As we round the corner into Q4 of 2020, it is becoming clear that golf will finish with its best year in decades. 10-20% rounds growth is the norm. Revenues and net earnings are sure to surpass even the rosiest of pre-pandemic budget goals. Private Clubs are selling memberships in droves. Manufacturers are fighting multi-month backorder timelines.
You might be reading this and thinking that COVID-19 produced an unexpected boon for golf; that it was a completely unpredictable, once-in-a-generation lifeline to an industry mired in stagnation for the better part of two decades.
You'd be wrong.
There is something larger and entirely predictable happening under the pretense of COVID-19. For sure, the pandemic set off a sequence of events that led to astounding growth in our industry, but there is only one reason for golf's 2020 boom - a spike in demand. And demand, no matter how you look at it, can be stimulated by myriad factors unrelated to a once-in-a-century virus.
Demand. Demand. Demand.
Like most of you, I started working in the golf industry in high-school - driving a range picker before I had a driver's license. I began working in golf full-time while in college in 2002, and I transitioned to golf as a career in 2005. I missed golf's boom of the 90s. My entire career has been defined as fighting an uphill battle to grow revenue amidst declining participation.
For me, and many of my closest colleagues, the problem has always been strikingly clear - golf suffers from a lack of demand. And as an industry, we suck at creating demand.
COVID-19 just proved us all right. It was never about the pace of play. It was never about the cost. It was never about hard-goods turnover cycles or the sand in your bunkers or the guy in jeans "ruining" the experience.
Sure, those other things matter to some extent, but they are all overshadowed by the fact that we weren't taking enough "swings" at growing the game. There are two obvious examples to back-up this argument.
Problem 1: Marketing & Advertising
The US Small Business Administration recommends small businesses spend 7-8% of gross revenue on marketing and advertising, and up to 20% in competitive industries.
Do you know of any established golf course that allocates 10% to marketing & advertising? I don't.
I've personally worked with more than 100 golf courses to develop their budgets, and I'm usually fighting to get even 3% allocated to marketing and advertising.
In fact, most of the time, general managers and owners are trying to trim the marketing budget to save on expenses. That's worth rephrasing:
Most of the time, managers and owners are trying to cut the only budget category that could actually grow revenue.
Meanwhile, they are regularly buying maintenance equipment with price tags upwards of $50,000.
Note: none of the perceived reasons for golf's decline from 2002-2019 was "poor conditioning," yet that's where most new resources are allocated.
Marketing and advertising exist to generate demand. The fact that the entire green-grass golf industry has failed to embrace marketing and advertising is reason #1 that we couldn't stem the tide for more than 16 years. It illustrates the lack of clear leadership from golf's governing bodies, influencers, and leaders.
Problem 2: Lack of Focus on Player Development
If you've been skiing or snowboarding in the last decade or so, you might have noticed there are a lot of lessons happening on ski slopes. Even the smallest of ski areas have whole swaths of terrain built exclusively for beginners. Every mountain has an army of instructors teaching group-lesson after group-lesson, all introducing noobs to the sport. Whole sections of the base area are cordoned off for lesson-gathering, and every mountain offers a package that includes a lift ticket, lesson & equipment.
The ski industry was not always like this. In fact, this focus on developing new participants in the sport directly corresponds to the industry's own issues in the late '90s. We could learn something from how the ski industry has turned things around.
Instead, we have done the opposite. The PGA of America has embraced a culture that values private lessons, high-end equipment, and technology. They have essentially designated meaningful beginner instruction as the lowly work of the least-experienced staffers.
Worse, the financial model of golf instruction delivers all of the economic value to the golf instructor, not the facility owner. Therefore, instructional initiatives receive little capital investment, and roughly 0% of the marketing budget.
The result? An industry that is woefully unprepared to take care of beginners and put them on a path to become life-long golfers. We don't dedicate nearly enough resources to the beginner experience at our facilities. It is an extremely short-sighted outlook.
It is a shame that the lack of demand for golf has been so clear for so long, yet it took a worldwide pandemic to prove it all out.
All of the "reasons" for golf's decline that existed in 2019? They all still exist today. Yet, in the face of those issues, we are going to have our best year ever.
Will the industry wake up and realize that demand generation is the key to prosperity?
Will we realize that we could have generated our own demand all along?
Will our leaders demand we focus on marketing and player development to ensure a steady stream of green fees and memberships long into the future?