The NBA resorted to playing HORSE. Baseball’s spring training came to a screeching halt. And the NFL hosted its iconic annual draft in a fully virtual format from Commission Roger Goodell’s man cave. While most sports suffered as a result of social distancing, golf hit a hole in one with new audiences and is experiencing positive growth. The allure of the outdoors, a new abundance of free time and the opportunity to stay active while six feet from other players is attracting new segments of players to tee up and head to the green.
Golf Is A Growing Sport In America
Even before COVID-19, interest in golf was gaining traction among new players and was a major U.S. sport. 34.2 million Americans teed off in 2019 while one out of every three Americans played golf, watched golf or read about the $84 billion golf industry last year. Increased exposure to the once exclusive sport, from golf games and venues like Topgolf, Drive Shack and indoor simulators, are supporting golf’s popularity growth.
Golf Is Gaining Traction With First-Time Audiences
2019 was a banner year for new golfers, with 2.5 million people playing golf on a course for the first time – breaking the previous industry record which was set in 2000, when the height of Tiger Woods’ popularity drove 2.4 million new players to the green.
Golf Is Attracting Millennials & Gen Z Players
Even though the game debuted in the 15th century, golf’s largest player segment is represented by some of the youngest generations, with 6.1 million players ages 18-34 steadily increasing their engagement with the sport every year. AdAge suggests that Millennials are now helping to revive the sport that was once ill-aligned with their consumer values.
More Women & Girls Are Becoming Interested In Golf
According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), 5.6 million golfers are adult women, with the number of women playing on golf courses steadily rising since 2012. In addition to appealing to more adult women, 36% of junior golfers (players under 18) are girls. In 2018, the LPGA launched the #inviteHER campaign to encourage women participating on off-course activities to feel welcome on the green for rounds of golf play. Executive Director of the LPGA Amateur Golf Association Jane Geddes, said, “We are committed to promoting an environment that makes all females feel more comfortable on the course so they develop into lifetime golfers.”
Recent Golf Sales Reflect A New Golfer
From March 1st through the 19th, golf courses in Somerset County, NJ experienced a dramatic 300% increase in the number of rounds played compared to March 2019. Golf courses around the U.S. reported similar surges. Meanwhile, Google shopping insights show that search volume for “golf” doubled from mid-March to mid-May.
Consumers are searching for limited-contact activities that allow them to safely be outdoors and active. As such, according to retail sales tracker, NPD Group, sales of off-course golf equipment soared in March. Sales of golf nets and screens, specifically, rose 144% and sales of putting and swinging matts increased 138% year over year. Interest in golf products could be an indicator of shifting consumer values. In an NDP press release, Senior Industry Advisor Matt Powell said, “The consumer lifestyle shift, as a result of the current circumstances, has put the sports business in a unique position compared to most other industries. I anticipate we’ll see a renewed emphasis on health and fitness for the long term.”
Online golf retailers are feeling positive. Ed Byman, CEO of Global Value Commerce (GVC), owner of GlobalGolf.com, GlobalGolf.ca, 3balls.com and FairwayStyles.com, believes 2020 is a time for golf retailers to shine. “People are value-oriented right now,” Byman said, “They still want to play, but instead of that $550 driver, they might buy a $299 driver.”
In-Store Equipment & Product Sales Return To Golf Courses & Off-Course Retailers
While the number of golfers actively playing is important, a majority of golf courses rely on the positive impact of in-store equipment, merchandise and related product sales to drive their revenues. During the height of mandated shutdowns in March and April, approximately 70% of golf retailers were closed to the public.
But, as states begin to re-open, golf retailers and on-course pro shops are inviting customers back in, allowing them to complete transactions and browse items in brick-and-mortar locations. With the exception of Michigan, New Jersey, Illinois and New York, by May 25th, 79% of golf retail stores and 66% of on-course golf shops were open and accessible for customers.
PGA Tour Superstore President and CEO Dick Sullivan noted in-store sales from the first two weeks of May were higher than the full month of May 2019*. Sullivan said, “Some of it is pent-up demand, but this is the one sport that provides so many benefits — not only the health benefits of being outside and the exercise, but this great 400-year old game that’s built on relationships.” Core golfers (golfers who play a minimum of eight rounds of golf in a 12 month period) surveyed by the National Golf Foundation (NGF) noted that they are shifting their discretionary spending away from activities like travel, dining and entertainment. Continued consumer spending shifts could encourage golfers of all kinds to spend more on playing a game that allows them to enjoy the outdoors while practicing social distancing.
How Can Golf Hit A Hole-In-One & Retain New Audiences
Innovative marketing initiatives such as LPGA’s #inviteHER campaign and “The Match: Champions For Charity,” which featured PGA superstars Tiger Woods and Phil Michelson playing alongside NFL legends Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, demonstrate how one of the oldest sports in the world can appeal to new audiences with fresh approaches. To maintain its positive momentum with new audiences, the golf industry and brands within will need to learn as much as they can about their new audiences and their reasons for playing, which are likely to be different than their parents’ reasons for playing a round of golf. Marketers of golf should prioritize promoting positive and inclusive player experiences, as new golfers are looking to learn the game without feeling stressed or ostracized.
By learning more about the values and habits of their new audiences, golf brands have an opportunity to expand their reach and convert moderately interested players into lifetime golfers.
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*(Note: Sales performance from May 2019 was compared to an equal number of stores open for business during the first two weeks of May 2020)