ORLANDO, Fla. – Topgolf is revolutionizing practice and the introduction to golf at state-of-the-art driving ranges that marry traditional golf with cutting-edge technology at 40 entertainment venues worldwide. Next up: transforming existing traditional driving-range facilities that want a taste of the social, interactive Topgolf experience.
Mauricio Galante, 47, owner and operator of the Golf Center of Arlington in Texas, is one of the original guinea pigs who has tested Topgolf's breakthrough technology, Toptracer Range, and credits it for changing his customer base. The driving-range customer is predominantly male – 80 percent to 90 percent at Galante's facility. Since Galante added Toptracer to 10 of his 40 bays, he said that 30 percent to 40 percent of his Toptracer bays are occupied by women.
"I had to start carrying certain wines and ciders to cater to my new customers," he said.
Conceived by Swedish entrepreneur Daniel Forsgren in 2006 to enhance televised golf coverage, Toptracer (originally known as Protracer) is a camera-based platform that tracks ball flight and adds on-screen graphics to make shot-shape visible to viewers. Topgolf acquired Protracer in May 2016 and rebranded it, debuting the technology at Topgolf's new Orlando location late last year. Erik Anderson, executive chairman of Topgolf Entertainment Group, said the deal made sense for a variety of reasons, notably that the global entertainment landscape is very competitive.
"We're not competing with other golf courses,” he said. “We're competing for your time. We have to stay relevant to people."
To some industry observers, the Topgolf alternative is directly competitive to traditional golf courses and driving ranges. All are vying for shares of recreational time and disposable income. But a recent study conducted by the National Golf Foundation suggests that Topgolf could be the most important feeder system to the game since the caddie program. More than half of the non-golfers surveyed, 53 percent, say that playing Topgolf positively influenced their interest in playing traditional golf. These statistics support such a claim:
Topgolf's participant demographics have made the company an industry darling, and everyone from the PGA Tour to the PGA of America has lined up as partners: 32 percent female; 90 percent of the 60,000 Topgolf U lessons in 2016 were new golfers, and 65-70 percent were women; the majority of Topgolf participants are ages 18-34; and 37 percent of visitors overall are non-golfers.
Infusing the traditional golf-range experience, which hasn't changed in years, with a dose of technology seems like low-hanging fruit for Topgolf. The company made its mark by putting a microchip into a golf ball that transmits information to a computer in the bay and gives an aerial view of the target, showing how far the ball traveled and how many points the shot received.
Toptracer Range was introduced at several trial sites across the U.S. and Europe to determine the new technology’s potential impact on revenue. Each location featured Toptracer Range in up to 10 bays and collected data on month-over-month performance. It revealed that customers stayed longer and often playing simulated rounds. The longer they stayed, the more hot dogs, beers and balls they purchased. The results showed that Toptracer Range-enhanced bays nearly doubled the revenue of non-Toptracer Range bays each month.
At Galante's range, the results were staggering: Toptracer Range bays were bringing in 205 percent more revenue than regular stalls. And the NGF survey suggests that providing shot shape, trajectory, distance, and carry among other figures will enhance guest loyalty and attract new customers. The study found that 96 percent of current Topgolf guests find the Toptracer technology to be appealing. In addition, 43 percent say that Toptracer likely will drive them to visit more frequently.
“That’s a pretty powerful figure as we gain scale,” Anderson said.
So far, 30 facilities worldwide have demoed Toptracer Range, including six in the U.S.
“We are seeing a new phenomenon where people are waiting in line to get to the TopTracer bays,” said Grant Wright of World of Golf U.K.
Range owners pay no upfront charges, and hardware installation is complimentary. The cost-effective setup works with a range’s existing targets, while the 21-inch in-bay screens create a more social and entertaining experience. Installations are tailored based on facility size, budget and needs. Galante said he pays a monthly licensing fee of $225 per bay, and revenue sharing is offered on a suite of upgrades, including the chance to play iconic courses such as Pebble Beach. What does an early adopter like Galante tell his fellow range owners?
“In five years from now,” he said, “if you don't have it, you will be dead.”
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak