Thursday, April 9, 2015

An Unplugged Game in a Plugged-in World - Golf’s Struggle in a Modern World

Technological innovations over the last decade have revolutionized the American workplace and society overall. Smart phones, tablets and social media enable users to be in touch with the world at their fingertips. The 9-to-5 work day is becoming a thing of the past, which has its pros and cons.

Flexible working environments allow working parents to cut out of work early to attend their children’s weeknight Little League baseball games and band concerts. However, the lines "on duty" and "off duty" have become ever more blurred. It used to be that once you left the office and returned home to your family, the work day had ended. Nowadays, bosses often don't think twice about calling a colleague at night or during the weekend.

Americans are working longer hours than ever before and taking fewer days off. During the Great Recession, companies cut back on their staffing and increased productivity. Even as the economy improved, companies learned to do more work with fewer people. According to a Gallup Poll last September, the average time worked by full-time employees has climbed to 46.7 hours a week and only 40 percent say they put in a traditional 40-hour week. Further, the study found that the work week is even longer for salaried workers (an average of 49 hours), largely because employers likely don't have to pay them overtime.

William Wordsworth, a late 18th century English poet once said, “Golf is a day spent in a round of strenuous idleness.” Centuries later, not much has changed, and this is becoming an issue with the long-term sustainability of the game.

In recent years, golf has seen an overall decline in the number of players. In 2013 alone, 400,000 people left the sport in the U.S., according to statistics from the National Golf Foundation. Much of the drop can be attributed to a significant reduction in the participation rate amongst Millennials (born between the early 1980s to the early 2000s), a group accustomed to instant gratification. Additionally, more golf courses have closed than opened nationwide for the eighth straight year; on average, 137 golf courses have closed annually since 2011.

Many have discussed the key reasons that golf is struggling to stay relevant in this fast-paced, modern world with the focus being on the time it takes to play the game and the high cost of equipment, apparel and tee times. Let’s take a deeper dive into those as well as introduce a few others.

The Time Investment Needed to Play the Game of Golf
Playing the standard 18 holes typically takes at least four hours of time on the golf course. That does not take into account travel time or hitting a few balls on the range to warm up, which can typically take this to a 6-8 hour evolution depending on where you live. In the New York area, the closest golf courses are in the suburbs, thus travel time can be more than one hour each way.

A day of golfing essentially is an entire day out of the office and losing that day can result in missed opportunities that set leaders back to where the risk is simply not worth the reward. This “opportunity cost” of missing something critical while being out of the office is the key factor that has changed in recent years, and is killing the weekday business golfers who formerly used golf to close important deals.

Some people will say that smart phones have made it easier to leave the office, but I would challenge that with this statement. Golf is not a game to be played while talking on the phone and answering e-mails in between shots. “Golf is a good walk spoiled” has been a quote attributed to Mark Twain and then reignited by John Feinstein when he authored the best-selling book by that title. I always loved that phrase, not because it reminded me of all the bad shots I hit during the round, but because it reminds me of walking beautiful courses all over the world with my parents, grandparents, friends and even people that I was paired with that day on the first tee. There is nothing like the game of golf and that time away from pressures, stress and problems from the “real world” was always a welcomed break for most, but has now become the major inhibitor for golf enthusiasts.

The Financial Costs to Play the Game
Golf was never an inexpensive game to play, but two critical points in time combined to make it even pricier. In 1991, Callaway introduced the first “Big Bertha” driver, which was made of stainless steel as opposed to the traditional persimmon wood, and promoted the ability to hit the ball a lot farther, which was very exciting to the average golfer. That lead to a major boom in the golf club industry, and with the new demand, prices skyrocketed. The second piece occurred in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and was known as the “Tiger Effect” due to the success of Tiger Woods on the PGA TOUR. This brought many new golfers to the game and created the need to build more courses and raise the rates at current courses due to the demand.

As technology continues to improve, so does the quality of merchandise by sporting goods companies. The problem is that equipment manufacturers are launching new products so frequently that by the time consumers purchase and use their clubs, "new and improved" clubs hit the marketplace. While new models of cars come out annually, golf equipment manufacturers have been cranking out updates every six months. After all, many executives insist on springing for the top clubs available on the market. However, even the wealthiest among them take exception to being told the set they have just spent more than $1,000 on is now obsolete. After posting record sales numbers in 2012, TaylorMade, one of the premiere manufacturers of golf sporting goods dropped 28% in 2014 as supply far exceeded demand.

Increased Parity in Professional Golf
History has shown that when an athlete dominates an individual sport, it can create a swelling in popularity for that sport. Good examples would be Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in golf. Tennis was never more popular when Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg were battling or how about Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, or more recently Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer? On the women’s side we had Chris Evert versus Martina Navratilova and the sister-sister heated matches of Venus and Serena Williams.

During boxing's heyday in the 1970s, great heavyweights, such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and later Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson each were viewed as nearly indestructible during their career peaks. For a sport to thrive -- particularly in America -- there has to be someone who fans want to root for or against. Today, how many casual fans can even name a fighter other than Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, who battle on May 2?

In a span of 17 events through the entire 2014-15 PGA Tour, there has not been a single duplicate winner, the longest such streak since 1994. Golf’s four major events each year (The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship) are typically what we use to rank golfers amongst the greats of all time. In the last 10 years (40 events) only 5 golfers have won multiple majors; Tiger Woods (6), Rory McIlroy (4), Phil Mickelson (4), Padraig Harrington (3) and Bubba Watson (2). During Tiger Woods' peak, he was a threat to win every tournament he entered. Golf experienced huge ratings on TV because of the lofty expectations placed on golf's number one player. He opened up the game to African Americans, Asians, and the young. People tuned in to see if he could continue his nearly unprecedented winning streak at an early age. He was like an assassin on the course. Even when it looked like he was beaten, Woods stormed back. Haters watched in hope that someone would knock off the king.

