Navigating Golf's Future with an Assist from Frank Zappa

Rancho Bernardo, Calif. – As 100 of the golf industry’s leading minds gathered for the annual National Golf Foundation Symposium, a bit of sage advice came from an unusual, some would say nonconformist, source. The NGF had enlisted former ESPN chairman George Bodenheimer to provide an outside perspective on our sport and an inside look at leadership. George is an avid golfer and loves what the game stands for but his counsel on managing change came courtesy of the legendary philosopher/rocker Frank Zappa who reminded us that “a mind is like a parachute, it doesn’t work if it’s not open.”

I have to admit I didn’t see that coming.

But in a rapidly changing golf industry where new players are decidedly younger and more diverse than current people who play, it is a good time for every owner, PGA professional, manager and superintendent to open up their minds to why people visit their facility and spend hard earned money, and time!

This conference updates us on the key metrics of golf industry health – customers, customer visits, places of business and spending. Generally the news was good…the number of on-course players actually grew for the first time in a decade, up 400,000 to 24.2 million and overall participation – those that play green grass courses combined with new off-course formats like Topgolf and simulators jumped over 2 million to 33.5 million. On the bad news front, our weathered battered courses saw rounds played drop almost 5% and a cumulative 8% over the last two years. Course closings since 2006 increased to 1,230, roughly 6% down from our all-time high.

Thanks to the resurgence of Tiger Woods, the number of people who either played, watched or read about golf in 2018 jumped 12% to 107 million, or 36% of Americans over the age of five. The buzz factor for golf is as high as it has ever been providing a big opportunity to leverage the record number of new people playing golf (2.6 million) and the 14.7 million that don’t play today but are “very interested” in starting.  

Though all of these newbies and latent demand portends well for golf’s future, a generational expert Alexis Abramson, PhD, suggested we focus our sites on a core group aged 45-65 who really drive the business today. Dubbed Generation G, these GenX/Boomers sport three times the net worth and two times the discretionary spending of the 25-45 year set, in part due to the fact only half are still working full time versus three fourths of the Millennial/GenX group. Gen G has the time and money to spend on golf. And their ranks will grow;  Abramson forecasting the number will increase from 83.6 million to 95 million in 2025.

What’s important to this influential group? According to the good Doctor, six things:

1)      Family. Spouse time, Father/Son events, family gatherings, time with grandchildren.

2)      Nurturing environments which provide safe and healthy places to have fun.

3)      They want a break. They seek deals and special offers.

4)      Nostalgia is important. Music, events, photographs and memories.

5)      Social responsibility. Sustainable practices, ethical behavior and inclusion.

6)      They want to be celebrated. Let them know you care about them as people, not just customers.

How do you reach this group? Primarily it is through family and friends as Gen Gers are on average asked twice a week for their recommendations on where to vacation, eat or buy. They are heavy users of review sites such as Trip Advisor. They are busy on social media, spending more time on their devices than 25-45 year olds. Email still works as a form of communication as (surprisingly) does direct mail.

Behaviorally Gen G members are thrill seekers. They like to travel and will do so out of season to avoid the crowds. They spend $650 per travel day, much higher than other segments. 50% are committed to a healthier lifestyle making wellness tourism popular.  

Having provided a roadmap to better embrace and engage this best customer segment, the NGF turned to a new effort with state and regional golf associations in Colorado to target their local portion of the nearly 15 million people labeled latent demand. A new website is being developed, courses enlisted to welcome these new players to the game and professionals prepared with the tools to ensure a fun, friendly start. A Boulder-based ad agency will execute the campaign aimed at three non-golfer targets – 19th holers, competitive athletes, and families. I’m thrilled to see the NGF use its resources to help activate this non-golfer segment for the industry.

So yes, I would say to Messrs. Bodenheimer and Zappa, golf is filled with open minds. And that is important as we manage generational change in a dynamic new media world.


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