Industry News

TGA Premier Golf chief mulls Tiger factor

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

WILL THE TIGER 2.0 ERA SPUR GOLF PARTICIPATION?
A Conversation with TGA Premier Golf Founder Joshua Jacobs

LOS ANGELES, CA - Of all the nationwide programs dedicated to sustainably growing golf participation, one of the most consistent and compelling is TGA Premier Golf (TGA). TGA, founded in 2003 by entrepreneur and former college golfer Joshua Jacobs, is on pace to enroll its ONE MILLIONTH student in its dynamic in-school and after-school enrichment and camp programs by the end of 2020.

In the fall of 2003, while helping his little sister choose her after school programs, Jacobs noticed golf was not on the menu of activities offered to elementary students. He recognized an opportunity to develop an innovative program that could introduce youngsters (ages 3-13) to his favorite sport. Powered by a breakthrough PhD-developed curriculum and the passion of its 125 franchise owners, TGA has seen sustained growth and has become the leading delivery system for introductory and recreational junior golf programs nationwide.

TGA recently completed a $750,000 curriculum and business infrastructure investment to streamline operations and help facilitate local franchise and golf participation growth more efficiently. It also lays the foundation for future expansion strategies across the TGA system including 50-75 new franchises and increasing the number of programs from 7,200 to 15,000 by 2021. TGA currently has 128 franchises in 75 markets across 28 states.

Jacobs has become one of the golf industry’s leading experts on growing participation in the sport. He was named one of the Top 40 most influential people in golf under 40 by GOLF Magazine and was recognized as one of golf’s “Innovators” by Golf Inc. He served on PGA of America’s Golf 2.0 Player Development Board, the Southern California PGA’s Foundation Advisory Board and the Player Development Board. He is also an associate member of the PGA of America and a member of the World Golf Foundation Advisory Board.

We caught up with Joshua Jacobs to talk about the success of TGA’s business model, how it impacts the sport, and how the golf industry could position itself for a “Tiger Effect 2.0.”

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Now that Tiger Woods has won his fifth Masters, much of the golf industry is hoping for a windfall of participation and spending that mirrors the Tigermania era of 1997-2009. Is that a realistic expectation in 2019?

The last 5-7 years the PGA TOUR’s viewership, sponsorships, purses, etc. have all grown but that hasn’t translated to more people playing golf. The number of golfers, even though they are down are masking a greater challenge that the average age of a golfer is getting older. I believe Tiger’s resurgent success will move the needle with current golfers wanting to play and spend more, increased demand for non-golfers to take up golf, off course participation and spending and online golf coverage and content. This means we have a higher probability to create on course golfers, but this doesn’t mean the supply of new golfers will increase, which the industry needs to concentrate on.

Look at it this way: If 200 people who have never played golf before walked into a pro shop at the same time, would that course have the infrastructure to handle the influx of new golfers? The industry is working towards creating that infrastructure, with new Professional training such as the pga.coach platform along with additional introductory and recreational junior and family programming. TGA can play a major role in making golf available to the masses and transitioning them to facilities in local communities, but we are just one cog in the wheel of programs that take place at facilities. If Tiger continues his stellar play, and I hope he does, we can capture the demand if we build an infrastructure of scalable and replicable programs. This won’t happen overnight, or in 2019, but I also don’t think Tiger’s going anywhere by tomorrow.

If there is a Tiger Effect 2.0, what should the industry do to take better advantage of the increased exposure and interest in the sport?

One area where we are seeing growth but already have tremendous infrastructure are competitive programs. Golf does a great job in this sector, especially in the junior ranks. Between PGA Junior League, local U.S. Kids Tours, PGA Section Tours, AJGA and IJGT there are a multitude of options if you want to compete as a junior. Collegiate golf has also never been stronger and NextGenGolf filled a void for recreational / competitive players in that age bracket and slightly older who want to compete and socialize. We are also seeing more and more amateur tours and leagues are popping up for various age groups after college, all with momentum.

If Tiger 2.0 happens, we should consider creating additional self-sustaining, scalable and replicable introductory and recreational programs for consumers, that take place both on and off golf courses. These programs would need to satisfy all age and skill buckets while creating transformational experiences related to the sport. Creating these programs is the easy part, whereas customer acquisition, educating current and potential golfers about the opportunities in golf and delivering them locally will be the most time consuming and costly endeavor.

Bringing golf to the masses through these types of programs remains the void of the industry for both juniors and adults. If we invested in those as an industry, with the consumer demand for golf the National Golf Foundation is preaching, participation and spending throughout the industry would significantly increase.

What, in your mind, has fallen short with previous "Grow the Game" campaigns and how can the industry spend its time more wisely if it really wants to see growth?

Well, let’s pinpoint the goal more precisely than the over-used and over-arching term, “Grow the Game.” “Growing participation” or “growing rounds played” can have specific action items that guide our game plan and use of resources locally and nationally. Some of these campaigns (Play Golf America, While We’re Young, etc.) have been fabulous in concept but unless they are executed and permeate local communities, we need to temper expectations.

What’s fallen short with previous growing the game “programs” is that they are not self-sustaining, scalable or replicable. That doesn’t mean they all need to be under the same brand, but the experience, price point and delivery system need to be similar.

From a junior golf perspective, the 800-lb gorilla is certainly The First Tee. While it’s hard to say anything critical about an organization that impacts students in such a positive way throughout lower-income areas, as an industry that wants and needs to grow, we simply need to acknowledge that The First Tee is wonderful at what they do, but it has not moved the needle in terms of growing junior golf participation rates.

