Jeff Jardine: Modesto's SOS Club looks to reinvent itself by expanding aging membership

jjardine@modbee.comNovember 5, 2013 

— From its creation in 1957 until about a decade ago, the Sportsmen of Stanislaus Club reigned as a Modesto institution.

Families brought their children to the SOS to swim and play tennis, racquetball and softball. It became a social center for the city, It’s hosted weddings, reunions, retirements, political functions, you name it. It was founded in a time when families could survive on one income, belong to a club and still save a few bucks at the month’s end. It became more than a club. It became a lifestyle for thousands of Modestans.

It also enabled members to rub elbows with some of biggest names in sports at the time. Muhammad Ali spoke there. So did Jack Dempsey, Joe DiMaggio, Tony LaRussa, homegrown ballplayer Joe Rudi, John Elway and scores of others over the years.

These events provided some touching moments. Before a charity sports art auction in 1992, area artist Glen Streeter roamed the main gym and saw that there were 11 portraits of Joe Montana but not a single one of Steve Young, the event’s guest speaker. Streeter sped home and returned an hour later with a pastel he’d drawn of Young. Young bought the portrait, bidding against himself up to – as I recall – $1,600. The charity received half and Streeter the rest.

But like many institutions born of an era, the SOS found itself in a fight for survival. Modesto changed. The economy changed. Lifestyles changed. By 2005, the club was in deep financial trouble and had to sell its softball fields to dig itself out of debt. Since then, the club has stabilized enough to maintain its property, but not improve or update it. Membership numbers creep downward.

Now, board President Clive Riddle said, the nonprofit club stands at another one of those crossroads. Its membership is aging, and few young families are joining despite the array of facilities. It needs to reinvent itself to secure its future. It needs to define where it wants to go and what it wants to be.

The road they’ve chosen to achieve this might surprise you: the same and, they hope, much more of it.

Once, the Modesto Fitness and Racquet Club and YMCA across town stood as the SOS’ only real competition. Today, according to the city of Modesto’s Finance Department website, the SOS vies with 37 commercial gyms – including six state-of-the-art In-Shape City gyms – and numerous independent personal trainers.

And guess what? The SOS doesn’t plan to compete with them.

“We’re never going to be what we once were,” Riddle said. “We would be mistaken to say we want to restore the SOS to what it was in the 1970s. We can’t compete with health and fitness clubs offering memberships at $20 a month.”

The SOS offers a variety of individual and family memberships beginning at $50, with some incentive discounts mixed in.

Since the club’s membership is older, why not get more of them? The more modern fitness clubs work for people who want to get in, work out and get out.

The SOS is as much social as fitness.

“The baby boomers all have aged,” Riddle said. “People in their 50s, 60s and 70s are looking for places where they can work out and do social things. Younger people are wondering how they can get Mom and Dad more engaged. And when the kids are out the door, you do have the time to re-engage.”

The club is looking at partnerships with some of the assisted-living facilities in the area for special events. The SOS, of course, still wants young families as members. It will continue to sponsor the Outstanding Athlete Awards and wants to add another major recognition event each year, Riddle said. It would once again bring in big-name sports stars, and possibly honor citizen athletes above the high school and college levels.

Riddle in September instituted a monthly speaker series, free and open to the public. It began with Modesto native and Olympian Suzy Powell. The roster will go beyond athletes. At 6p.m. Friday, former Modesto Symphony Orchestra conductor Darryl One will talk about his life in music. Future speakers will include former astronaut Jose Hernandez; Jon Olsen, an ultramarathoner from Modesto who broke the American 100-mile record by more than 12 minutes last month; and Modestan Fred Miller, who broke his neck in a boogie board accident in 2007 but now plays basketball in the men’s league at the SOS.

And a club that rents its banquet rooms and facilities frequently from October through April plans to better market them the other five months, when they are all but ignored.

“Our vision is trying to really grow by creating more things of interest both in terms of athletics and social events for those 50, 60 and up,” Riddle said.

Indeed, the SOS’ survival could rely on its ability to reinvent itself in a strangely out-of-the-box way: by doing more of the same.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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