The Business of Golf; Strength in association

Thesen Islands

One is often tempted to ask just how good we, as a sports community, are in actually promoting and selling the game of golf effectively to non-golfers.

We are told continually that globally the number of players is stagnant or in decline, so what are the issues?

For one, the slavish adherence to children as being the only route to develop a new generation of players seems to be a little short-sighted.

Juniors are certainly an important element, but they are also only a part of an overall mix within a broader set of initiatives needed to encourage more people to play golf (or at least try out the game) from all age groups, which begs the question that, whether they are five or 65, surely anyone who takes up golf should be seen as part of the growth of the game.

Admittedly it can be argued that the 65-year-old may have less tread on the tyres than the five-year-old, but looking at the consistent profile of the ‘typical golfer’ (50-plus, male and a bit of a loner) and the way the younger generation gets distracted by motor cars, girlfriends, boyfriends and all the other sensations and new ‘immediate-gratification’ experiences involved in growing up, the game as a whole might well get as much, if not more, mileage from an older newbie than a younger one.

The game also seems to be muted in terms of selling itself effectively, and some of the actual and self-proclaimed custodians of the game, especially a number of the governing bodies and associations, seem to be perennially ineffectual in putting up the welcome sign or in managing effective ‘grow golf’ programmes for all ages.

If you think that this is a harsh judgement, this portentous statement was issued in 2013:

‘The XYZ World Alliance has identified that engagement with the middle class does indeed grow the game and should be actively pursued’.

Golf has always been regarded as a middle-class game, just as ocean-going yacht racing is the preserve of the super-rich and soccer the traditional preserve of the working class, to use a mix of social delineation.

One then just has to ask the question: Where on earth had these people been for the previous 30 years? Because it is this type of approach to growing the game that makes Rip van Winkle look like an insomniac.

So … in truth, how difficult a sell is it?

Looking at the first level, i.e. juniors, and applying the old maxim of ‘fishing where the fish are’, I recently spent time at a school looking to raise funds through – and yes, you guessed it – a golf day.

Apart from the prosaic nature of the activity itself, the attitude (and it should be noted that those involved were all non-golfers) was quite revealing.

The headmaster felt that the local course, on which the event was scheduled to be played, could have donated the course free of charge for the day, or offered a better price as this would be giving back to the community.

After I had pointed out that the chosen venue was not in fact the school’s most local course, and that there was another venue much closer, although not of quite as good a quality and therefore less likely to allow a value return to the players for the entry fee through which to raise funds, he was somewhat chastened.

In terms of price, I explained that the director of golf had to perform and report against targets, just as he as the headmaster had performance-related and budgetary targets to justify to his school board.

With reference to ‘giving back’, he was completely floored when I asked if the school had a golf programme for the children – i.e. whether the school was in fact part of the ‘community of golf’ – and of course it did not!

So the lack of any formal golfing activity at the school meant that the merits of the game had not been presented to this educational establishment, and we as golfers can only blame ourselves for hitting the side of the drum in this type of context.

Apart from try golf initiatives with companies and more mature audiences, the other angle must be to get the existing players to play more rounds and to look at ways to maximise the total revenue generated through each round played.

In a perennial debate many argue that the virtual clubs are killing the game as we know it at the traditional bricks-and-mortar clubs. I have to say that the problem with this argument is that it ignores the very real possibility that the golfers involved are exercising their democratic rights and voting ‘no’ – in this case with their wallets.

The reasons for this migration are varied, but it often comes down to simple economics and the fact that a significant number of golfers feel that the traditional club set-up is not giving them what they actually want.

An additional issue is that many clubs are also still not very family-friendly and full of petty dress-code rules and other impedimenta that really have no place in the 21st century.

So on to Dainfern (my former home estate) and a recent discussion with the director of golf, Clinton Fouche. Clinton confirmed that things had really changed since the disinterest engendered by several of the original proposals to grow the club’s rounds and its membership.

The fact that Dainfern Golf Estate  and seven other secure communities in its immediate area have formed themselves into a community of estates is refreshing news in itself.

The grouping is now looking to further develop the interaction beyond the areas of immediate mutual concern such as the security and the beautification and maintenance of the ‘grey’ areas that form the common access to the estates. One of these initiatives will involve opening up the membership at the Dainfern Golf Club facility to residents in the Dainfern community of estates. Not only has this plan been approved strategically, it has also been sanctioned by a vote from the existing membership.

There may be some teething problems ahead, but the golf club section’s membership numbers can only benefit from the initiative and the potential for increased rounds will be very beneficial.

So if one of the basic rules of survival is still ‘adapt or die’, then to survive this flat spot and show real growth as a community, we need to make the game more approachable and step out of the reactionary attitudes to change and progress where we often seem to be mired.

What solutions are available?

Well, it’s obviously a BIG topic, but here are some thoughts for openers:

Firstly, from a club perspective – anything that encourages a broader set of revenue streams, as many clubs’ commercial base is dangerously narrow.

Secondly, any initiatives to encourage existing players to play more rounds, especially when you consider the potential total revenues that a round of golf can generate in terms of the shop, restaurant, bar, etc.

Thirdly,  innovative packaging – this will be principally to avoid the curse of discounting green fees (a slow but sure recipe for failure) and the use of added value elements (which may well include undisclosed discounted elements) to create an overall package of value to entice the golfer.

Finally, working together on a regional basis through activities such as reciprocity. This green fee ‘mechanism’ was invented by traditional golf clubs and largely forms the base of most virtual clubs as it offers a flexible membership package, combined with the option to play on courses other than one’s home club.

Are there risks? Yes, of course, as no business is risk-free, but they can be managed with the right mix of clubs, and the advantages largely outweigh the potential downside.

In conclusion, we should also remember that T20 didn’t kill cricket – some argue that it is the game’s saviour – so in the business of golf we can be innovative without compromising quality or tradition, and if we can break down the parochial attitudes that seem to still prevail then there is strength in association and brighter times ahead.

John Cockayne

Estate Living Golf Editor

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