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A View from the C-Suite – Industry Execs Weigh-in on the State of the Game

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but they’re not all worth a listen. That truism applies to everything from politics to business. And it’s certainly true in the golf industry, where there seem to be as many viewpoints on the state of the game as there are missed three-footers.

To bring some perspective and expertise to the discussion about golf’s future, the NGF went to those who know best, top executives across the industry’s many business categories, and asked for their perceptions and sentiments on the health of the game. Their responses were both enlightening and encouraging.

A total of 72 executives from some of golf’s leading companies were interviewed, some online and some by phone. Half of the respondents were from businesses who sell to consumers/golfers (B2C), 40% were from businesses that sell to facilities (B2F), the rest from associations and “other” concerns. They were asked to view golf through two lenses: overall perceptions about the state of the game, and perceptions about the state of the business. First, the game.

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Industry insiders believe that golf is seen in a positive light by the general public: 61% said golf’s image is either “somewhat” or “very” positive. Only 10% thought golf has either a “somewhat” or “very” negative image. A few respondents made the point that golf’s image is somewhat polarized, divided between players and fans who “can’t get enough” and non-players who don’t think much about golf or just don’t get it. But the number who think golf’s image is “very negative” is tiny (1%).

Asked if golf will become more popular in the next three-to-five years, sentiment was a little less optimistic. Eliminating the extremes, no one thought golf would be “much more” or “much less” popular. Slightly more than half said the game’s repute would remain “about the same,” while slightly less than half said it would become “more popular.” A generally optimistic outlook, but with no assurance of improvement.

When pressed for examples of what could hurt or temper golf’s popularity, the executives pulled no punches, with many responses echoing key issues in society today:

“If the game wants to appeal to younger people, golf must be more accepting.”

“Meaningful progress is long overdue in creating ethnic and gender diversity.”

“Elitism [in golf] is undeniable.”

Will a slightly more favorable opinion of golf help the game grow? Most of the executives were conservative in their expectations for growth over the coming three-to-five years. About half think both the number of players and rounds will stay about the same. The other half is biased towards growth, with those predicting growth in both players and rounds outnumbering the pessimists three to one. Those who anticipate growth offered a number of reasons:

  • More rounds from Baby Boomers
  • The influence of more young players on Tour
  • Success attracting Millennials to the game
  • More women golfers
  • Positive reinforcement from big-stage events such as the Ryder Cup and the Olympics

Popularity and image are somewhat ephemeral, but budgets are real. And when asked about delivering on their financial projections, golf’s executives have a very positive outlook.

This year, three out of four budgeted for growth. And one out of four budgeted for significant growth. Even more telling, 90% are “somewhat” or “very” confident that they’ll deliver against their plans.

Over a longer horizon, expectations for growth remain generally optimistic. Again, three out of four executives are looking for growth, with “slight growth” slightly outweighing the chance for “moderate” or “significant” growth. (“Slight” is defined as 1-3%; “moderate” as 4-6%; and “significant” as greater than 6%.)

Worth noting is that sentiment among B2F companies is marginally more positive than among B2C concerns, which could mean more health on the course/club side, a welcome sign for the entire industry.

The final questions asked of the executives were about their plans for future investment, both for Fiscal Year 2016 and over the next three-to-five years. In both cases, overall sentiment was optimistic, with 62% having increased investment this year and 76% expecting to increase their investment in the near future. Since investments are tied closely to business growth, this indicates a positive outlook for both the near and longer terms.

Again, some of the executives’ comments expose challenges in the industry and are food for thought for anyone concerned with the game’s future. For instance:

“We do indeed have a customer-service problem in golf.”

“The industry is not getting aggressive in embracing the 2016 lifestyle—it’s too scared to be bold, fun, casual.”

“Society and technology have changed exponentially in the last 10 years… and those trends are linked to the decline in participation in golf and other sports.”

“All organizations must commit to growing the game as priority #1, not #17.”

It’s only natural that golf’s business leaders are an optimistic group, as they must plot a positive path for their brands and employees. But, from reading the verbatim quotes above, they’re not the type to duck golf’s challenges either.

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