By Mathilda Andersson
Not many would contest the view that golf has been fighting a losing battle over the past few years, with flattish-to-down participation numbers indicating a sport too stuck in tradition to gain and retain a new generation of players. But a new era has arrived which might just revolutionise the game as we know it.
It’s called Topgolf.
The recent surge in golf entertainment venues has seen the interest in the sport met with renewed vigour. These novel gaming formats, offering a hyper-social, stress-free take on the game, are enticing not only beginning golfers but avid golfers and even aspiring golfers, suggesting a game poised to be on the rise.
Topgolf’s point-scoring design has been christened the fastest growing form of recreational golf engagement of our time, and if you make the drive out to Oxenford on Australia’s Gold Coast to Topgolf’s latest (and Australia’s first) indoor driving range and entertainment venue, you’ll soon see what all the fuss is about.
The establishment is huge, rising three stories tall with 30 hitting bays (plus 4 VIP booths) on each level, allowing for over 500 punters to enjoy the game all at the same time. The place feels more like a night club than a clubhouse and with emphasis rather on music, good food and drinks, than your actual golf score.
This “golf-meets-your-favourite-bar” concept is the next big thing to ten-pin bowling– but on steroids – with a sprinkle of a game of darts. With a large rooftop terrace decked out with fire pits and live music on weekends, the regular pub/club goer will easily find their feet regardless of their level of golfing expertise. And the concept has been proven a resounding success. Topgolf’s facilities drew 13 million visitors at its 41 big-box locations around the world last year, with more than half counted as Millennials– an age group considered paramount to golf’s survival.
That’s all good and well, but the real question for the golf industry that one must ask is: Will these popular modern off-course formats be able to successfully convert more players to traditional green-grass rounds? And subsequently generate a greater membership base for golf clubs worldwide, or are they in fact just a short-lived fad?
Do punters who exit the Topgolf bars still leave with a thirst for the “real” game?
The hard-hitting numbers
According to a recent report conducted by the National Golf Foundation (NGF), painting a comprehensive state-of-the-industry picture, golf’s participation base remained stable in the U.S last year, with an estimated 23.8 million people who played golf on a course – similar to previous year.
However, growth in off-course activities like stand-alone ranges and golf-simulator use is now also part of the NGF’s comprehensive participation overview for the first time.
“Green-grass golf participation remains an essential measure of golf’s vitality, and we will continue to measure and report on it the way we always have,” said NGF president and CEO Joe Beditz in the report. “But we decided it was time to add off-course participation in order to track the dynamic growth we have seen there, and which we believe will continue.”
Thus, the report pointed out another 8.3 million people who played exclusively off-course at facilities like Topgolf, putting the game’s overall participant pool at more than 32 million. A number nearly 3 per cent higher than last year’s 31.1 million.
NGF sent the survey to a sample of 1,542 Topgolf guests in August last year. Additional survey results showed that roughly 51 per cent of the Topgolf guests were total novice golfers who had never played before. Of these non-golfers, 75 per cent stated they now had an interest in playing traditional golf after visiting a Topgolf location.
The report also surveyed new golfers who had been playing for three years or less, which of 23 per cent said they had picked up the game after their first Topgolf experience.
A mere 1 per cent of the people polled said they were less likely to play traditional golf after visiting a Topgolf venue.
Those encouraging numbers alone should be enough to quiet the voices claiming the popular phenomenon to cannibalise golf course revenues by steering golfers away from traditional golf courses, due to its higher entertainment value.
It’s high time we let go of sentiments like “It’s not real golf” or “It’s not getting more people on the greens”.
Any exposure is good exposure, right?
But yes, realistically, of course, there won’t be a 100 per cent conversion rate to long-term golf club members– not in the U.S, nor in Australia. Hitting a few balls with mates in a fun-filled, weather-free environment is a different ball game than the traditional five hour-long 18-hole round out on the course.
But as Topgolf Executive Chairman Erik Anderson said during a panel on off-course participation at the NGF Golf Business Symposium in Dallas: “Even if just 1 per cent of Topgolf attendees are converted to golfers, that’s still about 5,000 new golfers at each location,”
“The more people that have a golf club in their hand and the more fun they have, green grass clearly becomes more accessible,”
“We should be able to get people ready to enjoy all that golf has to offer at our facilities. That’s the No. 1 thing I think about how to work with our partners and the game – we can get people very ready to go to a green-grass course, and that’s what we’re really working on with our teaching and training.”
The fact of the matter is that Topgolf, as the global leader in sports entertainment, is currently putting golf clubs in more hands than any other company in the golf space. And as the traditional game must continue to evolve to meet demands of the modern-day work/family dynamic, golf needs to become more accessible.
And even if some will close their tab on the game when leaving the Topgolf bar, others– if even just a few– might just be opening up a new one at their nearest golf or country club.
Are you ready to welcome them to your facility?
Topgolf Gold Coast Opening Events
On June 25 Golf Industry Central held a fundraiser at Topgolf Golf Coast, inviting 108 eager golfers from all corners of the golf industry, helping to raise $540 in funds for Junior Golf Queensland and $540 for Empower Golf.
The night was a great opportunity for industry people to view the new state-of-the-art facility, which officially opened on June 15, and have a hit while enjoying a buffet dinner and drinks. The night was concluded with a friendly round-robin tournament between the attendees.
Golf Industry Central also attended the Topgolf soft opening on Tuesday June 10. The event was a “practice run” for event organisers and their reportedly large team of over 600. The venue’s official opening ceremony and VIP night was held on Monday June 14 to much fanfare and a spectacular firework show displayed over the range.
Click here to read more stories in GIC Magazine – Winter 2018