What does the future of golf look like to you? At first glance you’d be hard pushed to argue that the future was anything but bright. It is played by 55 million people globally. It generates over $300bn revenue annually. It is quickly being adopted in key emerging markets, capitalising on growth in the Middle East and South Asia. Its key brand advocates are international superstars, battling it out across the globe to win multi-million pound cash prizes live in front of thousands of adoring brand advocates. Sports brands such as Nike and Adidas compete to kit out the world’s best, and luxury brands such as BMW, TAG Heuer and HSBC clamour to endorse and sponsor tournaments around the world.
But there is trouble looming. It could be argued that the upfront costs of time and money attached to learning the sport and hence being able to appreciate it (!) is a cost not worth paying. It could also be argued that the inherent structure of the game, taking 3-4 hours on a blustery Sunday afternoon could be deemed too long in a world of hyper-connectivity and short attention spans. It could even be argued that the rigidity of the golf rules and “etiquette” is alienating to this rebellious, stick-it-to-the-man younger generation.
Although concerns surrounding the game’s structural and financial restrictions are valid, I actually thing there is a greater intangible challenge to face. Golf has a branding problem which is a more potent threat to its long-term prosperity.
This seems like a strange admission for me to make. Look at Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, I hear you cry! Look at their adoring fans! Look at their sponsorship deals! Look how much money the golf brand generates! Every sport has their flagship athletes who elevate the sport itself, becoming stars in their own right. Yet despite the success of young professional golfers such as Rory Mcllroy and Tiger Woods and their associated sponsorship deals, amateur players appear to be switching off.
So why aren’t more people taking up golf? How can a sport which attracts so much sponsorship money and commands such an arm-chair following at the professional end of the industry struggle to recruit amateur players? There appears to be a clear divorce between perceptions at the professional end of the industry, and the “Sunday-hackers” brigade. The professional end is shiny, young, diverse (but still rich). It is part-celebrity, part-sport. Yet the amateur golfer, and courses frequented by amateurs, remain steeped in tradition and prestige. Although this is “how it has always been” it isn’t exactly inclusive and welcoming.
Let me ask you a question: What is the typical person that springs to mind when I say the word golfer?
If you’re thinking of anyone other than an old, rich white man then I applaud you for your open-mindedness but I would argue that this is the archetype that most people associate with amateur golfers. I would hazard a guess that most people think of country clubs, back-slapping business deals and “old-fashioned” attitudes rather than the recent and admiral schemes to get players who are younger and from more diverse backgrounds into the sport. Although the actuality of this perception is probably less true now than they once were, the fact that most non-golfers would see golf in this manner is itself a problem. And this cuts right to the heart of my issue with the golf brand: the brand is seen at large as one not for the masses, a brand for a very specific type of person. And the fact is that this type of person is aging and *cough* dying. And so the brand must evolve and address these perception issues to recruit new consumers. Although breaking the financial and logistical barriers is crucial, repositioning the golf brand to be more inclusive is equally important. You can bring a horse to water, so to speak, but you can’t make it drink (or play golf, for that matter.)
The alternative of course is to let golf die. Why should new anyone bother to pick up a club and play this old man’s game called golf? Although this attitude could be popular, especially with golf’s traditional associations with a wealthy elite, the thing is, I love golf and think that everyone should play it. I think it’s valuable not just because it’s fun, but crucially because it teaches you unique life skills. It teaches you the value of etiquette, sportsmanship and addressing the challenge of combining brute force and laser-like precision. It’s analytical, mentally stimulating and physically challenging. There is rarely a sport where a two players with a 30 year age gap can compete toe to toe too. Further, in a world where you’re constantly connect to technology, taking the time to spend four hours on a golf course is probably a break most people would welcome. The logistical issues aside, the challenge of the industry is to re-brand for the modern consumer- making the golf affordable, welcoming and enticing to all. And this isn’t just a pipe-dream: facilities such as TopGolf are completely revolutionising traditional perceptions of the game, turning the driving range into a sociable hub for twentysomethings. Here’s hoping it will continue to go from strength to strength.
Someone once said that golf is a good walk ruined- I just hope that by the time I’m a miserable old golfer, I’ll have enough brand advocates around me looking to ruin their walk.