A funny thought occurred to me last week while strolling the aisles of the 2020 PGA Merchandise Show.
I've been attending nearly every one of these since 2007, and while the show still has plenty of wily veterans espousing wisdom on the main stage, whether it's the PGA's Seth Waugh or USGA's Mike Davis or businessman extraordinaire Greg Norman, it occured to me that the rows of booths were staffed by more and more innovators and entrepreneurs my age. Millennials, in fact.
Did I get older or did the game get younger?
Forget the fresh faces on the pro tours for a moment. The pulse of the game in many facets, from products to apparel and services, is in fact now looking like and being driven a lot more by enthusiastic younger people eager to leave their mark on the traditional game they love. Their time is now. It can only help.
I can speak for my generation in saying in past years, we've often collectively rolled our eyes at marketing efforts or buzzwords about the ails of the Millennial golf participation rate and spending. Well-intentioned business folks would point to concepts like bigger holes (because Millennials can't handle a challenge), or totally connected, social golf experiences full of selfie stands and hashtags (because Millennials can't put down their smartphones). There are some truly mediocre golf apps out there.
Hundreds of golf courses and other golf products have failed in the past decade. Now, millennials are in board rooms to get it right. Consider Ryan D'Arcy, President and CEO of X Golf America & Franchise Corporation. D'Arcy, 36, is presently living the very relatable millennial life as an entrepreneur growing his franchise business while raising an 18-month-old daughter with another on the way. Don't tell him about past failures in the simulator bar business as he's grown the franchise from 2 to 20-plus locations.
"People might say, 'We had a simulator bar in town five years ago and it closed," said D'Arcy. "So indoor golf does not work.' And I say 'Okay, but what was the square footage? How was it operated? What were the standards, technology, etc.?
"People expect more now with everything, in products or experiences they buy. You can have nearly anything you want in the world shipped to you within a week, so as a company, it’s extremely important that we get it right to make sure customers believe in us and we deliver on that belief.”
NextGenGolf report shows promising attitudes towards golf in Millennials
Millennials, a little wiser now, are picking up on shortcomings all over the business world in those sectors from past businesses that haven't pivoted. A personal highlight of my show agenda was attending a session by NextGenGolf. An evolving organization with roots back to 2003, they were acquired by the PGA of America in 2019. Their presentation centered around new data collected on 1,600 millennial golfers of mid-to-high skill level and their insights shared had me nodding my head so much you could have packaged me up and sold me as the official Millennial golfer bobblehead.
"Not every Millennial is the same," said Matt Weinberger, director of NextGenGolf. "But it's often communicated that way."
The first key takeaway from their report that I find myself reminding folks quite often is the proliferation of technology isn't a threat to golf. While X Golf and many other non-traditional facilities from Topgolf to Popstroke are touching on a flashpoint that 95% of Millennial golfers are open to non-traditional golf activities, 85% of them play golf to be with friends and 82% play to be outdoors. If anything, young people's sedentary jobs in front of computers and total connectivity only stands to rekindle the very primal human urge to move around outside with others.
Another inescapable trend is the Millennial commitment to the whole family. 23% of Millennials now have children and 49% say the ability for their family to use the club will trigger them to join. 32% regard family-friendly or youth programming as important to join a private club, and that should rise as more Millennials reach their 30s and start families. Our generation drops our collective jaws at the idea of our fathers or grandfathers having full Saturday hall passes from family obligations to go play 18 holes at the club and tip back martinis well past sunset, Mad Men-style. Not happening in 2020. Consider my latest Saturday round of golf, where my buddy and I brought our little boys as our wives hung out at home with our daughters. Thankfully the golf course management didn't kick up much fuss about becoming de facto daycare. We certainly wouldn't have been welcome at more upscale courses.
The proliferation of dual-income families not only creates shared responsibilities in child-rearing but can also lead to homes with more square footage (and bathrooms), higher mortgages, over-and quite possibly less money for club memberships. Clubs should also consider the 21st century corporate dynamic. The new workforce wholly believes their company will gladly shed salaries to appease shareholders at any quarters' end. That explains in large part why NextGenGolf's insights showed 43% of Millennials would prefer higher monthly club dues over an up-front initiation fee you can't transfer if you decide to move to change career paths.
Cost is certainly a big deal. 48% say cost prevents them from playing more and 75% believe golfers stop playing due to cost. But Millennials are spending money on other experiences. Consider my wife and I's local gym membership (think a local version of Crossfit or Orange Theory). Our combined monthly dues there add up to what is nearly the cost of low-to-mid-priced golf club monthly dues. My wife is more into fitness than golf. I'm more into golf than fitness. What club could offer both deadlift classes one day and a 9-hole couples golf league the next?
"Millennials find golf relevant," said Henry DeLozier, partner at Global Golf Advisors. "Many love golf but also 10 other activities equally."
What golf clubs will succeed in the coming decade?
63% of Millennials surveyed hope to join a private club at some point, but 70% start at a public course and 66% have remained. It'll be those who provide inclusion to the whole family and their guests, and authentic programming and those who apply tech efficiently, not overtly. Remember that different facility offerings will resonate with different phases of life in the same person. Figure out alternative membership options while they're paying for daycare. Junior memberships or other flexible rates are crucial. One example shared was a young player who was offered an 8-month, twilight membership at a reduced rate.
The overhead of the sport is still a big deal, and with Millennials generally lagging in the expendable income at this point of their parents, clubs will need to eradicate waste. That may come in the form of selling off acreage, maintaining the grounds more efficiently and securing more varied revenue streams beyond golf and after dark.
The PGA Show floor these days may be smaller and more restrained. Marketing budgets aren't what they were during the Tiger boom and for veteran showgoers, that is often translated as a kind of demise. I, for one, am encouraged. The creativity and business need to innovate in golf is stronger than ever and there's less room for fluff. Some emerging brands I visited like Asher will be loud, others like Walker Trolleys will harken a more classical era. Millennials have the capacity to embrace it all. It's not our decade to kill things anymore. That's on "Gen Z" now.
The full report will be available soon at GlobalGolfAdvisors.com