The Future of Golf Participation - Part I

By: Barney Adams

June 26, 2013


Barney Adams


Dallas, TX - Given my history with Tee It Forward, I have spent a significant amount of time studying participation data in the golf industry. Recently, I saw two forecasts, one from the NGF and one from Golf 20/20. The former predicts 3 million new golfers by 2020, keeping up with the population increase; the latter, an increase to 30 million players in 5 years. Apples to apples the 5 million increase would constitute almost 29 million, so the NGF is relatively more conservative.

My initial reaction to these revelations was somewhere between negative and incredulous. They have 30 years worth of data that refutes their own positions. But, as I contemplated more, it became evident that the real issue is how to increase participation, not criticize forecasts.

The facts: golf participation has significantly lost ground vs. the population increase over the last 30 years-something well over 20%. Junior golf is down 30% from its high in 2005. And in fact, if you carefully look at the participation data since 1985, everything is down.

The NGF has a category encompassing all who play at least once a year, age six and older, the base they use for their 2020 forecast). While that category shows a similar decline, I am more specific in my analysis. They have a category called "Avid," those who play 25+ times a year. This category accounts for and pick up 71% of all golf associated costs. A clear path: grow this group and good things fall in line.
 
Definitely a straightforward objective, we have the category we want to expand - now let's develop programs to increase their play, just as has been done in the past. It worked! We had 10.2 million avid golfers in 2000, only ultimately it didn't work. Well, that group of avid golfers did grow once. From 1985 to 2000, it grew from 6.8 million to 10.2 million.  But that didn't solve the problem, because then it shrank. From 10.2 million in 2000 to 9.1 million in 2005, 7.0 million in 2010, we end up with 6.8 million and counting in 2012, the same as we had in 1985, not close to keeping up with the population increase). So it isn't about getting them, it's about keeping them and that is where every organization associated with the game needs to focus. There have been enough economic and weather variations over those years to factor them out as the cause; the culprit is the game itself.
 
In the business world this would be identified as a case of product rejection. At all levels, men, women and juniors, we can get them started, but we can't get them to stay with the game. We continue to try and attract new players but until the product rejection issue is turned around these efforts will not fix the participation issue. 
 
I understand that there will be some who say the current status is acceptable so let's not interfere. Two million jobs, people supporting families, kids with summer jobs-that is what the industry provides and that base is being eroded. If that isn't an incentive, there is a long range forecast which is so negative folks tune it out. That is the result of today's birth rate, the lowest in history, By comparison, the baby boomers, today's chief golf participants had the highest birth rate in our history.
 
Let's be the generation that is recognized for taking action that has a positive effect on participation. In Part 2, I'll propose a fix that is within the rules and spirit of the game, is virtually cost free and at the end of the day, a solution that we can easily install. I'm talking about us, the folks who play the game.