To paraphrase the eternally wise Homer Simpson:
Millennials, the cause of —and solution to — all of golf's problems.
Having graduated high school in the year 2000, I think of myself as a kind of village elder among the millennials. So when I came across recent articles that literally said opposite things in terms of our impact on golf, it struck a nerve.
First, the bad news, courtesy of Business Insider:
"First off, millennials aren't into golf," explains Mallory Schlossberg at Business Insider (part of a multi-part "Millennials are killing" series which examines the impact of the "psychologically scarred" generation — is my despair that obvious?).
The article, which sources a suit from a research firm in a video, was particularly humorous to me because it says millennials prefer camping, and there isn't a pastime I loath more.
"It requires special apparel that you can only use when you're doing that particular activity, and Powell says that "they [millennials] want something that's much more versatile that they can use for multipurposes."
One category in the sporting industry they do like, though, is camping. Powell says it's "much more lighthearted." He explains how people can use camping equipment in a variety of places, like in their own backyards.
This feels so woefully out of date when you consider brands like Puma or Linksoul or Criquet or Travis Mathew whose main appeal is a versatile style for on and off the course. And then there are the not-so-traditional and recently controversial (lack of) clothing adorned in part by the growing Golf-Babe Army of Instagram.
Anyways, I don't think it's the clothing that is keeping millennials from playing golf.
Meanwhile, CNBC.com's Ailea Clark has an entirely different and promising vibe:
The National Golf Foundation's annual study of golf participation in the United States found that 36 percent of the nearly 24 million golfers in the United States are young adults aged 18 to 39, and over 15 million additional millennials expressed interest in taking up the game.
This increase has millennials on track to overtake all other age groups as the largest market share in the sport, and many in the industry have taken note.
At apparel maker Under Armour, golf as a category has grown 25 percent in three years and is one of its fastest growing segments, said Kevin Ross, the vice president and general manager of UA's global golf. "We have always positioned ourselves to be the 'brand of the next generation.'"
The NGF research provides some good and bad: on-course participation is down 1.2% YoY but core golfers are actually playing and spending more. And non-course facilities, thanks to new simulator concepts and most notably TopGolf (not to mention a new breed of knockoffs) are enjoying robust growth. In fact, NGF reports 4 million young adults have only played the game at a non-golf course facility.
I've noticed lately in speaking with other industry folks that the usual "Will Tiger make a comeback?" conversation starter seems to be replaced more and more with, "Is TopGolf actually good for golf?" I think these numbers from the NGF help illustrate the point I've been making lately: golf courses might not want beginners showing up to play 18 holes because it will have an negative effect two ways: not only will the regulars behind them grow upset at the pace of play, but inevitably a ranger has to come to the beginners and tell them to speed up, which could intimidate the group and so go home and tell their friends how stuffy the golf course is. If that group instead goes to TopGolf a bunch of times and then maybe one of them gets the golf bug and begins going to a driving range and then a golf course regularly with a little more acumen in the sport, that's a huge win for the industry in many respects.
It got me wondering how many millennials are writing golf course reviews? I looked at the accounts on Golf Advisor with at least one review and who have added age data to their profile:
So it's quite clear that millennials are engaged in the sport with nearly 23% of our users being 34 or younger. The trick for golf marketers is in my opinion to find subtle ways to enhance the experience for all ages thru technology without going Full Pokemon, which to the avid young golfer can be a bit patronizing. I recall during last year's presidential election, pundits would speak of candidates reaching out to "women voters" and "black voters" like these 10s of millions of people somehow all think alike. It might sound crazy, but there are young golfers who enjoy the game's tradition. I've been to courses that try to promote their Bluetooth speakers, footgolf, lax dress code, social hashtags, course apps and surfboards, and my first question is, "Can I walk?" (My second is, "Can I bring my dog?")
The main things that keep me up at night in terms of the golf business are ensuring the right kind of affordable metro area courses whose land values are skyrocketing can remain sustainable, because they are the best way to introduce youth to the game (See: Austin's Muny), and income inequality affecting more and more families from being able to comfortably afford golf memberships or play regularly.
Consider another potential growth effect: millennials are now bearing children. And even if the parents aren't golfers, they're finding golf to be a good place to take their kids in the summertime or after school. TGA, which provides after-school golf programming across the U.S., reports 65-70% of their participating families had never played golf. And as their children become more proficient in the sport, TGA is finding that their parents are becoming more interested in the game and are moving into parent-child lessons at local golf facilities.
Just think of the possibilities now that millennials are now old enough to breed a whole new generation — a generation we'll be able to blame all the problems of the world on soon enough.