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Town Sports' 'High-Value Low-Price' Strategy Is Doomed To Fail


  • The New York Sports Club parent is trying to win back market share from low-priced competitors with $20 & $40/month "high-value low-price" no-contract plans.
  • Most existing members will switch from $60-125/month memberships to these low-priced packages.
  • Members of low-cost competitors unlikely to switch for same or higher cost, with little if any difference in amenities/service at CLUB.
  • With generous assumptions, CLUB needs to increase membership 50% from 505,000 at 3/31/15 to 755,000 just to realize break-even operating income.
  • It is extremely unlikely that CLUB will break even, let alone turn a profit any time in the foreseeable future.

Town Sports (CLUB), the parent of New York, Boston, Philly, and Washington (D.C.) Sports Clubs has a problem: Most customers don't (and aren't going to) pay $60-$120 a month when hundreds of low-cost, amenity-filled gyms from competitors like Planet Fitness, Crunch, Lifetime Fitness, Retro Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness, and LA Fitness (to name a few) having opened just in the past few years.

The company's solution, way late in the game, is to try to compete on price. This strategy will not, and cannot work.


  • High operating costs: 2014 EBITDA margin was 11% vs. 29% for its only public competitor, Lifetime Fitness.
  • It doesn't own, but leases all of its facilities, the majority of which are in high-cost, space-constrained urban and metro suburban areas.
  • High interest expense from a high debt load. 4.4% of revenue vs. 3.4% for Lifetime.
  • CLUB gyms are comfortably in the middle of the pack in terms of offerings, quality, convenience, and the like, so even for the same price, there is little if any reason for members of competing gyms to switch. (The author is currently, and has been a member of New York Sports Clubs on and off since 2007.)
  • US gym memberships grew at a rate of 3.7% per year from 2000-2013. Gym turnover/attrition is also in the low single-digits.
  • Competing gym memberships run $10-30/month.
  • The new HVLP memberships are $20 or $40 month (the latter without an initiation fee), and, just as an example of value, don't even include towel service.
  • Existing members pay about $60-120/month. In 2014, gym operations, the bulk of revenue, came out to about $77/month per member.
  • As existing members switch to the HVLP plans, we expect average monthly revenue per member to decline into the mid $40/month range.
  • CLUB needs A LOT more members just to

This article was written by

Jordan S. Terry is the Founder & Managing Director of Stone Street Advisors LLC. He has a BS in finance with minor coursework in engineering & entrepreneurship from Penn State, and an MBA from NYU Stern School of Business with concentrations in corporate finance and business law. He has work experience in corporate development, investment banking, operations, and investment research. His investing/analysis experience spans more than 10 years across virtually all industries and sectors. He has written about business, technology, innovation, policy and finance (both theory and practice) as well as industry- and firm-specific analysis since 2005. In 2011, Jordan founded Stone Street Advisors LLC, an investment research and consulting firm catering to investment funds and corporations. Stone Street's track record of picking both long and short ideas has significantly outperformed the S&P500 on both a absolute and relative basis (detailed information available upon request). He has written fairly extensively for The Atlantic, Forbes (where he has a column, "Fundamentally Speaking"), Zerohedge, Business Insider and other popular outlets, and his work has been highlighted by FT, WSJ, CNBC, NYT, The Globe & Mail, The Deal, and virtually every other major financial media outlet.

Analyst’s Disclosure: The author has no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it. The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

The opinions presented herein are solely those of Stone Street Advisors LLC. Neither Stone Street Advisors LLC nor any of its members has a position in CLUB or CLUB derivatives, nor any plans to initiate a position. Nothing contained herein shall constitute a solicitation, recommendation or endorsement to buy or sell any security or other financial instrument. Stone Street Advisors LLC makes no representation or warranty as to the accuracy, completeness or timeliness of the information contained herein, and disclaims all liability arising from errors or omissions contained in this presentation. This presentation is for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. Stone Street Advisors LLC is not an Investment Advisor.

