage therapists provide 30 to 40 sessions a week. During slower times of the year, the spa provides about 10 sessions a week, says Elizabeth Furuiye, day spa manager for the facility.

“Our clientele includes former professional athletes, as well as former Olympians — all the way down to those who simply live here to experience the outdoor environment to the maximum,” she says. “In order to accommodate the needs of these people, we have found that sports massage is a fantastic fit for the high-end athlete, as well as the weekend warrior.”

Club One's 13 locations in Northern California have offered sports massage since the inception of its massage program in 1991. About 2 percent to 3 percent of the facility's members use the Club One spas, says Phil Okazaki, regional spa director for the club company.

The clubs' spas are open to both members and nonmembers and have seen a marked improvement in revenue in the past few years, Okazaki says. The facility offers traditional therapeutic massage for acute and chronic injury rehabilitation, pre-event sports massage 48 hours to 20 minutes before a client's athletic event or competition, post-event sports massage at least 20 minutes after an athletic event, and maintenance sports massage.

Club One locations, which include Frog's Fitness facilities in San Diego, charge $70 to $95 for 60-minute massages and $95 to $120 for 90-minute massages. The charge varies depending on the location and whether or not the client is a member.

Sports massage has “absolutely been profitable” at Zenergy Health Club and Day Spa, Furuiye says. Pricing is in line with other massages offered, she says.

According to the AMTA, an average 60-minute massage costs $60, although this can vary widely from city to city, experts say. Many facilities charge a bit more for sports massage, too. Old Palm Golf Club charges $80 for a 50-minute traditional massage and $120 for 80 minutes. For sports massages, the club charges $90 for 50 minutes and $130 for 80 minutes.

New Markets

Sports massage isn't bringing in just additional revenue. It's also bringing in more men than traditional massage, which typically draws a female crowd.

At Mill Valley Health Club & Spa in Mill Valley, CA, the demographics for sports massage is diverse, says Karsson Bartlett, certified massage therapist at the club.

“I see women and men, old and young, new athletes and those that have been athletes their whole lives,” she says. “The one commonality, however, is that each person realizes the positive effects that sports massage can have on their particular workout, as well as the overall success associated with taking care of your body as a whole.”

Although there are no statistics on sports massage specifically, AMTA research shows that Baby Boomers pay for more traditional massages than other age groups. Those surveyed between the ages of 45 to 64 years old had an average of seven massages during the last year, compared to an average of five massages for people 18 to 44.

That's the case at Zenergy's spa, where Boomers are the largest client group for massage, including sports massage. Other clients include triathletes in their 30s and former professional athletes in their 70s and 80s.

“Most often, though, I would say it is the 40- to 55-year-old range — those who have played hard for a long time and are now facing rehab from an injury or surgery, or are trying to avoid either of those two things,” Furuiye says.

Clubs must educate their members on the benefits of sports massage to sell the service, experts say. Facilities can do this through cross promotion. Club One locations encourage their fitness, group exercise and Pilates staffs to refer their clients to the spa for a massage. The company also displays marketing and educational messages throughout their clubs to promote the benefits of massage, Okazaki says.

“We use the many special events that Club One hosts to promote and educate our members and their guests,” he says. “The best form of marketing is word of mouth.”

Bartlett works closely with Mill Valley Health Club & Spa's personal training department staff members to show them the positive effects of sports massage first-hand. The trainers then promote sports massage to their clients, she says.

To attract more golfers, Kohn sets up a massage chair at most of the facility's golf tournaments and offers complimentary short massages to the golfers. The tournaments are one of the best ways for the Old Palm Golf Club to recruit new clients.

“Men who have never had a massage can get acquainted in a comfortable atmosphere and meet the therapists,” Kohn says. “Later on, they'll call for that same person because they felt comfortable with that staff member. Men don't even normally realize what we have at the spa.”

Old Palm Golf Club also packages its services, combining a 10-session personal training package or a golf conditioning class with a complimentary sports massage. The sports massage acts as a teaser, and most people who get one return for another, Kohn says.

Spa Specifics

Offering sports massage doesn't take many additional resources beyond what's needed for traditional massage. A massage table, linens (sometimes heated blankets are used, too), laundry services, oils and lotions are the staples. A quality massage table costs anywhere from $250 to more than $400, and lotions and oils are a nominal cost, Kohn says.

Philippe Therene, manager of the Spa Accounts division at SpaEquip Inc., says additional planning is necessary when adding sports massage. Although most sessions can be done in a traditional massage room, a facility may need to hire additional certified and qualified massage therapists to cover the additional sessions.

“The number of treatment rooms will depend on the demand, and a member survey can help determine the need for such services,” Therene says. “Also, an analysis of competitive clubs and how successful they are with their spa services [is needed].”

Therene recommends that clubs in markets where massages have become mainstream among the general population should consider offering sports massage, which may give a fitness center a competitive edge to attract new members, he says.

If a club doesn't have the space to offer sports massage or even a spa, Kohn, who also is president of Spachitects, a spa and fitness development company, suggests finding a nearby day spa and beginning a referral program. Both businesses can offer special rates for their respective services.

“Try this for a bit before you add it, and be sure to track your results,” Kohn says. “Ask yourself if it's something really worth adding.”

If the market is right, though, and programming is planned well, sports massage can add credibility and excitement to a facility, King says.

“It has been shown to enhance range of motion, reduce trigger points and areas of soreness, and return the athlete or club member back towards optimal function as quickly as possible,” he says. “This adds integrity to the various massage therapy offerings of any club.”

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Tips for Implementing A Successful Sports Massage Program

  • Create a clear identity

    Find therapists who have a strong knowledge or background with kinesiology, physiology and anatomy, and try to create an environment that is both comfortable and somewhat clinical.

  • Educate your members

    Most members don't understand the value of a massage as an integral part of a health and wellness program. Put up posters, hold seminars or distribute brochures on the positive effects of sports massage.

  • Find the right therapists that fit your demographics

    Find a quality therapist, regardless of gender. Some members may feel uncomfortable with a male therapist, but don't let this limit your hiring pool.

  • Find the right massage director

    A good massage director has previous hands-on experience in the field, along with a deeper understanding of the demands of the position. Many times, spa staff members can feel misunderstood and alienated from the main fitness center staff. A quality director bridges that gap.

Source: Phil Okazaki, regional spa director, Club One

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