Is Golf "Open For Business"?

August 15th, 2012
Categories: marketing, branding, Mark Wilson

Mark_wilsonThere has been much speculation and concern in the Golf Industry over the decline of the traditional Club Membership model, which is forcing golf clubs to have an urgent re-think of their short and longer term strategies. Golfplus Media’s Mark Wilson puts his spin on the issue from a marketing perspective.

Mark is a veteran marketer of 30 years. He is a partner of Golfplus Media and owns , WISDOM, a boutique strategic, branding and web company that has been running for 21 years.

Has golf in the past done its best to foster a welcoming culture? Has it done it's best to promote the game and to send the message that golf is indeed "open for business." ? Before we get into that, do we also need an attitude shift? There seems to be a lot of "glass half empty talk" about golf in Australia and across the world at the moment. "Clubs are losing members", "junior ranks are dropping" and 'finances are tight". While some of these comments might be true, we need to get a bit of a reality check.

It’s not just golf. Here in Australia most sporting clubs have been trending down. Be it bowls, cricket, footy, athletics and tennis clubs. And it's not restricted to sport. Service clubs are down like Rotary, Lions and Apex. RSL clubs are down and Masonics have even dropped their veil of secrecy. Not to mention organisations like Boys Scouts and Girl Guides. So, what’s wrong with the game of golf, these other sports, clubs and organisations? Probably not alot apart from the fact they are doing pretty much the same thing that they've always done.

The problem is the world has changed; and changed in two big ways which can't be easily influenced. One is choice and the other is technology. We have way more choice these days than we used to. Basketball has been around a little while now but there is also baseball and indoor soccer. Then there is new activities like snow-boarding, mountain bike riding, go-karting, abseiling, climbing gyms and fitness centres all of which were unheard of 20 years ago. My son is even doing dodgeball for sport at his school. What’s with that!?

The other huge factor in our lives these days is technology. Computers, phones and the internet have exploded like never before. Remember the days before computers when kids would disappear out of the house all day only to return when the streets lights came on? Kids that used to be playing sport are now spending hours on computer games, rarely leaving the house. At least some of them are exposed to golf via computer games. I wonder how many kids have played Tiger Woods on a play station but never picked up a club?

Being ‘online through mobile phones and the internet means they don't need to join a club or play sport to socialise. Social networking takes care of that these days with Facebook and Twitter boasting users by the tens of millions and climbing.

The thing is, we can't stop either of these 2 major contributing factors. The reality is that this is the landscape we are in and it is never going backwards. In fact, social media and our very means of accessing it is only likely to grow at an exponential rate.

bubbaBut wait, let’s now take a look at the "glass half full" side.

Golf is actually in pretty good shape. According to the latest participation statistics in the 2010 ERASS Report, golf is the number 1 organised activity and 6th in all activities only behind walking, aerobic/fitness, swimming, cycling and running. Golf is ahead of tennis, bushwalking, all football codes and netball. While it declined during 2002 – 2007, it rose during 2008 - 2010. The number of courses in Australia has grown to a high of approximately 1500 at a time when tennis great John Alexander blames the decline in tennis to loss of courts in Australian cities due to land being taken for construction. Golf is huge is Asia and growing in markets like China. The young are being catered for with cool new heroes like Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler and while Australians have slipped out of the top 10 in the world rankings of late, bar Adam Scott, many acquit themselves well on tours around the world.

So what can we do? Given that we can't change the factors that are out of our control, what we can do is look at what we can control. And that is to let people know that golf is actually "Open for Business". After all, in the past you could say the impression that has been given is that "golf is far from open". From its aristocratic history where golf was only available to a select few, in many ways, things have not changed much down the line. Private golf clubs flourished with ‘snobbish’, exclusionary attitudes to boot. Women were barred from many clubhouse areas, juniors not encouraged or only provided with access to the golf course at times the other members didn’t want. Memberships were conditional of hefty nomination fees with hoops to be jumped through. Then there were the dress regulations: High socks, jackets and ties after 6.00pm, the list goes on.

More recently, golf residential land sales advertise their courses will be closed to the public once the land is sold. Insurance issues a couple of years ago scared clubs into stopping schools kids coming onto courses. The public still rings for a game only to be brushed away and told its Members’ day and come back during the week sometime, usually when the ground staff are working. Not exactly welcoming.

How about we try to promote the game in a positive, new fresh way? Imagine a concerted media campaign launched in spring, similar to how the AFL and Cricket do in Australia. Focusing on the fun, fitness, family and outdoor aspects of golf. Utilise the web and technology and get people playing the game and into clubs. People are using You Tube for just about everything. Venues, professionals and instructors can demonstrate easily using this medium and gain greater reach. Mobile applications (‘Apps’) are flourishing and usage rates rocketing.

How about clubs opening up a bit and letting people know that they are actually welcome? Be clear on when the public can play. Have up to date, useful and intuitive websites. Be friendly and offer timeslots that are available – even on Saturdays!! Online bookings are a must have for any course. How about putting on free classes for juniors? If you are a private club, be clear on what your membership criteria is and how people can join or when the public can get a game.

If you are an exclusive club, be warned that sometimes like the Masons, being too exclusive isn't a future proof strategy. That core membership that has sustained you for so long will only get thinner over time and soon you’ll need the rest of the public that you’ve frozen out. All clubs should take a leaf out of what bowling clubs are doing with "barefoot bowls" and maybe let people on the practice range for free during a set time to bash some balls. Like a quiet time on a Sunday afternoon or during the week.

Whatever methods you choose, the overall theme should be that golf is friendly, fun and accessible. If we don't be rest assured, there are a lot of other new sports and activities out there that people can now choose from.

On a final note, can clubs get proactive and get back into the schools please? Who knows, with a bit of luck my son won't have to play dodgeball next year.

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