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August 2022

A Divide-and-Conquer Approach to ‘Grow the Game’

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By Dave Gould

Web-search “grow the game” and you’ll find a dozen sports that use it to promote participation and—fingers crossed—increase business revenues.

Hearing those three words, people in the golf business usually expect they’ll be asked to volunteer time, money or brainpower to this or that campaign. In the 80-odd years since golf started behaving like an organized industry with shared needs and goals, do-your-part appeals have been commonplace. The more time you spend in this business, the more programs and slogans you’re asked to support.

The question people come to—stated or unstated—is whether a program that manages to grow the game and in the process grow the business will actually grow their business. They find that, over time, the rallying cry starts to provoke irritation, sounding like an exercise in vagueness or even futility. And that’s not an optimal situation for any group cause or endeavor.

The problem is the sweeping, loosely targeted nature of the many concepts and strategies that have been tried. There are few that don’t seem at least somewhat promising, though in general they prove difficult to measure and evaluate. That’s especially so given the “leaky bucket” phenomenon, in which new beginners stick with golf for a season or two and then drift off. 

Which brings us to the phenomenon of Covid-19.

In a consummate irony, perhaps the greatest growth catalyst this business has ever witnessed arrived in the form of a pernicious virus. No amount of grow-the-game brainstorm sessions could have come up with that one.

Question: Will the pandemic era of surging participation mark a permanent turning point in the way industry-wide promotion efforts and strategies are viewed? There are reasons to think it will. Seeing participation turbo-charged by a coronavirus makes the industry’s best-laid plans pale in significance. Just as important, however, are various facets of business progress, including the rapid sophistication of data-gathering and analytics; the proliferation of golf-o-tainment centers capable of feeding greengrass facilities; and, the portion of golf’s grow-the-game effort that has so successfully worked to ramp up female participation.

Jenny Stendahl, Golf Operations Manager for Rush Creek Golf Club in the Minneapolis suburb of Maple Grove, agrees that “grow the game” can be fuzzy in its meaning and subject to various interpretations. But to her the phrase is simply and clearly about providing access. “It means doing your part to make golf available to anyone who might want to try it, regardless of their income or demographics,” says Stendhal.

You don’t get far when you ask her to reconcile Rush Creek’s everyday operation with macro theories about tapping into “latent demand” for golf or driving participation by engaging “lapsed” golfers.

“At our facility we try to reach the people in our area—as many of them as possible,” Stendhal says. “We do that with programs geared to different groups and different needs. In the process, yes, we do grow participation. Our summer junior programs serve 1,500 kids, and our ladies league draws a very casual, socially oriented woman golfer. It’s tailored to that individual.”

The link between more participation and more revenue is basically linear, for Rush Creek. It’s not a matter of leveraging new-found pricing power to increase green fees and reap the profits.

“We don’t raise rates just to raise rates,” Stendhal says. “If our prices go up, it is likely due to wholesale cost increases on the products. But we’ve been running this operation a long time and our motivation is to provide a great product that people keep coming back for.”

Turning from a single-course operation to a company the size of Brown Golf Management seemingly would improve one’s chance of finding a more intensely bottom-line mindset, along with an approach that leverages statistical patterns identified by industry organizations like the National Golf Foundation—the NGF also being a longtime contributor to grow-the-game concepts and campaigns.

“I almost never look at National Golf Foundation participation numbers,” says company CEO John Brown. “The trends and patterns in those macro figures, and whatever programs are helping them or not helping them, aren’t directly actionable for us. In terms of data, there is a much lower-hanging fruit for our business, in the form of our own rounds-played numbers and our own KPIs and financials. That’s what we act on.”

With 26 courses to draw metrics from, the company’s CRM machine keeps configuring its data banks in new ways while slicing customer behavior into ever-thinner subsets. A survey tool it now has in wide use maps a given Brown Golf facility within 30-mile, 50-mile and 70-mile circles, drip-emailing on varying schedules with varying inducements to players at one distance versus another—all with automated promo codes that kick back another wave of data as they get entered.

