Dear Golf: You Have a Problem and We Can Help

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Dear Golf Industry,

It is a well known fact to anyone with their ear to Golf Industry publications that you have been bleeding players. People 50 and under just aren’t falling for you like they have in generations past.  I’ve read about the tweaks to the game that some believe will make it ‘more fun for younger people,’ like footballgolf, with a mix of amusement and bewilderment.

I’ve spent the past year researching golf and there’s something I need to tell you, directly:

Your game doesn’t suck. Your image, messaging and marketing does. You have been bleeding young people for decades because you don’t know where they are or how to talk to them.

Apart from my research, there’s another reason I’m so sure of myself on this issue: my partner Hessie Jones and I founded ArCompany’s Millennial Think Tank. I talk to Millennials weekly about a variety of business and societal issues. My company lives at the intersection of quantitative and qualitative social data. We believe that if you’re not gathering and implementing meaningful insights, all else will fail.

We LISTEN to people in a way that Golf has flat out failed to do.

I’ve read endlessly about what is ‘wrong with golf;’ about your attempts to alter the game for a generation you THINK has a shorter attention span. Let me tell you something, these young people play World of Warcraft for 10 hours straight. Attention span is NOT the problem.

Again: there is NOTHING wrong with the game of golf. It is fabulous, challenging, and beautiful.

YOU have failed it. Failed it by not recognizing that your elitist image doesn’t fly with the most racially diverse generation America has ever seen; nor does it fly with their GenX elders. The GAME of golf is not what they don’t like.

On our Think Tank a few months ago we focused on The Future of Sports. I’ll  give you verbatim what our Millennials had to say about golf:

Because we know that Golf has not been attracting Millennials, or even GenXers for that matter, I had a lot of questions about golf. But first I wanted to get our panel’s overall opinion about golf in 60 seconds or less; here’s how they answered.

Albert: I think it’s a sport where you make a lot of business deals. I think it’s a misunderstood sport; I paid attention to it because of Tiger Woods. Now there is no one I’m rooting for.

Joe: I watch a few tournaments a year; I typically watch the Masters. I only play golf a couple of times a year – partly because it’s expensive and inaccessible.

I also don’t like that golf courses consume so much water (Joe lives in NM). Great sport, kind of fun to play – totally out of touch with the modern world.

I like watching major tournaments – there’s drama, there’s passion and tension… but all of the other stuff that makes up golf is what turns people off.

Kelly: Golf is game, not a sport, it’s like darts. It’s actually a great tool to bring people together – it’s fun, kind of like happy hour. Most people aren’t going to be great at it.. so it’s low pressure.

My perception of it is based on who I see playing it regularly. It’s played by people who are out of touch. It’s a place where the 1950’s mindset still lives. There is racism, sexism, classism… it’s huge.

Working on the golf course gave me this whole new perspective – I didn’t realize that this attitude was this prevalent. Half of the people who play here (at the course he works at) think like that.

Salina: It’s an expensive sport. We do use it to bring people together – we get drunk and have fun. You can’t even celebrate after a success in the field – you have to stay calm. There is definitely a gender bias there.

Satnam: It is the rich people’s game – usually rich people don’t give a crap about anything.

Hessie: The aura of golf, how you’re supposed to present yourself.. it’s so pretentious.

Of course that’s just a snippet from an hour long episode of our Think Tank, but coupled with the statistics that we can verify:

Pellucid, a research company that has its finger on the pulse of exactly what is happening in golf, and isn’t afraid to tell you clearly:

The number of U.S. golfers has dropped 24 percent from its peak in 2002, to about 23 million players last year, according to Pellucid, a consulting company that specializes in the business of golf. It found that in 2013 alone, the game lost 1.1 million players.

We took that quote from this Bloomberg piece; but this article, like so many others, doesn’t understand that golfs primary problem is NOT about the attention span of digital natives. Contrary to the author’s opinion that:

Given the sport’s costs and inherent difficulty—while a video game on a smartphone can be mastered in as little as a few hours, golf can require years of practice to play well—that slide is unlikely to end anytime soon.

The author does not understand the booming Gaming culture. The largest number of gamers are not Millennials, but GenXers, and most of them have played video games for decades. The most popular games are multi player MMOGs where a large part of the reward is helping your teammates. These  games are notoriously difficult on newbies, and people work years to build up expertise.

The question hungry marketers and lovers of golf have been trying to answer for years is:

How do we fix Golf?

