2016 was not kind to the golf industry. Nike announced it was exiting the equipment business, Golfsmith went bankrupt and shuttered, hundreds of golf courses closed, and Ben Hogan filed for bankruptcy (again). The largest brand, Taylor Made, with the greatest share and best roster of players, is for sale and seemingly cannot find a buyer. What’s going on?
Golf rounds fell sharply at the beginning of the Great Recession, but as the economy has improved and the recession officially ended, rounds have not bounced back. Some elders lost too much of their retirement savings in the recession to spend on golf, but the real issue is much deeper than that.
In order to offset the decline in rounds, golf manufacturers released too many new and competing technologies. New releases were coming out so frequently that the consuming public could not keep up. This created a glut of deeply discounted products that were not moving off the shelves.
Big-box golf retailers showed nice growth in the early days of the recession, but that growth largely came from industry consolidation. As courses closed, so did the pro shops. The failing golf business forced mom-and-pop golf shops to shutter. Market share flowed to big-box, masking the underlying trend.
What happened to create this reversal of fortune? The golf Industry failed to attract Millennials to the game. The National Golf Foundation reported that there were 400,000 fewer golfers in 2013, with 200,000 of the decline coming from Millennials. Since Millennials represent 25 percent of the nation’s population, this decline is devastating to the sport.
So, why don’t Millennials play golf?
Millennials value ease, speed, and efficiency in their endeavors. Raised on the internet, “instant gratification” is the expectation. Over four hours of essentially doing the same thing over and over is against the idea of speed and efficiency.
They are also the most inclusive generation. Millennials want to share their experiences with as many friends as possible. Golf says, “all of you can play, as long as it no more than four. Boomers, on the other hand, value exclusiveness. The idea of paying to have the privilege of exclusive membership to play golf is counter to Millennial values.
Millennials are the most diverse generation ever, and they have embraced diversity like no other generation. The lack of diversity at Augusta National, the crown jewel of the sport, is just one example of how golf does not qualify as diverse. Mark King, former President of Taylor Made/Adidas Golf cited the lack of “minorities playing, women coming into the game” as reasons for golf’s decline.
Millennials’ most important crusade is the environment. Golf is not green. Many courses smell like a chemical factory. Courses require tremendous amounts of water to stay in shape.
Millennials were hit hard by the recession. This caused them to seek value in every purchase. They are willing to spend on things they think are important, but always look at purchases with a value lens. Spending big money on rounds and equipment apparently does not connote value to Millennials.
Golf rules are Byzantine. Compare the USGA regulations to the “Spirit of the Game” in a favorite sport among Millennials, Ultimate Frisbee: “Spirit of the Game. Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player.” This is essentially the only rule in Ultimate.
At least for the time being, the values of golf do not match up with the values of Millennials. Golf has lost the Millennials.