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The real demographic crisis

Much concern has been expressed about the aging of the ACBL membership. The average age has steadily increased from 68.91 to 71.56 in just six years, an average increase of 0.44 years / year. It just feels foreboding.

But disaster hasn't struck yet and the current ACBL President, Ken Monzingo, takes the rosy view that membership is holding steady, even increasing very slightly. Not that we should cheer too much. We are still losing as a percentage of the United States (+ Canada + Mexico) population and we are losing even worse as a percentage of the population most relevant to us, those 60+ years old. But at least we are not losing in absolute numbers.

The ACBL hasn't published any demographics about new members but it must be the case that enough members are joining in their sixties and perhaps mid-fifties to replace the ones dying in their seventies, eighties, and nineties. Moreover, people are living longer. And wealth is correlated with longevity which helps us because bridge players are fairly well off as a group.

Perhaps we could trend water for many more years. Some have argued that it will be over after the baby boomer generation because this was the last generation to grow up around card games. But I'm not ready to write off the younger generations. Hobbies change over life and surveys of younger generations are not very helpful because humans are notoriously poor at predicting what will make them happy, let alone what will make them happy in twenty or forty years time.

But there is a more immediate crisis which I think has already begun: the shortage of worker bees. We need people to run clubs, direct games, serve on unit and district boards, manage tournaments, and help with tournaments. Most of these jobs are unpaid or at best minimally profitable.

Today, more people say they are unable to help. Others just look too frail to even ask them to haul a bunch of chairs, chop ten pounds of carrots, or cut up a bunch of apples. Another group feels they have already contributed to bridge. The record usually supports them but their contributions were ten or twenty or more years ago, and back when the work was spread over more worker bees.

It helps to have some perspective as a bridge administrator or tournament manager. I'm in my forties and have been an ACBL member for about 25 years. The first five were in a bridge backwater (Salt Lake) and I didn't care at all what a unit was. For another ten I was primarily a bridge spectator as I put energy into back to back startups. I've only been moderately serious about the game for the last ten years and that has included diversions into bridge administration, running a unit website, and developing bridge software.

But still I directly know 25 years of bridge history. I remember when arranging games on OKbridge meant being on a mailing list where people sent e-mails all day along the lines of "looking for a pair for a game at 21:00 Hong Kong Time" and when was the closest thing to Bridge Winners. I remember when the decent club games were in the evening and day time bridge had a dopey reputation. I remember when 2/1 was becoming popular and all we had was that crappy Max Hardy book with the yellow cover. I remember when Zia was young! And when Roy Green and his wife moved to town a couple of years ago, I knew he had been the ACBL CEO way back when.

It helps to know some of the ACBL directors. It helps to know a lot of the good local players. Sometime you have to tell them to shut up with a certain authority at your tournament. Knowing your players helps when setting strats and arranging partnerships. It helps to know the history of event formats if you want to escape a constant run of pairs and team games.

I think it takes a few years to build up the right experience to run tournaments or be president of a unit or district, and longer yet to serve on the national board. If most of the new members enter when they are sixty, their energy will be declining about the time they have the right experience. It is this narrowing window of maximum worker bee productivity that concerns me.

Locally, one unit board recently downsized from ten to seven members. This bylaw change required unit membership approval; anyone thinking about voting against was threatened with being voluntold on to the board. Arguably our unit should do the same. I can easily imagine the eventual merging of some of the five local San Diego units. Bill Grant, who has managed the large San Diego regional from 2010-2016 is getting up in years. Lamya Agelidis is being recruited to replace him. She is a great choice but she is also the San Diego unit president and has been for several years. Ken Monzingo is stepping down as district director when his third term ends in 2017. This is consistent with his push for term limits on the national board. But maybe he was ready to step down anyhow; his hair has gone white since taking the job.

We can pay our way out of some problems. Experienced tournament managers and directors know that good caddies make a key difference. And they're cheap. Gross reciepts for our last sectional were $10k. ACBL related expenses, including directors and sanction fees, took about 42% of that. Caddies took less than 6%. We could professionalize running sectionals. This would be a big philosophical change for the organization. It would raise card fees at least $2, maybe more. Perhaps that would set off a death spiral of attendance and further card fee increases. And even with 13(!) local sectionals last year (9 regular, 4 NLM), it would still be a low paying part time job that would have to be supplemented by other jobs to make any kind of living in San Diego.

As usual, I'm trapped in the bubble of my locality. I throw all this out in part to assess what others, particularly bridge administrators, are experiencing in their areas.

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