Marketing to Millennials: Want to secure golf’s future? Reconnect to its past.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, golf’s best days are not behind it. At least, that was the message delivered by Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation, in a joint presentation with the USGA recently in San Diego. That being said, Mona emphasized that if the game is to continue to thrive well into the future, more could and should be done to appeal to Millennials (those aged 18-34).
I agree with both assessments. According to the National Golf Foundation, 25 million people played a round of golf in America in 2015. That measure has held virtually steady for more than 10 years, except for the Tiger Woods-fueled bump up to 30 million in 2005. So it would seem we’re dealing with a steady state ecosystem here, where the number of people who take up the game are roughly equal the number who leave it. I don’t have stats for other parts of the world, including the UK. But my hunch is that a similar dynamic is in play.
Meanwhile, other folks—primarily those who have a golf-related product to sell—have been preaching gloom and doom. That makes sense if you run a publicly traded company (such as a Callaway or Taylor Made) and have to continually stoke sales to boost your stock price. If you simply play the game, and enjoy all that it has to offer, then rest easy. Golf’s been around for at least 500 years. As along as we wise up and stop destroying the planet, it will be around for at least 500 more.
Mona’s focus, however, is more short term: say the next 20-30 years. For that, he’s correct to identify Millennials as mission critical. However, his suggestions for attracting the next generation—such as opening up the dress code (see Rickie Fowler’s high-tops), expanding the use of technology on the course and even advocating the use of music while playing—have me concerned that the powers that be are going about this the wrong way.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Golf’s gift to the world is that it creates a bubble—of both time and space—within which to escape our increasingly digital and obsessively-connected virtual world. The last thing we should do is to try to recreate that frenetic space on the course in hopes of attracting young adults who seem tethered to their smartphones as if by an umbilical cord.
That’s not to say technology doesn’t have a place in golf. I’ve recently become enamored with a GPS watch. And I’ve been a long-time user of a laser range finder. But my iPhone, if I even load it into my golf bag, almost never comes out. As such, I get four hours free and clear of social media alerts, text messages and email, not to mention good old-fashioned phone calls. How wonderfully counter-culture is that?
Perhaps I’m naïve. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we pitched a round of golf to Millennials as a mini-vacation from the onslaught of the Internet—similar to the way spas are promoted to stressed-out professionals (in particular women). If they were to so indulge, might they rediscover the wonders of the natural world, albeit a portion of it that’s been shaped and molded into a golf course? Might they reengage in real-time conversations with their friends, a dying art seemingly replaced these days by the far more controlled and constrained exchange of instant messaging (even with emoticons)? Might they reconnect with the subtle movement of their bodies as they swing a club and walk over contoured turf? Might they hear, once again, their unique voice from within that—all too often—is drowned out by the cacophony that surrounds us?
As I see it, that’s an activity worth pursuing. And the time it requires, even if you can only spare 2-3 hours per week for 9 holes, is well spent. It’s also the game that I almost always find whenever I indulge in it here in Scotland. Those core values, there at the game’s birth, are still alive and well—if we can just manage to unplug long enough to recognize them. Given half a chance, I’m convinced it’s those same values that will attract and lay claim to the hearts and minds of future generations, deep into the 21st century.
Golf might be royal. It might be ancient. But, from where I sit, it’s still primed to go the distance.