I get asked the same question all the time: “Is TGA like The First Tee?” Or often we hear, “You aren’t The First Tee, so we view you as competition.” To set the record straight, TGA is almost perfectly complimentary to The First Tee based on the programs we run and the demographics we serve. There’s almost zero overlap in the schools we serve and the facilities we partner with. That’s why working together could be powerful for the industry but in the end if we don’t, both have meaningful impact on the juniors and communities we serve and the industry. The difference is how our programs and delivery systems are scaled and how our Chapters operate locally. TGA started on a $150,000 budget and has taken zero investment dollars over our lifetime, whereas The First Tee has been given over $200 million in its lifetime.

Can the success of non-traditional golf venues like TopGolf and simulator-focused sports bars realistically help the core golf industry hook (and retain) more active golfers?

The industry morphing the definition of “golf” is heading us in the right direction. There’s a ton of opportunity to engage new customers to green grass through TopGolf and Drive Shack-type facilities along with e-sports gaming. But we must be more locally coordinated in our efforts to lead casual players to becoming avid golfers. If the goal is to transition golfers to green grass, then local on and off course facilities need to work together for mutual benefit.

So, the golf industry has gotten more-clever at attracting interest. How do we keep golfers motivated to keep playing?

The coordination has to happen at the local community level. We’ve had success with TGA because we empower entrepreneurs to create experiences that transform the way our students and families feel about golf, which retains them in the sport. Introductory programs are successful when they break down traditional barriers to entry into the sport and offer a pathway for consumers to keep playing. In order to replicate that model and philosophy, programs need to be self-sustaining with vested stakeholders delivering them. That’s where our franchise model and owners excel.

What is it about your TGA franchise model that makes it work so well at the grassroots level?

Golf is always grown at the grassroots level. Having local entrepreneurs vested in growing the sport makes the franchise model work well. From an industry standpoint, a TGA franchise’s compensation is based on growing the participation pie of golf and retaining the families they’ve engaged. If the NGF’s numbers regarding how much spending each participant brings to the sport on a yearly basis, TGA has contributed over $200MM to the golf economy over the past 15 years. How many other businesses in the golf industry can we say are 70% based on creating new golfers? Just a small cog in a big wheel, but a cog that makes the wheels bigger.

Your franchise opportunities have been a successful means for entrepreneurs to add or change careers while following their passion for youth sports and golf. As founder, how gratifying it is that TGA is just as rewarding for its franchise owners as it is for the students?

One of the things I love about TGA is that financial ROI for the business owner is directly tied to successfully activating and retaining students and families in the sport. Owning a sports franchise is a dream come true for many people, so we see our franchise owners take to the process with a particular spark and ingenuity.

When we see, for example, a golf franchise owner add tennis or some of our team sports products, it's a sign they've made an impact in their community and the model and delivery system works. They've built relationships with families based on a shared enthusiasm that sports change lives. The more they effectively spread their passion for sports, the more success they have in their business. That's a pretty cool way to spend your working life.

Frequently, I point to TGA business owners like Brad Kirkpatrick, our owner/territory director of TGA of Greater Seattle. Brad’s a former financial, business and team leadership consultant for companies like Ernst & Young, Kibble & Prentice and Washington Mutual. Brad’s found a career that feeds his passion for golf—he’s a low-single-digit golfer--- and affords him the kind of work-life balance he never found in the financial sector. Brad’s added tennis and other team sports programs and now owns three territories in the Pacific Northwest. His enthusiasm for sports and keeping families excited about playing has driven his success as a business owner.

TGA is still the only youth sports franchise model dedicated to the sport of golf. What made you decide on developing a franchise model in the first place?

Some of it had to do with lack of startup capital and the other part had to do with the feedback we were getting from PGA and LPGA Professionals more than a decade ago. They were asking to replicate our business opportunity while receiving sales, marketing and product / programming support. It screamed franchising and to create a community of people whose mission and “why” were the same. Our brand is prevalent but the premise of our operations and curriculum are what drive our business and golf participation forward.

A good sign that introductory junior programs are working is that its participants follow the pathway to competitive golf programs like high school golf or Drive, Chip and Putt. Are there some fun examples of TGA kids using TGA as a springboard to other great experiences in golf?

70 percent of TGA participants and their families have never played golf before and last year, we had over 250 TGA students enter Drive Chip and Putt qualifiers. One of them made it to the finals at Augusta National. We also had a high school State Champion come out of Michigan and are hearing of quite a few high school players who started in TGA afterschool programs. The key to the retaining juniors from introductory and recreational programs to the competitive atmosphere is having solid local infrastructure. If local programs don’t support each other and the pathway, we face the very-real risk of losing juniors and families to other activities or sports.

Most junior golf programs have a high attrition rate. What are the factors that contribute to a child "falling out" of a junior program?

Successful junior golf programs have fun and engaging teachers / coaches, great consumer education and a player pathway of programs for juniors and their families to participate in. When you find a program or Professional with all three, they’ve won the game.

Crucial to TGA’s success has been that we bring the sport to the consumer (in an in-school or after-school environment) and don’t rely on them coming to us.

What can be done to make junior golf’s growth more sustainable overall?

The industry can work together to make the sport more available and accessible while providing a seamless player pathway and strong consumer communication and education. Golf needs to be “fun-first” brand while providing transformational experiences for every age and skill level. For the first time, we have competitors on the PGA TOUR playing for millions of dollars high fiving, fist bumping and complimenting each other mid-round. It’s fun to see and that can be contagious. Tiger’s resurgence is happening at a perfect time.

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