Is Golf Dying as a Sales Relationship Tool?


In late July, Golf World (Golf Digest) made an important announcement about their print edition, which was first published in 1947. As part of their new “strategic vision”, the monthly magazine will go exclusively digital. In other words, there will be no more physical copy of the magazine after nearly 60 years running.

On its own, this news doesn’t seem like a big deal. Periodicals have been continuing to move digital as the internet solidifies its presence in our everyday life with access to information on demand. However, the change in business strategy for this long-standing staple of the golf market indicates that there are other transitions at play. If we look at the numbers as a whole, golf is quickly declining as a popular pastime in the United States.

The National Golf Foundation regularly publishes information regarding course construction, play, and overall statistics relating to the golf industry. One of the most recent statistics includes a net loss of nearly 650,000 men in the game in 2013. One third of the 650,000 encompasses the 18 to 34 age group who are spending time and disposable income elsewhere.

Another surprising figure is the 157 courses that closed their doors in 2013. The net number of 143 courses that have been lost in 2014 is the largest total since 1946. Maybe it has something to do with the data from Sageworks, which shows that U.S. golf courses and country clubs, on average, face persistent unprofitability. Over the last 12 months, golf courses and country clubs lost about 2 cents for every dollar of revenue (memberships, fees, shop sales, restaurants).

Additionally, 462 million rounds were played in 2013, the fewest since 1995. No surprise since The National Golf Foundation reported in 2010 that the number of golfers age 6-17 had dropped 24% between 2005-2008.

Overall, these numbers don’t look favorable for the industry, or for business executives. Golfers refer to these collective trends as a “market correction”. But is it really? Golf is growing globally in other countries including China, South Korea, France and Germany. Golf is even becoming an Olympic sport in 2016. The International Golf Federation believes that a golf explosion is imminent in many parts of the world. Just not in the United States.

Although the game of golf may be on the rise in global popularity as a spectator sport, these figures show that golf continues to decline as a game that we engage in as American consumers. So, what does this mean for business relationships?

Many deals have been won (and lost) on the golf course. In fact, many organizations and sales departments rely on building relationships by holding a captive audience for 5-6 hours at a time. However, the law of averages implies that less decision makers will be playing golf because of the widespread declining interest level. On the flipside, there is an argument that maybe these trends don’t apply to the impact on business, since golf is paid for (free!) by the sponsoring corporation. Economic recovery remains strong, but data shows that consumers are still cautious in their luxury spend, which may be where the majority of the decline in golf sales and rounds played is originated. We were unable to find research supporting this argument, however.

When we talk about “free”, we have to consider the policies and procedures associated with that special word because organizations continue to crack down on employees accepting gifts from vendors. There is a known fear by companies that activities such as golf may subjectively influence financial making decisions in favor of one vendor over another.

We’re in a conundrum. Can we continue to build relationships using the old school method of going out and hitting 18 holes with a sales prospect? Is golf still a game that is attractive to the masses, or do we need to find another activity that is more interesting to the next generation of buyers?

Maybe we should suggest attending their kids Ice Hockey (youth participation up 64%) or Lacrosse (158%) games – it’s usually free to attend and we will certainly get their attention! Or better yet, just study up on the sports so you have common topics of discussion when it’s time to build the relationship.


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