Golf is in trouble. Participation rates have dropped 20% over the last 10 years and no one knows how to stop this attrition. The industry has tried many things yet the numbers say that nothing is working. As you would expect, there continues to be a stream of commentary and ideas on how to increase participation and I do believe in the concepts behind a number of the initiatives. That said, I feel that the stakeholders (USGA, PGA, OEMs, retailers, etc.) need to broaden the scope of their analysis, beyond golf, to understand what initiatives the industry needs to pursue to successfully reinvigorate participation.
When pundits talk about decline rates, they invariably bring up one of the following: 1) golf is too hard, 2) it's not fun, 3) it's too expensive or 4) it takes too long. I think the answer is more complicated and focus groups are not always the place to look for answers. Golf is a recreational activity and golf, as a leisure activity, competes for golfers' free time. If one activity becomes more attractive than another, then one will gain at the expense of the other.
I believe that Golf is seeing decline rates principally because people have found other activities that, for a variety of personal and cultural reasons, they have prioritized. For example, gyms are popping up everywhere. A Reuters story cited an International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) survey showing that gym membership among the 55-plus group in the United States jumped from 1.5 million in 1987 to 9.9 million in 2007, a 560% increase. Won't that have an impact on the amount time that people spend at the golf course? The younger generation is also spending more time at the gym, playing video games, on social media and browsing the internet. These are just four competing activities that I bring up. There are no doubt others. As a result, consumers might say in a focus group that golf is not fun or too expensive. Yet what they are really saying is golf is less fun, more expensive for the enjoyment, less trendy and less of a priority than other activities.
Unfortunately, we are still left with the same question, how do we get consumers to choose golf over video games, working out and Facebook? This is the wider lens we need to be looking through when trying to discover the causes of golf's decline in participation.
With golf having such long-term traditions, more so than any other major sport, I think it would be very difficult to change the overall structure of the game. i.e., make the holes bigger, make non-conforming clubs, separate rules for amateurs (shortening the round probably has merit). This will be an uphill battle.
Instead, I would start by incorporating the activities that are taking share from golf, into golf. The good news is that there are some enterprising companies that are already making great strides in this direction.
Company Business Proposition Value Added
VPAR A mobile golf scoring system designed for competitions between any number of teams. social tech
Game Golf Allows easy automatic stroke by stroke capture with mobile upload. Golfers can share their rounds on social media. social tech
Top Golf Revolutionizing the driving range space with competitive target scoring (like video games), bars and an overall great entertainment space. It's a place where young people will want to hang out and have golf entertainment at a reasonable price. shorter/tech/social
Loft Golf/JoeyD (Jupiter, FL) The Golf Pit (Toledo, OH) Golf and Body (New York, NY) There are also all encompassing golf fitness/fitting/social centers that are on the right track. All offering club purchase/fitting, simulators, gyms and physical therapy under one roof. If baby boomers are going to the gym, bring the gym to the golf practice facility! fitness
It's great to see that creative entrepreneurs are already taking the initiative and there is no doubt more will pop up to profitably take advantage of these thematics.
I would encourage all golf stakeholders to try to view their growth initiatives through this wider lens. We should augment the existing initiatives and add initiatives that better evolve with the overall recreational trends that are pulling people away from golf by working to incorporate those trends into golf.