A New Chapter for Gold's Gym
The only fitness gym listed on ESPN’s most notable sports venues in America, Gold’s Gym declared bankruptcy earlier this month, an economic casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the iconic institution known as the “mecca of bodybuilding” isn’t going anywhere except into court to restructure its finances and into the board room to reshuffle a few executives. Gold’s bankruptcy is just another episode in the colorful history of one the world’s most famous sports-related brands.
Ranked #39 behind The Spectrum in Philadelphia (#38) and one notch ahead of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles (#40), Gold’s Gym is an American sports landmark. Only one other indoor gym landed on ESPN’s roster of celebrated athletic facilities: the Kronk Gym (#49), Detroit’s legendary boxing basement that was founded in 1970 and which saw the likes of Tommy Hearns, Evander Holyfield, Oscar de la Hoya, and a parade of other fighters throw their punches. Similarly, Gold’s Gym was little more than a bare and gritty weightlifting room when it first opened its doors 55 years ago in Venice, California.
Founded in 1965 by Joe Gold, the gym attracted serious bodybuilders at a time when body sculpting was a niche pursuit, largely overlooked if not ridiculed by the public. Gold designed the machines himself, a craft he picked up as a machinist in the navy and as a teenager when he built weights from scrap. Along with future health club pioneers Vic Tanny and Jack LaLanne, Gold was also a regular at ‘Muscle Beach’, the sun-soaked fitness playground that got its start in Santa Monica in the 1930s before expanding to Venice Beach.
Joe Gold was an extra in a few movies that included The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days, both 1950s era pictures. But it wasn’t until 1968 when Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped into Gold’s Gym that the workout venue began its association with future Hollywood celebrities. Joe and Arnold struck a lifelong friendship even though Joe’s ownership in the gym was brief. In 1970, he sold the struggling business to a couple of small-time local operators who eventually flipped it to Ken Sprague, one of the gym members.
Sprague made his money as an actor and producer of hardcore gay films. He effectively saved Gold’s from disappearing into the dustbin by sponsoring Mr. America bodybuilding competitions and promoting the profile of the establishment. Sprague’s savvy marketing skills and contacts in the film industry helped persuade British-American filmmaker George Butler to select Gold’s Gym as the primary location for the iconic 1977 docudrama, “Pumping Iron”. Based on the 1972 seminal book “Pumping Iron: The Art & Sport of Bodybuilding”, the storyline featured Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno battling for muscle-bulging supremacy. The film achieved cult status and put the sport on the map.
“Pumping Iron” also turned Gold’s Gym into somewhat of a lore in the he-man world of body shaping. Other famous characters whose chiseled physiques were showcased in the documentary included Ed Corney, Frank Columbu, Mike Katz, and Serge Nubret. But Arnold and Lou were the only lifters who parlayed their muscles into high-profile acting careers, with Schwarzenegger starring in Conan the Barbarian (1982) as his first major release and Ferrigno landing a TV series role in The Incredible Hulk (1977).
It wasn’t just muscles that were growing in the late 1970s, but the fitness craze was starting to explode as well. Jack LaLanne was pitching healthy living on TV and Jane Fonda was soon inspiring millions of women to put on leotards and perspire to her pop-in exercise videos. By the end of the decade, Sprague unloaded Gold’s Gym for $5 million to a new group of investors with plans for expansion and licensing. The first franchise opened in San Francisco in 1980 and the first foreign location was set up in Canada in 1985. By the end of the century, Gold’s Gym was boasting 534 locations in the U.S. and around the world.
Gold’s original moniker of a bald-headed muscle man holding barbells stayed with the company even though the gym was now chasing a health and fitness-oriented market. Vitamin supplements, drinks, clothing, and accessories that screamed the Gold’s brand became staple components of the business. The connection with Hollywood and popular culture continued as a new generation of bodybuilders such as Hulk Hogan and Jack Valente counted Gold’s as their workout destination. Meanwhile, celebrities Gregory Hynes, Sally Field, Jermain Jackson, Keanu Reeves and many others followed their trainers into the gym.
Towards the end of the 1990s, Wall Street discovered the financial lure of a growing fitness market, which was still fragmented with independent owners. Bally’s, Gold’s largest chain competitor, went public in 1998. A year later, Gold’s fell into the hands of Brockton Moran & Partners, a private equity firm that purchased the famed gym for over $50 million. In 2004, Brockton Moran sold their stake for $158 million to the current owner, TRT Holdings, a Texas-based company that is also behind the OMNI Hotels.
The changes brought on by a new corporate culture sent rumblings of discontent among some franchisees who were displeased with paying higher royalty fees and what they felt was a departure from Gold’s ‘warm and fuzzy’ roots. Others felt they had outgrown the label and decided to branch off with a fresh start to reflect the times. Royce Pulliam, one of Gold’s largest franchisees with 25 locations in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, turned his clubs into a newly-created chain, Urban Active Fitness.
Despite the evolution in the market and the ever-changing patterns in consumer behavior, Gold’s deep roots and preeminent brand as a health and fitness gym is still recognizable on every continent. Unlike Bally’s, which filed for bankruptcy twice and then disappeared from the landscape, Gold’s Gym will endure the current challenges and enter a new phase in its history.
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