Could this information system interface with regional metrics from Get Golf Ready or Golf 2.0 or Welcome2Golf or The First Tee? Possibly so, but with comparative inefficiency and a relatively high difficulty factor when it comes to interpretation.

“With business databases generally,” says Brown, “it used to be the-bigger-the-better; now it’s all about smaller-and-sharper. We buy into that, and we’re able to have our own data ecosystem, which is an advantage.”

Sounds pragmatic and hard-headed—which it is—but for Brown this viewpoint is balanced by a keen interest in activity that’s progressive and socially minded.

“Golf will always need programming that addresses people we haven’t traditionally reached,” he says emphatically. “For all kinds of reasons there hasn’t been diversity within our game. I’m involved with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically Black college that has a Professional Golf Management program. I speak to student groups there on a regular basis because I’d like our company, as well as our industry, to look more like society in general, meaning not just white and male.”

Meanwhile, certain centrally collected data that tells a national story gets close attention from Brown. Whenever the NGF reports on facility closures and their effect on golf course supply, it’s highly relevant to him.

“That data has echoed what I see in the field and in our operating statistics,” Brown says. “It’s been my sense that the pandemic-driven surge in play was definitely enhanced by our long period of shrinking golf inventory.”

    *        *        *        *        *        *

Another example of having proprietary data and a customized approach to growth is 12-year-old Operation36, recently acquired by another data-centric industry player, fast-growing Golf Genius Software. Indeed, the two PGA professionals who co-helm Operation36, Matt Reagan and Ryan Dailey, have banned use of the phrase “grow the game” among Op36 staffers, substituting the alternative, “grow rounds of golf.”  The difference is more significant than it may sound, because one of the Op36 pillars is teaching people—from the get-go—to pony up their green fee for a round of golf, then head right out and play that round.

This happens pretty much immediately upon enrollment, because the round of golf is dramatically truncated, such that the golfer has at least a fighting chance to post a score of 36 for nine holes—by starting very close to the cup on each hole—and thus plays at a fast pace that no established golfer could complain about. As they make progress, they start play at increasingly greater distances from that 4.25-inch goal.

As for Op36’s extensive proprietary data, it reveals the need for a daunting or even shocking amount of training and learning, over months as opposed to weeks, before a raw beginner is ready to make his or her way around a regulation course without dissolving in frustration and/or holding up play significantly. When Op36 people look at standard grow-the-game initiatives, they see activity in which the newer golfer is “only visiting the golf facility to participate in the entry program, never on their own.

“What happens is you create a temporary golf instruction customer, instead of a permanent golf course customer,” says Reagan. Again though, it’s a long road from non-golfer to established, self-sufficient golfer, but a short, quick trip from non-golfer to paying customer at the course, under this program. Either way, when Op36 shows its data and explains its Golfer Development Program in detail, one can see how a for-profit with a complex operating model is probably necessary to the process of creating a large number of new golfers who stay with the game.

Based on grow-the-game’s vagueness factor, and because of the natural link between ramped-up golfer activity and business growth, it makes sense for the many sub-varieties of growth to be enumerated, viewed distinctly, addressed in original ways and, lastly, measured on their own, apart from other versions of growth.

That said, here is a specific growth-of-golf menu:


Taking frequent golfers who spend minimally and upping their spend
Taking infrequent golfers and making them more frequent golfers
Taking families with one golfing member and turning them into families who get out and play together
Taking lapsed golfers and returning them to regular play
Taking non-golfers and making them into sometime golfers
Taking injured or wounded or disabled people and empowering them to participate in golf activities
Taking off-course-only golfers and making them into greengrass golfers

If adding golfers and adding rounds is something best done in specific cohorts using purpose-built programs, then the efforts of Kris Hart as founder of Nextgengolf is a prime example of that phenomenon. Hart’s target, located firmly within the “lapsed” golfer category, was college students who had played competitively in their youth and had no golf outlet once they got on campus. NGF studies had long ago identified participation drop-off in the 18-to-24 age segment, among people who played in their youth and would eventually circle back to golf.

