Millennials and Golf’s Changing Landscape

Written by John Gordon

Like all businesses, golf has found “millennial” easy to define but a challenge to embrace, much less engage.

From the definition standpoint, here’s a concise demographic summary.

A “millennial”, also known generically as a member of “Generation Y” or an “Echo Boomer,” (because they are the offspring of Baby Boomers), is generally considered to be someone born in the early 1980s up to the late 1990s and early 2000s. At this point, most range between 18 and 34 years of age.

In the U.S., millennials now slightly outnumber Baby Boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964. That statistic is reflected in Canada, where we identify Boomers being born between 1947 and 1966. In any case, millennials now represent the largest workforce cohort in North America as Boomers reach retirement age.

So that’s the definition, which reflects the reality that every industry must address to succeed. Undeniably, golf is struggling with that challenge, perhaps more than most because of its unique status. Is it a game? A sport? An industry?

For many years, it has been opined that “golf business” is an oxymoron. Perhaps it is because “golf” has relied on its 500-year legacy to expect its ongoing survival, rather than approach the sport for what it is: a consumer-based product. One that’s under siege from some formidable competition for the entertainment dollar as never before.

That’s just a cold hard fact.

And that fact is reflected in the challenges that the sport faces, with well-documented declining or flat-lining participation statistics.

Golf must evolve.

Today, millennials, a significant market segment with a huge upside, represent that evolutionary prerogative.

The challenge for golf is multi-faceted and difficult, perhaps more so than other industries. In a great demographic divide, golf is controlled, for the most part, by Baby Boomers who, as owners, operators and club members, seem perversely, inextricably tied to the traditional business model. They don’t (or won’t) understand the expectations of millennials.

That’s a whiff, in golf terms.

“Successful modern brands understand that the demand for their product(s) comes from unique customer segments,” according to the Golf and the Millennial Generation study by Golf 20/20, an industry-wide coalition of U.S. golf organizations.

“Each has a personality, a set of needs and a certain willingness to spend… In order to deepen the engagement level of our current millennial golfers, and attract and retain the millions of prospects who tell us they want ‘in,’ golf needs to take a close look at itself… We must modernize our brand.”

Kris Hart is the founder and CEO of www.nextgengolf.com and co-chair of Golf 20/20’s Millennial Task Force. He says in order to address the needs and wants of millennials, golf courses must reorient themselves to become “experiential entertainment facilities.”

Not “reinvent.” “Reorient.”

He doesn’t mean courses must employ gimmicks such as 15-inch holes, golf boards and bikes, and other passing fads. The integrity of the game must be preserved.  Instead, he emphasizes that millennials want action, technology, updated food and beverage options, high customer service standards, and an overt element of excitement. They want to “golf.” And have fun doing it.

“These are educated, connected and value-oriented young people who are evaluating golf against their myriad other entertainment options,” says Hart. “When they go through that process, how do we ensure golf has a seat at the table?”

TopGolf combines golf and entertainment off the course. With more than 30 venues, largely in the U.S., TopGolf, in partnership with Cineplex, plans to open its first Canadian venue in 2019.

“Each venue features fun and competitive golf games for all ages, climate-controlled playing bays similar to a bowling lane, an impressive food and drink menu, private spaces for groups of any size, HDTVs to watch the big game and a music selection that will make every visit feel like a party,” according to its web site.

TopGolf entertained, and the emphasis is on “entertained,” more than 13 million customers in 2017, half of whom were non-golfers. Its winning formula, according to Director Jeehae Lee, is “an interactive play experience, great food, music, and a community atmosphere.”

Exactly what everyone wants from golf, right? Where did we go off track? More importantly, how do we get back on the demographic train?

To assume the TopGolf experience will translate into more on-course golfers is akin to assuming every millennial who takes part in other currently popular entertainment activities among that demographic such as axe-throwing or paintball will become a lumberjack or a sniper.

So where does this leave course operators?

Don MacKay has a unique perspective. As a Golf Canada Director at Large and past-president of the National Golf Course Owners Association Canada, he has been battling golf’s challenges for many years on several fronts. Not only is he the co-owner of Muskoka Highlands Golf Links in Bracebridge, Ont., but he also chairs Golf Canada’s Membership Committee, among other association duties.

MacKay says progressive golf facilities will adapt the successful aspects of the TopGolf experience to their courses.

“You have to push the right buttons, no matter who your customer is and to do that, you may have to change the way you run things without alienating any one group. If younger golfers want to hoot and holler and play music, so be it, as long as it’s not compromising the game. Who cares what the dress code is, as long as you’re respectful of other players and the course? Do it right, and they may evolve into core golfers in the years to come.”

From a Golf Canada perspective, MacKay also notes that a reluctance to embrace the non-traditional expectations of younger golfers is impacting club and association membership levels. Of our country’s six-million “golfers,” only about 300,000 belong to a provincial association and, by extension, Golf Canada, and only about two-thirds of those have a current handicap factor.

In a stark departure from the traditional approach, MacKay says, “for the good of golf, we have to be relevant not only to those people who already play the game but to those who might want to play the game.” He suggests, and with good reason, that a new benefit-laden and entertainment-based incentive would attract those 5.7-million or so Canadians interested in the game to become part of the golf culture.

The Northern California Golf Association owns both Poppy Hills and Poppy Ridge. PGA of America professional Cole Handley leads the NCGA’s Millennial program, one that has been adopted in some fashion by at least 19 other state golf associations.

He says millennials have an insatiable appetite for entertainment options and, for golf, that means they’re ever-aware of the alternatives for their time and money.  To paraphrase his key message, golf facilities have to give them an experience that, when they pick up their phone, you’ve given them something worth sharing with their friends. “You have to keep them engaged, even when they are not at your course.”

Glenn Gray co-chairs the Golf 20/20 Millennial Task Force with Kris Hart. A vice-president of Buffalo Agency, a global golf and sport marketing agency, he is very aware of the urgency of attracting an affluent and acquisitive millennial market share to golf.

Even with his expertise, he admits it is a formidable challenge. “Putting all ‘millennials’ into one bucket is impossible. What are their various expectations? What is their budget? What is their time commitment? They are savvy, value-oriented and social. “

Overall, (oxymoron alert) “golf” as a “business” has been late to the social media world, to its detriment. One negative review on social media is one too many, yet most courses do not have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, not only to defend themselves but to promote their product.

In short, millennials represent a paradigm shift for golf. How best to approach this tectonic movement, not only to address the current demographic bubble but to anticipate future changes?

Hart and Gray co-authored a blog on www.wearegolf.org, titled “Are You Ready? How the Golf Industry Can Help Prepare You.” The article cites a checklist for ensuring golf facilities are “millennial ready.”

The site’s stated mandate is to “ensure those interacting with millennials, whether on site or managing digital channels, are set up for success.”

Or, as Hart, says, to advertise that the “grand old game” is “hot, young and cool.”

Not to overstate it, but to paraphrase Charles Darwin (historical footnote: he was the grandfather of renowned golf writer Bernard Darwin), golf must continue to evolve.


Writer credit: Chief among John Gordon’s accomplishments covering Canadian golf for more than 30 years are his three millennial offspring, two of whom are avid golfers. He’s working on the third and he has high hopes for his new grandson.

Millennials and Golfs Changing Landscape

This article was originally published in the 2018 edition of The Alberta Golfer Magazine. To view the full magazine, click here.

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