The NGF’s Golf and the Millennial Generation report revealed millennials have a much closer connection to golf than many people think.
The “Millennial report” also confirmed that the sport has significant, and realistic, potential to grow participation among this vital demographic. However, the research behind the report also tells us that golf requires a modernization of its brand to effectively, and materially, broaden its appeal among 18 to 34 year olds.
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Millennials comprise a quarter of current golfers and make up more than half of golf’s latent demand (12 million non-golfing millennials). While these numbers are certainly encouraging, golf is still underperforming among these young adults compared to previous generations (Gen X and Baby Boomers) at the same age. That’s troubling because both introduction to the game and the participation rate have historically peaked between the ages of 18 and 34.
Millennials respond to brands that speak directly to their interests and pursuits (think Apple, Samsung, Sony and Target), and in turn exhibit loyalty toward these companies. Golf, too, has many characteristics that appeal to this generation’s preferences (social engagement, affordable adventures, adaptable technology, etc.). The message, however, is getting lost in translation. For example, 44% of millennial golfers view the sport as elitist and exclusionary. Additionally, the majority of Gen Y golfers do not post on social media when playing despite endorsing the game implicitly through their participation.
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Golf can deepen the engagement level with current millennial golfers, and welcome those looking in the shop window but unsure of how to enter, by taking a look inward, and at how others – especially young people – perceive it from the outside. Modernizing golf’s brand, while at the same time retaining the primary attributes that have made it so successful and aspirational for hundreds of years, is our best shot at increasing our relevance among millennials. This modernization can affect many aspects of the brand, from the way the sport is marketed and sold to participants, to the process for “onboarding” and cultivating new players,to the way facilities relate to this new generation of customers.
So how can this brand evolution become reality? The Golf and the Millennial Generation report identified action areas at both the brand and individual company level where course operators can create positive change to the sport’s perception among young adults. Below are six considerations that the industry can focus on to effect brand modernization. Many of these apply directly to golf course operations, but we know that increased participation at the facility level is the tail that wags the dog, and can have profound effects across the industry.
- Golf Could Stand to Chill a Little: Golf is an extremely traditional game and owes much of its success to an adherence to longstanding customs. However, this mindset doesn’t have to extend to the messaging around the game. Successful brands earn Gen Y love by stepping away from the traditional and formal marketing game and instead embracing new ways to align with the mindset of millennials. Golf is a fun, social and experiential activity, and the game should be conveyed as such.
- Let Your Millennial Customers and Friends Help: Take advantage of the millennial customers you already have, including those closest to your business—employees, best customers and their age group friends. Millennials love to co-create with their favorite products and services. Let them help you. Discover the changes they would recommend to make the game more attractive to their friends and circle of influence. Consider the project journey, from booking a tee time all the way through to the 19th hole, from a millennial’s perspective, and how that experience should be marketed to their peers.
- Embrace Millennial Social Culture (And We Don’t Mean Social Media): Millennials are an extremely social generation. Yet when we say “social,” we are not specifically referring to social media, even though millennials represent an overwhelming majority of social platform users. Millennials relish social interactions with friends and family in a physical space and place a higher value on their physical social experiences than on digital ones.This dynamic has particular application to golf in the context of our latent demand opportunity with this generation. To attract these interested non-golfers to the course, the game can embrace their social drive by creating new ways to engage them, which brings us to…….Golf+.
- Golf Alone is Not Enough For Many Millennials—They Want GOLF+: Developing the concept of GOLF+—enhancing golf experiences by combining the activity with other things that millennials love, such as affordable adventures, technology usage, listening to music, drinking, flirting, etc.—will grow the game’s influence with this generation. This concept is already manifesting itself in new potential entry points, such as Topgolf, and emerging technologies and products (apps, enhanced golf carts, golf boards, golf bikes etc.) that can make the game more fun to those currently not so tightly tethered to the sport. Millennials will continue to respond to these innovations and to messaging that communicates the many positive attributes golf has to offer that appeal to their own value sets.
- Co-opetition Is Good: In a traditional marketplace, businesses compete in a “winner takes all” contest. Today, many companies must cooperate (and compete) in order to create maximum value for each in the marketplace. It’s called “co-opetition.” We see this idea manifesting in two key ways for the brand of golf:
- Top Down: Co-opetition from the biggest industry stakeholders is the most practical way for the brand of golf to project a cohesive, consistent image that will broaden its appeal, especially among young adults. The leading organizations in golf—the LPGA, The Masters, the PGA of America, PGA TOUR and the USGA—already work together to unify the message promoting golf as healthy, fun, inclusive, charitable and environmentally friendly.
- Bottom Up: At the local level, course operators can work together to present a unified message about the benefits of the game. This grassroots co-opetition will drive player development, increase minority and female participation and more effectively activate latent demand. This could take the form of cooperative advertising campaigns, shared public relations messages and coordinated on-course programs intended to attract millennial interest. Does this mean we are denouncing competition? Not at all. This cooperative effort would result in more players and more rounds, for which these operators could then compete.
- Improve the Onboarding Process to Make a Better First Impression: Golf has many strong player development programs, but for one reason or another has not driven a sufficient proportion of beginners, including millennials, into them. Beginners entering the game via one of these programs would almost certainly be assured of a better first experience (as opposed to playing with buddies and having the serious group behind them applying pressure to speed up), and would be more likely to stick with the game.A quarter of interested non-golfing millennials—4 million strong!—say no one has invited them. While we continually refine and improve existing development programs, we should also be open to new ideas to bring people into the game. Topgolf is a great example of this. Screen golf (golf simulators) and FootGolf may prove to be as well.
Without throwing the baby (traditional golf) out with the bathwater (negative carryovers from bygone days), golf can focus on addressing these issues to modernize its brand and broaden its appeal among millennial golfers and non-golfers alike. It’s not about fundamental changes to golf’s core, but about taking back ownership of the sport’s image and how it speaks to millennials of all interest levels.
Erik is the Editorial Director for the NGF. Before joining the National Golf Foundation, he spent more than two decades with Bloomberg News, both as a writer and editor, with a focus on sports business and the golf industry. The New Jersey resident has also written about golf for outlets that include Forbes, LINKS and the Met Golfer.