Opinion

Published on November 30th, 2017 | by Jack Martin

Golf’s exclusivity is damaging its long-term future

A look at the names on the sponsor billboards, scattered around the European and PGA Tour’s most prestigious events, reveals golf’s underlying issue.

Every week, when Rory McIlroy and the likes tee off, the exclusive brands of Rolex, BMW and Fly Emirates can be seen plastered in the background.

Noticeably, standing alongside them, is their affluent middle-aged target market. 

It’s a reccurring snapshot which reflects the demographics of golf’s audience and why the game is struggling to attract new fans to the sport.

British decline

The decline is particularly obvious in the UK, where, according to England Golf, since 2006, the number of people playing golf has fallen from four million to 2,785,000, and the membership of clubs in England has decreased from 850,000 to 652,000.

Many in the game believe the length of a round puts people off. Others say young people these days are more interested in computer games. Then there’s competition from other sports such as cycling.

But the huge cost and obstacles to being a dedicated golfer today have surely played their part.

With the high price of equipment, course entry fees and strict rules at clubs, it’s not hard to see why the youngest and less well-off in society are not queueing to take up the sport.

In London, especially, the dearth of pitch and putt golf and closure of public courses is hardly aiding the sport’s appeal.

Going to watch live tournaments doesn’t exactly boast inclusivity either. For example, at The Open in July, the cheapest ticket for one day’s play at Royal Birkdale worked out at £75. For an adult earning a relatively basic wage, a sum of this size would seem quite substantial, even if it is the showpiece event of the year.

And although children (under 16) could gain free admission with one adult ticket, the £40 price for youths (16-24) also appeared expensive considering that fans from that age group are supposed to be the target market.

Lack of coverage

Elsewhere, the lack of exposure in the UK is only too evident in TV coverage as free terrestrial screening of golf has become virtually non-existent in recent years.

Indeed, except for the last two days of The Masters, the rest of the European and PGA Tour events, including the other three majors, can usually only be watched live on Sky Sports.

This means that anyone without the right Sky subscription – that is, the majority of the country’s population – can only see two days of live golf each year.

It begs the question: how can people be inspired to follow their favourite players on a regular basis and become genuine fans of the sport when they are struggling to even play or watch the game?

Innovation

Over the last 12 months, the European Tour’s chief executive, Keith Pelley, has introduced lots of new and innovative ideas with the belief that quicker forms of golf will attract new interest.

GolfSixes, a tournament with 16 teams of two fighting it out in a match play contest over six holes, was staged in St Albans in May to liven up golf’s image and was a deemed a success with newcomers watching on TV and turning up in person.

The field wasn’t amazing, but it was a start in Pelley’s eyes.

Next year will see more modernisation with the new short-formatted Shot Clock Masters tournament and the exciting strokeplay Belgium Knockout competition, hosted by Thomas Pieters.

But, again, with all three of those events being on Sky and available only to those with a subscription, the handicap is that few people will be able to see golf’s latest innovations. This is the major issue.

Whilst, undoubtedly, Pelley and the European Tour’s efforts to shake up the game are leading the way and should be seen as progress, it’s clear they and others in power across the golfing world still seem to be missing the point.

Making the sport more exciting and faster may be the way forward but it is meaningless if the audience you are looking to attract cannot access the product.

Hence golf’s problem is not necessarily the format of the game, but, more so, its exclusivity. The sooner golf’s hierarchies realise that, the better.

Images courtesy of zimbio.com

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