Where Have All the Golfers Gone? :News from an Evolving Empire

adrian rubin golferAmerica is by far the largest market for golf and its associated side industries on a global scale. Estimates suggest that approximately half of the players and golf courses that exist today reside within the United States. In 2011, the sport contributed about $70 billion dollars to the american economy.

Golf means many things to many people, and in this country it often symbolizes a type of leisure afforded to those of the middle or upper classes – or a sport perfect for those coming into retirement. And not too long ago, expert analysts predicted that the sport would continue to expand – especially when considering the aging baby boomer population. However, as of 2013, various metrics used to take the temperature of the sport in our country painted a different picture. Recently, more people have stopped playing than those that have started.

Golf and Financial Markets: a Twin Losing Game

Additionally, the years following the economic recession of 2008 proved to be incredibly challenging for many owners of golf facilities. Although people like Donald Trump have revitalized the golf facility game recently, 2008-2014 witnessed a number of shutdowns of golf clubs and facilities owing to market conditions and a marked downturn in interest in the sport.

Not a Sellers’ Market

Although the professional version of golf remains robust and supported, it’s the absence of the leisure-golfer that those in the golf industry are most effected by. Vendors of golf clothing and equipment are really feeling the pressure. Dick’s Sporting Goods, underwent massive layoffs in their golf division in 2013, while Nike and Adidas watched their earnings decline in recreational golf.

Golf’s Popularity in China

Although recreational golf is facing a major downbeat in the US, there are notable markets expanding on an international scale. For example, although Mao Zedong outlawed golf in 1949 and banned constructing new private courses, golf is flourishing in China.

Continued Downturns Abroad

However, in many mature markets, like those found in Japan, England, Australia and even Scotland, golf is undergoing a sharp downturn. Since 2007, the number of people who play golf once a month has retracted by a full quarter. Since it’s peak in the ‘90s, Japanese participation has dropped over 40%, and in Australia, golf club memberships have fallen by a fifth since ‘98.

Although golf continues to grow in places like the Czech Republic and in Germany, these markets represent a fraction of the total size of the american market.

Why Now?

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason for this continuous decline in the number of people participating in golf in markets where it was (even recently) growing, there are a few speculations. The first may be the pace of the game. While the meditative quality of the sport may provide a nice break from the frenzied pace of most people’s day to day lives, a 4 hour commitment to a slow paced game may not seem appealing. Another thought ist that for many years, the sport has garnered a sort of “old -boy’s “ reputation that is specific to older, wealthy, white men. This reputations may not appeal to people who do not fit that description because it may not seem accessible. And finally, there is the cost associate with playing golf. To play seriously one will undoubtedly have to make some type of financial commitment and as we are in the shadow of a recent economic downturn, looking at a market in correction, now may not be the time to commit to an expensive leisure time activity for those concerned with their financial stability.