Seeking Alpha's Disclosure: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. No recommendation or advice is being given as to whether any investment is suitable for a particular investor. Any views or opinions expressed above may not reflect those of Seeking Alpha as a whole. Seeking Alpha is not a licensed securities dealer, broker or US investment adviser or investment bank. Our analysts are third party authors that include both professional investors and individual investors who may not be licensed or certified by any institute or regulatory body.

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Comments (22)

Martin Keck profile picture
"High operating costs: 2014 EBITDA margin was 11% vs. 29% for its only public competitor, Lifetime Fitness."
Stone Street Advisors profile picture
You're missing the forest for the trees. I spent 99% of the article focusing on operating profit, EBIT...
Martin Keck profile picture
Maybe I was not precise. I like most of your article. This one line out of your article should have been omitted imho. EBITDA comparison does not make sense. Did not mean to be rude.
Stone Street Advisors profile picture
You're not being rude, you're just obsessing over something that does not matter, and I don't understand why.

EBITDA comparison makes perfect sense when you're comparing firms that own v. lease in this context. I could capitalize CLUB's leases but I doubt that'd change the conclusion.
Martin Keck profile picture
You write CLUB does not own the real estate yet compare their EBITDA margin to LTM who own most of their real estate. That does not make sense to me.
Stone Street Advisors profile picture
What do you mean? I focused on operating income (EBIT).
Thanks a lot. Agree with you, their marketing is terrible.

They need a marketing person who will take advantage of social networks and mobile technology to increase membership. Now people can easily track health parameters and post on social networks. In addition to pictures and videos. Gym operator can use that data to attract new members.

I have a look at their facebook pages. Only members post pictures. No content or marketing initiatives from the operator. They are not even responding to complains. TSI should encourage members to post pics, encourage competition and award members who post quality content, share experience, win competitions or achieve certain goals.

Their commercials, I looked at youtube, are wierd. They show guys in bad shape who should join ANY gym instead to present good looking people who improved their look and health in TSI gyms.

They have no youtube channel.

In my opinion health improvement industry will be one of the fastest growing. However, operaters and marketers with little or no understanding of new technologies will not be able to take advantage of the trend.
Stone Street Advisors profile picture
Here's the health club membership in millions for the U.S. 2000-2013 with the growth rates y/y.

2000 32.8
2001 33.8 3.0%
2002 36.3 7.4%
2003 39.4 8.5%
2004 41.3 4.8%
2005 41.3 0.0%
2006 42.7 3.4%
2007 46.7 9.4%
2008 45.6 -2.4%
2009 45.3 -0.7%
2010 50.2 10.8%
2011 51.4 2.4%
2012 50.2 -2.3%
2013 52.9 5.4%
CAGR 3.7%

What makes you think the industry is going to grow faster?
I think that technology change will be very supportive for club membership growth. Some public policies which aim to reduce healthcare cost and increase productivity are also very supportive for gym membership.

Thanks to mobile technologies people can now consume much more content and be much better connected while in gym. The entertainment content is personalized since members bring their own phones/tablets or gym operator provides access monitors. Members don't miss messages, scores, favorite shows, news, stock moves, ... The better member is connected, the easier becomes for him/her to integrate gym in daily routine.

People waste a lot of time watching trashy shows, reading fiction books, hanging on social networks, … They usually do that at home on a couch. While combination of mobile technology and gym can’t help you get rid of those highly addictive activities, it can help bundle them with gratifying experience of exercising. Research paper by Wharton School shows that both gym attendance and fees can be increased if gym operator provides effective bundling of temptations and exercise. ("Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym" Milkman, Minson, Volpp)

Smart watches and the other wearables enable better measurement and tracking of health parameters. That will motivate many to engage in health improvement activities and join gyms. Moreover, those parameters can be recorded and shared online. Proliferations of health related data on social networks is also very supportive for gym membership and can be used for marketing purposes.

