A pair of old political catch phrases could justifiably be used in tandem these days to sum up the state of the golf industry:
“It’s morning again in America.” (Ronald Reagan)
“It’s the economy, stupid.” (Bill Clinton advisor James Carville)
But is the once-reeling golf industry truly experiencing a new dawn? And if so, is an upstart U.S. economy – just eight years beyond the Great Recession – really the reason behind such a boon? The answers to these questions vary among individuals, although most golf-related parties can agree on one thing: A healthy economy certainly can’t hurt the game.
The more, the merrier (manufactured or not)
The sport of golf, at best, is in the midst of rejuvenation and, at worst, is holding its own after enjoying a successful 2016, according to industry leaders Rhett Evans and Steve Mona. By the time the new year arrives and numbers are compiled, 2017 will be reviewed in a positive – and unique – light, they say.
Evans, the CEO of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, points to his group’s two primary indicators. Worldwide membership increased to more than 17,000, and GCSAA’s signature event, the Feb. 8-9 Golf Industry Show in Orlando, Florida, attracted 13,600 attendees – up almost a thousand from the previous conference. “We had an extremely strong show in 2017; in fact, one of the stronger shows we’ve had since 2008,” Evans says.
A bit more cautious for the time being is Mona, the CEO of the World Golf Foundation, where the mission is to grow the game worldwide. Although he won’t claim victory until seeing the final 2017 numbers in March, he does believe this year is providing further proof that the golf industry is stabilizing. “Whereas we’re not experiencing the sort of growth that we had back in the days where we were seeing substantial growth, we’re nonetheless stable,” he says.
What Mona expects to relish most about 2017 is the significant modification in how the National Golf Foundation defines participation. No longer is participation measured only at traditional green grass facilities. Recognized for the first time in the March release of the NGF’s 2016 study were three facets of the sport – entertainment complexes, such as Topgolf, Drive Shack and FlyingTee; driving ranges; and simulator golf. The bottom line: The number of golf participants in 2016 instantaneously jumped from 24 million to 32 million.
“That’s how we’re going to be defining golf participation going forward,” Mona says. “I think this was the turning point of the year, when we started to define it differently. … The way that people are consuming golf now has evolved, and we believe that the golf industry needs to evolve with that.”
Could the increased numbers be considered deceiving? Or do they accurately validate an increase in the sport’s popularity? As Mona quickly notes, those newly recognized 8 million players “are having a golf experience. They have a golf club in their hand. They’re striking the golf ball. They’re just not at a green grass golf facility.”
The macroeconomic chopping block
Logic dictates that a leisure activity such as golf will mirror the status – good or bad – of various macroeconomic factors, such as employment, inflation and gross domestic product. As the GCSAA’s Evans says of his successful GIS conference last February, “if the economy is struggling, it’s a more difficult proposition.”
Todd McFall, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Economics at Wake Forest University, says interest in golf will continue to at least be maintained as long as the economy is robust. But it’s an expensive sport, he adds, and when there’s a downturn, much of the industry will suffer.
He cites 2008, when leisure spending was about $2,800 per household. By 2010, two years into the recession, households were, on average, spending only $2,500 per year, a drop of 10 percent. Unemployment rose about three percentage points during that time, so many households, he says, had to make tough choices about budgets, and most recognized that leisure spending was a necessary place to make changes.
“When wages stagnate or, worse, when a household loses employment, the first areas of spending that get chopped are activities like travel, visits to restaurants and participation in hobbies,” McFall says.
Adds former golf pro Matthew Seppanen, now the managing partner of Newpark Wealth Management in Park City, Utah, “When I’m doing retirement income planning for families, if it were food on the table or nine holes of golf, it’s food on the table every single day.”
Golf suffered during the recession more than less-intensive leisure activities, McFall says, because participants typically need to invest in equipment and pay a membership or fee at the course of their choice. They also need the free time to play nine or 18 holes.
“For a typical family, this makes golf a game that likely is tied very closely to the business cycle. When these families feel some economic anxiety, they will have to hold off on buying new clubs and playing additional rounds, which often take place at daily-fee courses,” McFall says.
Meanwhile, families with more wealth or higher incomes don’t feel quite the pinch that middle-class families feel, McFall says, and it would be surprising to find them cutting back on golf-related expenditures to the extent that lower-income earners might.
“Certainly, the story of the Great Recession was that many families on the higher end of the income distribution saw their incomes recover more quickly than those at lower ends of the distribution, and these families likely took advantage of discounted equipment sales and lower rates for joining clubs or playing premium courses once their economic anxieties started to diminish,” he says.
Happy days are here again
The Great Recession occurred in the United States between December 2007 and June 2009. The country’s economy was slow to bounce back the ensuing seven years but has since been on a roll in 2017. Wall Street is booming and unemployment is at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent.