And THAT right there is the problem – everyone is asking the wrong question. Golf doesn’t need to be fixed – its image and message does, and it needs to LISTEN and understand WHERE its target market is living, which is NOT in print ads and on television. Young people, those 50 and under, are on social. They’re on blogs. They’re in private and open online communities. If you were listening you could not only hear, but you could TALK with them.. not at them. You could get to know them, and they could get to know you as something other than a whitebread, stuffy game.

But none of this comes with what so many marketers are trying to sell you: a hard ROI. There is no easy fix to this image/message/communication issue. You need to start a conversation humbly, and listen, a lot. You need to hear what younger people are saying within their own communities – becaue they are NOT going to come and tell you anything honestly in a focus group. They EXPECT you to be listenting to them – they will not seek you out.

And after you listen, and understand the insights, you need to let them talk to you  openly. You need to create a place, or participate in a place where they are comfortable. And, after all of that hard work, you need to work even harder on your message.

This is all very possible and something we do here at ArCompany on a daily basis. There is technology available as we speak that allows us to listen to the very people you want playing golf, understand the real reasons they aren’t, and determine an actionable plan to change Golf’s perception and messaging by engaging with that very desired audience.

We’re here. We can help. Get in touch.

Photo credit: Military Families share golf memories at Tiger Woods tournament 090702 via photopin (license).

VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany. She has an extensive background in Sales, and focuses on generational marketing and content. With Hessie Jones she founded ArCompany’s Millnnnial, GenX and Boomer Think Tanks and writes and speaks on those topics from an insights/strategy perspective.

4 thoughts on “Dear Golf: You Have a Problem and We Can Help

  1. HowieG says:

    I agree and disagree. I agree they have done a poor job lately but Tiger being away for a few years hurt the game and no one is like him or replaced him the way basketball was able to go after Jordan.

    But the root of the problem is competition. I feel your post could of substituted Blockbuster Movie Stores. Competition has changed. Your advice to Blockbuster wouldn’t of saved the company. I don;t agree with the gaming analogy. Gaming was huge when I was growing up and continued since the early 80s.

    When I was in high school 80-85 there was surfing to a degree. That was it. When I went to Arizona State in 1985 I friended skate punks that didn’t exist in the NYC area at the time. And my friends were skating swimming pools and hanging with some of the punk band skate gangs like Jodie foster’s army and suicidal tendencies but still pro skating hadn’t exploded just yet. They were early adopters.

    Now there is the XGames and everyone skates, surfs, snowboard. You can now ride snow machines (here in Vermont kids start at age 5!) so there is a lot of glamour sports that didn’t exist when golf was riding it huge 90-2005. Just like the web and social media have over cluttered our lives with content and advertising golf just cant compete with these other sports for kids who didn’t grow up rich. Because to play golf you kind of have to be pretty well off and tiger (like the williams sisters) showed you could make it without that. But no one followed. But watch the summer and winter xgames. Every kid can ride the half pipe if they want. While yes they are gamin I don’t think they are staying inside vs just choosing other sports.

    Another reason golf is for over 50 is because it is one of the few sports you can play after 50!

    • hessie jones says:

      Hi Howie, perception plays a lot into people’s reality. And yes this idea of access is directly tied to cost and privilege (the aura of expectation around the sport). As much as gaming has increased the competition for Millennial mindshare, you’re absolutely correct that culture and upbringing also plays a lot into what sports are exposed to these young people. In Canada, it is all about hockey, soccer, baseball etc. These sports heavily market locally and build communities around the sport. Golf does not. While my son plays the sport, it’s always an after thought but never the first thing he’d want to do if asked. Golf has always portrayed itself in a very “exclusive” “stand-offish” way. Even with Tiger as a role model, the sport, itself, largely is still very much inaccessible.

    • Joe Cardillo says:

      It’s interesting how golf’s “young person strategy” collapsed without Tiger, which sort of suggests it wasn’t a strategy at all. Re: wealth / access, I do think you have a point there, but on the other hand when I was in high school my local golf course charged $8 for a 9 hole course and were pretty friendly even though I had only had a couple drivers, a wedge, a few irons, and a putter from the thrift store. It’s not like it has to be inaccessible.

  2. Joe Cardillo says:

    I like your point about asking the wrong question Amy – I think that’s probably the biggest problem with golf: the people who run many of it’s most famous institutions seem to have zero strategy for listening to / communicating with anyone under 40. Even altering the Qs asked slightly would probably have a large impact.

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