However, during Wood's decline in the last eight years, no other dominant force has emerged in the PGA. The closest things to young, bankable stars today are Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Ricky Fowler and Jordan Spieth. They have helped invigorate some interest, but they have not yet had an extended period of success. Fans want to root for winners and emulate them, but to have a rivalry that fans can get emotionally invested in; you have to have a consistent rival!

What’s the Remedy?
The leadership in golf including the PGA TOUR, PGA of America, USGA, LPGA and Augusta National have worked together over the years creating programs and initiatives like the First Tee, Play it Forward, The PGA Jr. League, Play Golf America and While We’re Young. There have been many successes, but it may be a stretch to say that these have made a significant impact in the growth of the game. I think it is safe to say that more and more people, specifically kids, have been exposed to golf over the recent years, but for the reasons we discussed earlier, are not staying with the game.

Shorten Playing Time
I believe that pace of play needs to be significantly addressed by golf course personnel. By no means am I suggesting that they have marshals chasing you around the course, but 18-hole rounds need to be closer to three and half hours as opposed to five. All this takes is being ready to hit your shot when it is your turn and nothing else. I also believe that the golf industry needs to be promoting 9-hole play and events through special pricing and promotions. Encourage parents to leave work an hour early and take their kids to play a quick 9 holes (90 – 120 minutes) and be back in time for dinner.

Nextgengolf is one of the many organizations that is catering to the 18-34 year-old demographic by providing social, welcoming and well-run experiences specifically designed to engage Millennials in the sport. It organizes golf tournaments for non varsity college students and young professionals in major cities across the U.S. and offers to help them save money on greens fees and equipment too.

Recognizing the need to speed up the game, the USGA devised some tips in 2013 to help speed the pace of play. These include striving to hit your shot in 20 seconds when it is your turn to play and “Teeing It Forward” to avoid playing courses that are too long for certain players and consequently, not as fun. The PGA of America has had success with their new Jr. League that makes golf a team sport and much more fun (with less pressure) for kids to play.

Make it More Fun and Accessible
Instead of trying to change people, we need to start adapting the game to modern constraints. Companies like TopGolf are providing a solution that has made an impact in a very short time. TopGolf, a sports entertainment facility headquartered in Dallas, created a business around making golf more fun. The company has given the traditional driving range a 21st century makeover in you don't pay for balls or games, but for time ($20 an hour before 6 p.m. on weekdays and before noon on weekends, $40 at other times). TopGolf game players points for each shot that hits a target. (You earn more points if the target distance is greater and when your ball is closer to the target.) Other games include a chipping competition, and a drivers-only game. The facilities serve food and alcoholic beverages and create a party atmosphere in an appeal to young players. Without an infusion of younger players, the sport of golf cannot grow.

Improve the TV Product
The NBA and MLB have gone to interviewing coaches and managers during the game to provide insight to the fans and sometimes they even put a microphone in the huddle turning timeouts. We need more of that in our golf coverage on TV. Put a mic on the player and caddy similar to what the NFL does to key players, but of course have the time delay and buzzer ready to go when they hit a bad shot. We need more access and use of technology to bring the viewers closer to the game, which will create more passion and a desire to go out and play. The networks introduced the capability to trace the flight of the ball years ago, but only use it on a few holes due to the expense of the technology. They need to bring more of that to the telecast, get in the locker rooms to interview players before and after the round and provide more off-course insight to the players. Interview them at home during the week, in the gym, or at a charity event.

Slowdown Equipment Improvements
Actually wait for equipment to become somewhat obsolete before introducing new products into the marketplace (and discounting equipment that people paid top dollar for just a few months ago). Follow the auto industry, technology companies, and other industries that introduce new products once a year. I understand this is not as easy as it sounds and that competition between equipment manufacturers will drive product development.

Why We Can Save Golf and Grow It
I truly believe that golf is a game like no other. It can be played by all ages and due to the handicapping system, can be competitive at all levels of play. We’ve seen it grow at a steady pace for years, and then explode during the Tiger Effect to record levels. Like many companies who grow too fast, golf is paying the price for that fast growth, and the recent state of the economy has only made it that much worse. However, I believe that the current and future leadership of golf will find a way to make the game more accessible and time-sensitive so that we see a rebirth in the game.

I was recently made aware of something that George Roberts, the “R” in KKR, the powerful private equity firm) had once told The Wall Street Journal: "Golf is the best game ever invented by man. It treats everyone as an equal, and whatever you do well or poorly you've done yourself."


-  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -

This article was written by Chad Chatlos of Korn Ferry Sports. Chad specializes in senior executive searches across the sports industry. His clients include major sports leagues, teams, conferences, and leading colleges and universities. With more than 15 years’ experience in sports marketing and event management, Mr. Chatlos has extensive property, agency and corporate experience in the business of sports. He has worked with Fortune 500 brands, in conjunction with marquis sports properties including The Masters, Super Bowl, U.S. Open Tennis and Golf, the NFL and the NBA.

Prior to joining Korn Ferry in 2014, Chad Chatlos worked in senior leadership positions with the PGA Tour, Carey International and the Engine Shop Agency. He has significant business development, sales, marketing and operational management experience across major sports and entertainment sectors. He is on the National Advisory Committee for the SEAL Legacy Foundation which is dedicated to providing support to families of wounded and fallen Navy SEALs. He earned a degree in economics from the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was captain of the football team. Commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Chad served over 6 years with distinction including multiple meritorious decorations.