The need for a more co-ordinated approach to the promotion of golf to new players was the conclusion of the European Golf Industry Association Conference held at Wentworth last week. The conference was attended by representatives from many of the game’s administrative bodies together with delegates from all sides of the golf business including golf course operators, suppliers, retailers and specialist golf media.
Opening the debate Warren Sunderland, chairman of the Sports Industries Federation, explained that the industry had real concerns that, without a national strategy, too many people’s efforts to persuade more people to play golf were being diluted and duplicated.
Stephen Proctor of Sports Marketing Surveys said that in the UK, golf was “an industry not achieving the opportunities which seemed to be out there.” Even before recent difficulties caused by last winter’s bad weather, foot and mouth disease in many parts of the country and the recent decline in the number of golf tourists arriving from overseas, there was evidence to show that over the last ten years, while the number of golf courses had increased, the average number of rounds played had declined. There had been hardly any increase in the number of people who played the game.
The impact on municipal golf courses was particularly severe. The number of rounds played had fallen by 50% since 1990 and the lost revenue amounted to £60 million per year.
All this was in spite of a general perception that the game was booming. It was true that a large number of people took up playing golf each year but this was only sufficient to balance out the number of people who each year gave it up. The percentage of the population playing the game had remained more or less static at around 6-7% each year. The equipment market was stagnant.
In continental Europe the number of golfers has increased at a faster rate than the number of golf courses but the golf market in these countries is still relatively immature. The UK has much more in common with the market in the United States where the growth in the number of players has also not kept pace with the increase in the provision of golf facilities.
Stephen Proctor described ‘Golf 20/20’, the US response to this problem. The campaign’s objectives are, over the next twenty years: to increase the ‘fan’ base from 96 million to 177 million (UK fan base 8 million); to increase participation from 35 million to 55 million (UK participation 3.7 million); and to increase rounds played from 570 million to 1,000 million (UK rounds played 75 million). This was a programme in which all sectors of the US golf business were co-operating. In many ways it was similar to a programme which the US Tennis Association had started in 1998 and which was already showing encouraging results.
It was the experience of the promoters of Golf 20/20 that ‘of every 10 youngsters exposed to the game through a structured programme 6 will be active adult golfers. Of every 10 youngsters exposed to the game but not through a structured programme 3 will be active adult golfers.’
While many sports in the UK have received considerable support from Lottery funding, golf has lagged well behind the others. Richard Callicott, chief executive of UK Sport, told the conference that this situation would not change so long as “seventeen organisations run golf. It is little wonder that you are fragmented. Golf is always going to have a problem until that is sorted out.” He went on to say that UK Sport has money for ‘modernising governing bodies.’
Harry Reeves, Head of Sport and Recreation at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, apologised for the absence of the Minister, Richard Caborn, who plays off a 12 handicap and had been hoping to attend the conference until Parliamentary commitments prevented it.
Mr Reeves explained that the Government in general looked to sport in two ways. First there was the contribution that sport can make to achieving the Government’s broad social objectives. These included such things as enhancing the health of the nation. In education it had been shown that schools which provide a range of sporting activities tend to do better generally on almost all measurements of a school’s performance.
Mr Reeves accepted that golf and the etiquette of the game build character and promote self-discipline and patience. “Sport helps to build communities,” he said, “because of the wide range of people who are brought together, not just as competitors but as coaches and officials.” He said that in many sports there was a shortage of coaches but this did not seem to be the case with golf. He suggested that the Government might have something to learn from the way in which the PGA had organised this aspect of the game.
The Government also recognised the importance of ‘sport for its own sake.’ Improving the country’s achievements in international sport was important because it enhanced a general feeling of national prestige, promoted the nation’s sense of identity and brought economic benefits as well. Thus UK Sport and the Sports Councils for the four ‘home countries’ had money to promote and support talented individuals, developing a system capable of producing a constant flow of world class performers. It emerged during the conference, for example, that Sport England has provided grants totalling £555,388 to the English Ladies Golf Association and £166,969 to the English Golf Union.
Presentations to the conference were also made by those at the head of several organisations involved with the promotion of golf. These included Michael Round, executive director of the Golf Foundation, and Nigel Furniss, newly appointed Performance Manager for the English Golf Union. Hamish Grey from the Scottish Golf Union and Norman Fletcher from the Professional Golfers’ Association were among a number of speakers who also made significant contribution to the day’s proceedings.
It was generally accepted that the industry must act together in its own interest, with or without Government/Lottery support, to secure its future. Doing nothing was not an option. “There is huge latent demand,” said Stephen Proctor. “Seven million people say that they want to play golf. We need to create a user friendly path to entry which guides the way from initial interest through to the driving range, from the range to the short course and from the short course to the full length course.”
Golf Foundation www.golf-foundation.org
English Golf Union www.englishgolfunion.org
Professional Golfers’ Association www.pga.org.uk
Scottish Golf Union www.scottishgolf.com
Sports Marketing Surveys www.sportsmarketingsurveys.com