That perspective became the seed for Nextgengolf, which began as an affordable-golf membership program for Boston collegians called CollegeGolfPass. Having tapped a pool of demand for recreational play among that cohort, the startup merged in 2013 with something called the National Collegiate Club Golf Association (NCCGA). In year one of the new operation, 100-plus new club golf programs were kick-started at universities and colleges nationwide.

In that startup phase, Hart’s research found 220,000 youth golfers in America who played on their high school team. He estimated that another 500,000 or so serious juniors had tried out for their high school team but missed the cut. Recognizing its addressable market, the company expanded the NCCGA steadily and eventually fed its ranks with a National High School Invitational that grew to include 348 boys and girls representing 40 U.S. states.

“Going back to when we started our ‘city tour’ seven years ago,” recalls Hart, whose company is now a unit of the PGA of America, “competing tours, groups and communities for young adults were rare. Now there are many golf organizations and events to connect people together. It seems like most of them are thriving, which is great.” In other words, it only takes one successful effort to peel off a cohort and serve that group’s golf needs—copycats will emerge to deepen what the pioneer began.

This is a simple reminder that for-profit companies, especially startups, tend to look for niche opportunities resulting from market demand that’s gone unnoticed. This is another reason why it’s difficult for private companies to directly apply generic, broad-brush promotions and concepts. Ian James, a golf marketing expert who has consulted extensively on business development for leading organizations like ClubCorp, does as good a job as anyone delving into data of the type generated by the NGF and coming out with sharply defined growth strategies.

James starts with a group of existing psychographic profiles, from the expansive pool of American adults with any sort of golf experience. “Juniors and people who have never played are certainly important, but to me these other cohorts offer better short-term potential,” he says. The profiles are defined by baseline statements people in the various groups would provide voluntarily, such as “I am a golfer,” “Golf is part of who I am,” “I play golf when I can,” “I’m not really a golfer” and “I used to be a golfer.” Again, research by NGF and other national organizations has been effective through the years at psychographic profiling such as James relies upon here.

“The greatest grow-the-game initiative, as measured by impact on playing numbers, engages specifically with the two cohorts that self-identify ‘I play when I can’ and ‘I’m not really a golfer,’” James asserts. “To address their ambivalence, you have to create a more connected social environment, or a better playing experience, or both. This plugs the famous leaky bucket. If a golf instructor is given the assignment to focus on leak-vulnerable customers, he or she can plug three buckets out of four—and I have years of data to prove this undeniably.”

Leveraging contact with instruction programs at private clubs is where James has broken through. Implementing his model for engagement of semi-committed golfers at Corp facilities, through a shepherding activity carried out by professional staff at those clubs, made KPIs on the ClubCorp spreadsheets surge in positive directions.

Growth of golf participation, and the improved business performance that results, look more and more like a mosaic, with progress generally coming niche by niche and tranche by tranche. Jason Becker, co-CEO of the very specialized firm Golf Life Navigators, had a business need to see snowbird golfers on the verge of retirement make faster and more confident decisions about which Sunbelt club community they would move to.

The company (paid by the communities) performs its consultation service to these folks using an algorithm built from responses to a comprehensive questionnaire. From that tool flows a river of definitive data, all about one little corner of the golf market. The facet of grow-the-game that’s been crucial to GLN’s performance in recent years is clear for Becker to see, in the data he’s collected and processed.

“It’s simple—the cultural shift in the role and the activity of women at private golf clubs,” he reports. “That has translated to a big rise in golf participation by women members at the Sunbelt clubs they buy homes in. And, on the front side, it really speeds up the process of choosing that most suitable community and coming through the gates. Women seem to dive into this exercise—they’ve got an attention span the guys don’t seem to possess.”

The era of broad-based, one-size-fits-all campaigns to grow participation and improve business performance could well be fading. Specialized data, fine-grained analytics, and the economy-wide shift toward refined business questions being answered accurately challenge the old approaches.

Outreach programs that engage less privileged populations and stand a chance to increase golf’s racial and cultural diversity will continue to be vital, according to people from all corners of the business. And so a bifurcation would emerge, with grow-the-game divided into efforts aimed at the greater social good and tightly targeted efforts that have a commercial intent and a disciplined business plan behind them.

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