Timothy Derdenger, an associate professor of marketing and strategy in the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, says the rollback of regulations and an all-around pro-business environment are helping businesses grow, which, in the end, will help consumers and business owners, while the employees of those businesses will receive higher wages. “I don’t think we’ve seen [the higher wages] quite yet, but my expectation is that they will come hopefully,” Derdenger says. “In the long run our economy is fine – as long as we stay out of the way of it.”
McFall agrees that the economy will continue to grow in the near-term. Unemployment rates are lower than average, historically speaking, he says. Wages are rising at nearly every point on the income distribution. And the tax bill the U.S. Senate is currently discussing could bring a windfall to many households and corporations.
At the same time, McFall adds, banks are still being regulated by Dodd-Frank legislation, “which means these lending institutions have less freedom in making decisions compared to a decade ago.” Rising wages mean inflationary pressure, “and surely the Federal Reserve is monitoring the possibility of inflation disrupting the efficiency of credit markets and is on the ready to raise interest rates to take oxygen out of any expansion,” he says. Additionally, the Fed is unwinding its bond-buying program, which had helped the economy expand during the Great Recession. “If the Fed miscalculates financial institutions’ demand for buying these assets,” he says, “then the result will be higher-than- expected inflation.”
“The good news is certainly outweighing the bad news,” McFall concludes. “But there are always storm clouds.”
Any positive on the economic front is a positive on the golf front, according to Derdenger, who has written three papers on the golf industry and the impact that celebrity endorsements have on product sales.
“With higher wages, it all comes back to discretionary spending,” he says. “Higher wages give more discretionary spending. More discretionary spending leads to more golf – more golf balls sold, more golf clubs sold, more private memberships sold, more rounds of golf.”
OK, maybe it isn’t the economy, stupid
Most agree, then, that economic stability can only benefit the sport. But if the golf industry had started to rebound as early as 2014, according to Mona, and the economy didn’t begin to improve until 2017, is there still a significant correlation between the two upsurges?
“Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t,” Derdenger says. “I think it helps, but I don’t think you can attribute all of this to the economy.”
Devon Klumb, the co-founder of RhineVest, a Cincinnati-based financial planning firm, agrees: “Generally speaking, when the economy is in good health, consumers tend to find more comfort in spending disposable income as opposed to saving it. However, I don’t feel that the economy is driving the growth of golf.”
So, where does the credit go? The finance experts pose several nonfinance-related answers, starting with the emergence of marketable young professional players, including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Michelle Wie and Lydia Ko.
“I think the quality of PGA and LPGA tour players – on and off the course – right now is the gasoline on this fire,” Klumb says. “Jordan, Rickie, Justin, Dustin, Michelle, etc. – these individuals are electric, and they are the ones making golf relevant to those who have been playing and watching for years, as well as those who are new to the sport. It’s hard not to watch these pros on TV and think to yourself, ‘That could be me, right?'”
At the same time, 2014 was also a period “when we, as golf fans, realized that Tiger Woods is not going to come back to the caliber he was before the incident,” Derdenger, says. “This was the point in time we accepted that but also the point in time that we started to have some good young players come up. All these young players brought attention back to the game of golf.”
In addition, Klumb says, marketing efforts among golf equipment companies have segued into the mainstream media. “Now, more than ever, golf is appealing to everyone, not just those of us out on the course two to three times a week,” he says.
Speaking of 2014, Derdenger also credits the debut that year of Play 9, the USGA and PGA’s initiative to address the sport’s time demands. “I really think this was the turning point for them,” he says. “Prior to that, rounds of golf were down. They realized it took a long time to play 18 holes. Just getting people out there and playing nine holes has helped tremendously.”
While fresh stars are more prevalent, so are youth-age players, according to Derdenger, an Arizona native who started playing at age 7 and earned a scholarship to play for George Washington University. “The number of young players playing golf is as high if not higher than during the heyday,” he says.
McFall, meanwhile, lauds the baby boomer generation. “Demographics are on golf’s side. People are going to be retiring in droves, and they’ll have plenty of time to spend on the links,” he says. “Also, younger people are being drawn to the game because their parents are more secure in their economic state, and programs like First Tee are seeing payoffs to their heavy investments in many areas.”
Norman O’Reilly, the chair of the Department of Sports Administration at Ohio University, cites two target markets that are driving growth. One revolves around older couples who golf for fitness and social activity. “Courses in retirement areas are doing well, and they are catering to this market,” he says, lauding their shorter courses, more modest slope ratings, and nine-hole, six-hole and 12-hole variations. The other target audience is men under age 40 who enjoy good incomes. “Urban golf, high-end courses, etc., are catering to this group,” O’Reilly says.
The growth of Topgolf in the U.S. is an interesting trend, O’Reilly adds, and golf’s return to the Olympic Games in 2016 and beyond “certainly has had an impact on its reach to nontraditional golf markets.”
All things being equal, Mona concludes, the general outlook for the industry these days is positive.
“I see a continuance of this strength in the game,” he says. “But we can’t see another economic environment like we did during the Great Recession. That will call off a lot of these bets.”