By Harvey Silverman:
NEARLY 1,000 GLOBAL ATHLETES COMPETED IN THE FIFG 2023 FOOTGOLF WORLD CUP ORLANDO… BUT WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP FOR U.S. GOLF COURSES?
I was honored and privileged to attend the 2023 FootGolf World Cup in Orlando, Florida, May 27-June 6. It was my first experience at an international sporting event, and to say it exceeded my expectations is an understatement. It blew me away.
For those who don’t know, FootGolf is a hybrid sport combining soccer and golf. It’s modeled after golf with similar rules, etiquette and dress preferences. It’s played on golf courses with shorter holes and 21” cups cut away from the greens. An 18-hole FootGolf course easily can be designed and installed on nine holes of golf. However, FootGolf courses have been installed on empty land or parks in a few countries with no golf courses, where enthusiasts can gain permission to pursue their new passion. Or, like players from Luxembourg crossing the French border to find a place to play, footgolfers will travel distances for fun, practice, and competitions.
And passion is abundant. There is something very special about wearing your country’s name, flag and colors on a uniform, along with 38 other global compatriots challenging you to compete against the best in the world. Best dressed at the opening ceremony were the Scots, seen here. You gotta love the kilts.
And Scotland was not the biggest team. The US had 72 players, and Japan, France and Argentina each had over sixty. And smaller teams from countries you wouldn’t expect came to compete also, like Uruguay:
I was standing outside the House of Blues Orlando at Disney Springs, where the opening ceremony and parade of nations was held, when English Senior Men’s division player Paul Parker walked out with tears streaming down his face. He was overwhelmed by the experience of representing his country with skills that never enabled him to do the same on a soccer pitch. Like hundreds of others, he invested thousands of their home currencies to attend and compete against FootGolf’s growing world. And regardless of the results, pride and passion fulfilled a life’s dream of representing his home country. He may not win a trophy, but his tears displayed his life’s reward.
I embedded myself with the Slovakian team – they stayed across a greenway from me, and some of the men enjoyed Orlando evenings on their patio playing poker – but no beer or liquor. Most were visiting the US for the first time, and listening to their worldview was fascinating. They were in training, 32 of them, and there to compete. And compete they did, with the Senior Men’s team losing to Argentina in the finals and the Women’s team losing to Japan in the finals. But their star player, 24-year-old Lucia Cermakova, took home the Women’s singles World Cup trophy. That’s her under my right arm, along with the rest of the team that adopted me as their American “besty”.
The event was streamed live on the CTV Sports (available in your app store) app’s FootGolf channel. It is preparing a program for television about the 2023 FootGolf World Cup, to be aired on major sports networks this summer. The organizers hoped for a daily audience of 10,000. Instead, the worldwide response was astronomical – nearly 3.8 MILLION total hits, with 2.6 million live and 1.2 million video-on-demand.
“The goal was to grow the audience outside of just the current circle of footgolfers, and I think we did just that,” said CTV Sports CEO Michael Ferreira. “We were shooting for 10K daily and far exceeded those expectations.”
Other media picked up on the FootGolf World Cup too, like this from Yahoo! News, and this from Fox 35 Orlando.
Unfortunately, the global response overwhelmed what was to be a prepared and tested-live scoring function powered by a well-known golf technology company. Fans, families and friends of players worldwide, and the players themselves, could not follow the daily scoring and leaderboards despite the best efforts of the organizers, who worked until early morning hours to enter scores manually and update players with their standings and the next day’s tee times. It wasn’t pretty, and people were disappointed, but in the end, the champions were crowned with World Cup trophies representing six categories, flying off to six different countries.
So where does FootGolf go from here?
Much of the game’s growth is attributed to the hundreds of US golf facilities that installed FootGolf courses and welcomed new customers who otherwise never might have set foot on a golf course. The American FootGolf League, the American FootGolf Federation, the Federation of International FootGolf, and the many footgolfers who discovered the game salute them.
But things have changed.
Back in the early 2010s, when golf’s participation was waning and courses struggled to stay afloat, FootGolf was a welcome, new revenue stream with little setup other than placing FootGolf cups and flags in strategic locations, generally away from greens and on the sides of fairways. Now, the demand balance has changed, placing more golfers on first tees than seen in decades. Footgolfers are afforded little room, if any, and many golf facilities have dropped their FootGolf programs.
Laura Balestrini, president of the Federation of International FootGolf, understands. “A golf course’s first priority is as a golf business,” Balestrini says. “We’re thrilled to see the golf industry enjoy a robust period of more rounds and more participants. Because of this, we’ve changed our perspectives and now encourage nine-hole FootGolf courses along with 18. We are helping participating operators tailor their availability by time and days of the week. We never have, and never will, ask or expect golf courses to displace regular golfers, and we know FootGolf isn’t a fitting addition to some courses. But footgolfers are paying customers, too, sometimes as much as a regular green fee.”
FootGolf in other countries has grown up on “homemade” courses in open fields or municipal parks. The American FootGolf Federation is now responding to US parks and recreation departments inquiring about installing a FootGolf course, maybe with as few as five or six holes. It will be one way to grow the sport, but the better players will eventually want the full golf course experience. And FootGolf’s wide diversity of participants, as exemplified at the World Cup, adds an exciting element to the typical customer mix.
An informal survey of World Cup players produced some interesting perspectives. For starters, nearly 60% say they play golf or have taken up the game better to understand its rules, etiquette and the peculiarities of playing with a ball on varying terrain and grasses. They also say that their love of their sport is magnified by playing in beautiful venues, what one called “a perfectly manicured park.” And last, they love the golf facility atmosphere, the friendliness and the order of play.
Here is how Walt Disney World Golf successfully promotes FootGolf. It’s available on a limited basis on its 9-hole Oak Trail course – Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday after 3 PM in the fall and winter months and after 4 PM in the spring and summer. It’s not hard to create this magic at your facility, too.
Soccer’s passion in the US will be on display in the next few years, with the Women’s World Cup beginning in a few weeks and the men’s being held in North America in 2026. Golf facilities, especially in soccer-rich locales, like those with Major League Soccer (MLS) teams, can capitalize on this passion by installing or resurrecting FootGolf courses, even on a limited basis based on days of the week or times of day. Maybe it’s a lesser-used par-3 course where FootGolf could generate additional revenue. Or organizers could create a lucrative FootGolf event business that could be popular with companies, non-profits, and families looking to enjoy the appeal of a “perfectly manicured park.” There is money to be made, along with the pride of being at the forefront of a growing sport. Who knows, maybe a World Cup champion can emerge from your facility.
So the Federation of International FootGolf and its member countries and clubs turn their attention to the 2023 World Tour, local and regional tournaments and the next FIFG FootGolf World Cup.
“We hope golf continues its current path of growth and success, but we also hope it finds a way to incorporate our growing sport, just as tennis courts at clubs and parks have incorporated Pickleball,” says Laura Balestrini. “FootGolf has proven itself on the world stage in ways no one expected 12 years ago. We look forward to partnering with our current golf course venues and new ones as we advance to the next level.”
This article was featured in the July/August edition of Golf Business magazine.