Other reasons I’m interested in this business are local. In Canada we have child fitness tax credit and the government is considering adult fitness tax credit. A small incentive to taxpayers can potentially yield considerable gains in healthcare savings and increased productivity. Also in recent months many retailers closed stores in Canada and there is plenty of real-estate available.

I researched TSI and the other operators. In my opinion TSI is not a good operator, has very poor marketing and show little understanding of new technologies.
My brother is interested in opening gym. So we are researching this area. His motivations are:

1) Rents are dropping because retailers are closing.
2) Growing interest in exercise and healthy living
3) Temptation bundling. Thanks to mobile technology people are better connected and don’t miss news, messages, favorite shows, and sports while in gym. Hence, more willing to go to gym.
4) Smart watches provide better measurement and tracking of health parameters. People will be naturally tempted to improve those parameters and exercise more.
5) Wearables enable people to record their achievements and share online. Proliferation of smart watches will increase number of exercise related posts on social networks. It will be highly promotional for gyms. Smart marketing can take advantage of growing exercise/health discussion on social media and increase membership.

In my opinion gym membership growth should accelerate considerably in future years. Improved ability to measure and track health parameters combined with opportunity to easily share exercising results should be very supportive for gym business.

What are the prospects of this industry in your opinion?

I don’t live close to TSI gyms and never been in one. I don’t own CLUB shares.
The health club market is really crowded and being actively disrupted by low price low overhead operators, and the low price clubs are driving down profit as a percentage of revenue across the industry. This is one industry where you really need a 20 year plus operator who grew up in the sales side of the industry to make a company work. CLUB lacks that today. Overall, the industry is unusually fragmented, and in addition to the low price clubs, high price niche players with low member counts and low profit seem to be taking members from big clubs. Nearly all of the big players in the health club industry are private companies.
This is a good summary analysis, but the actual situation is slightly worse than indicated. CLUB is losing monthly dues revenue with an incremental direct contribution to profit of 95 plus percent. The contribution on join fees (after sales commissions and bonuses), personal training (after cost to service plus any sales commission and bonus), and other ancillary revenue is much less than dues. If anything, the new members CLUB needs to make HVLP work are higher than the numbers presented above, and CLUB is off to a very bad start with 21,000 net new members after blowing a big wad on 1Q advertising.
Stone Street Advisors profile picture
Thank you for the insightful comment.

As I mentioned, we're giving CLUB some undeserved benefit of the doubt, more giving the HF activists some credit, but probably undeserved nonetheless.

They are in trouble no matter how you slice it. There is literally zero chance they can make the HVLP strategy work. There simply aren't enough people who are could sign up, let alone will.

The question though, is there any alternative? Continue on with the previous strategy and watch membership dwindle? They desperately need Chainsaw Al or similar to come in a cut costs, otherwise they don' stand a chance (if they do at all).
CLUB should never have gone public, and they'd have a much better chance of fixing the mess as a private company. Realistically, their model is being disrupted, and profit is probably going to decline no matter what they do. The only real alternative to HVLP was to make the clubs more exclusive, raise dues, and try to get by with fewer members, but that might be hard to pull off across so many clubs. GAAP treatment of deferred revenue complicates and distorts health club financial reporting, and most of the large successful chains are private companies. Unless Planet pulls off an IPO, with LTM going private, there may not be any pubic health club companies in 18 months. If I were on CLUB's board, I'd be trying to auction off each market area to the highest bidder, and that might have worked before the bet the company strategy shift to HVLP. It's hard to see any credible buyers stepping in until the HVLP shift plays out, and that isn't good for shareholders.
Stone Street Advisors profile picture
The only thing I can think of is they're going to try to juice membership #'s as much as possible, try desperately to reduce debt a little, shop to PE with pitch that OpEx can be cut and membership prices can rise because "membership is sticky and attrition is only 3.5%!" or some such nonsense.

The folks at PW, HG Vora aren't dumb, so what's your read? What do they see that we don't, or is this an ego-driven thing primarily (moreso than any turnaround/activist campaign)?
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