News & Opinion

Millennials to golf: Entertain us, or else

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

A millennial, also known generically as a member of Generation Y or an echo boomer (because they are the offspring of baby boomers), generally is considered to be someone born in 1982-2000. Today, most millennials fall into marketers’ coveted 18-34 age group.

In the U.S., millennials slightly outnumber baby boomers, those born in 1946-64. Millennials 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, “golf business” has been labeled 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. Golf is under siege from some formidable competition for the entertainment dollar as never before.

The challenge for golf is multi-faceted and difficult, perhaps more so than for other industries. In a great demographic divide, golf is controlled, for the most part, by baby boomers who, as owners, operators and golfers, seem perversely and 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 “Golf and the Millennial Generation (http://bit.ly/2CZi2hm),” a 2015 study by the National Golf Foundation.  

“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.org and co-chair of the millennial task force for Golf 20/20, an industry-wide coalition of U.S. golf organizations. He says that 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,” Hart said. “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 at 34 venues in the U.S. and three in the United Kingdom, where the concept was founded in 2000. Customers play target golf with micro-chipped balls that provide instant feedback and scoring updates. While “golf” is at the core of the concept, there’s much more to the overall experience.

“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 website.

Topgolf entertained – emphasis on entertained – more than 13 million customers in 2017, half of whom identified as non-golfers. Its winning formula, according to Jeehae Lee, the director of business strategy and a former LPGA player, is “an interactive play experience, great food, music and a community atmosphere.” 

Exactly what everyone wants from “real” golf, right?

Where did we go off track? More importantly, how do we get back on the demographic train?

Glenn Gray co-chairs the Golf 20/20 millennial task force with Hart. As a vice president of Buffalo.Agency, a global golf and sports marketing company, he recognizes the urgency of attracting an affluent and acquisitive millennial market share to golf.

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

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 (http://bit.ly/2mop5H7).” The article cites a checklist for ensuring that golf facilities are “millennial ready.”

The site’s stated mandate is to “make sure those interacting with millennials, whether onsite 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.”

John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email:  gordongolf@outlook.com;  Twitter: @gordongolf