In some ways, golf looks much like it did 20 to 25 years ago, when Tiger Woods arrived on the scene. There are a strikingly similar number of facilities, golfers and rounds-played – roughly 15,000, 24 million and 450 million, respectively.
Golf is also different in many respects, with a 95% reduction in the number of new courses being built and an OEM market that’s far more consolidated. The free-wheeling optimism in golf that existed in the 1990’s has been replaced by a determined fight for market share.
Yet the game remains an enormous business. According to the World Golf Foundation, golf has an $84 billion direct impact on the U.S. economy. Hey, that’s approaching Jeff Bezos territory.
Golf participation is evolving, with 25% participating strictly off-course. And while on-course participation is certainly down versus pre-recession levels, it looks like we may have a new support level between 23 million and 24 million.
Is golf a “niche” sport? Of course it is. Research shows that approximately only 1 out of every 9 people plays our “game of a lifetime.” But consider that’s more than participate in basketball, tennis, baseball and skiing, making golf one of the nation’s largest participation sports.
The face of golf is changing too, with beginners and juniors looking far more diverse than the current golf population. If the trend continues, it will inevitably change the composition of the game’s participant base. And junior programs are golf’s 401k plan (it’s just that the “k” stands for kids in this instance).
Latent demand for golf is at an all-time high, with almost 15 million non-golfers saying they’re “very” interested in playing and another 25 million who are “somewhat” interested. This single data point is prime evidence of golf’s aspirational quality and that the sport is positively perceived by a huge swath of the American public.
Golf’s overall participation rate is below its all-time high due, in part, to the nation’s changing population mix. Participation rates are lower among non-Caucasians and as the population moves in that direction that means lower play rates overall. Further, young adults (age 18-34) are not playing on-course as frequently as they once did, with many choosing to enjoy off-course golf.
That being said, there are two important points to make.
First, there are more than 6 million “Millennial” golfers – about 1 in every 4 golfers in America. By the way, that’s about the same percentage as this group’s representation in the overall population. That number of players in the 18-34 age group has remained steady too, contradicting claims that golf continues to “lose” Millennials. No, we have them and they’re sticking around.
Secondly, Millennials are expressing an extremely high interest level in golf, both on-course and off, with millions telling us they’re interested in playing traditional golf and millions more showing up at golf entertainment facilities like Topgolf.
They are a very interesting generation and it’s going to be fascinating to see how their relationship with golf evolves over the next 10 to 20 years. Will “Topgolfers” migrate over to the traditional game? As Millennials progress professionally and financially will they gravitate even more toward green-grass play? Is their involvement in the game simply delayed compared to previous generations?
The reality is that the story of Millennials in golf isn’t carved in stone. When I look at this generation, I don’t see any downside, only potential upside. It’s just not guaranteed.
Some folks are concerned about how the aging of America will affect golf participation.
The reality is that golf participation drops as people get older, but those that stay with the game play more frequently. A lot more. This has held true for a very long time and there’s nothing to indicate this will change. We have 3 ½ million senior golfers today and in about 10 years that number will jump to 5 million.
Still, some people believe that the Baby Boom generation is moving through our population like a pig in a python. In actuality, it’s more like a tidal wave that comes in and never goes out. The population is going to continue to grow. In the next 10 to 20 years, most of that growth will occur in the over-65 group, but the 35 to 49 group will also grow significantly.
In terms of generational risk, nothing in our participation research or U.S. census data indicates that golf is in for trouble in the long run due to an aging population.
In my mind, if a risk exists, it’s more that golf, on the whole, is not evolving on pace with changing cultural tastes and we are not taking full advantage of tremendous interest in the game. The real risk is complacency and taking participation in golf for granted.
For hundreds of years golf has always been incredibly compelling to some people – think of them as those who are willing to play in the rain. Are you in that group? Or are you a less serious, fair weather golfer? Most golfers, believe it or not, fall into the latter category. They don’t play in the rain, which metaphorically represents any unwelcoming aspects of the game.
People don’t have to golf. If they aren’t comfortable, they won’t golf. If they don’t feel welcome, they won’t golf. Those are the real risks.
It may not be easy, but these are risks that can be mitigated.
Joe Beditz is the NGF’s President and CEO. You can reach him at email@example.com