By now the statistics documenting the rise of golf rounds since 2020 are quite familiar. New golfers and returning golfers brought a wave of excitement and revenue to the golf industry. Also familiar by now are the challenges to retaining and even growing that cohort.
Innovation in the golf experience has been one of the clarion calls in the industry for holding the interest of new golfers. Creativity has been spotted on the range in the form of Toptracer and other game-play technologies. Carts are now fitted with high-end speaker systems to enable a generation that insists on a soundtrack with every activity. Even food and beverage are getting into the act with craft beers, custom cocktails and high-end dining options replacing the hot dogs, nachos and a draft trifecta that has been a staple for ages.
But one of the most effective tools for drawing golfers and keeping them coming again and again is one of the oldest tools in the toolkit, good old-fashioned league play.
League play is usually associated with avid amateur golfers who want to bring the excitement of competition to their golf life. While the history of amateur golf tournaments is a well-known and thoroughly documented aspect of the history of golf, the origins of leagues are difficult to pin down. Long-time PGA professionals say that leagues gained steam during the 1950s and 1960s as more Americans picked up the game because of the combined popularity of President Dwight Eisenhower and Arnold Palmer. The league concept combined the individual competition of head-to-head match play with the team sport paradigm that is familiar to American players through the major sports leagues like football and baseball.
People often equate golf leagues with golf tournaments, but they are very different animals. Tournaments are one-off events held at different courses. Tournaments are typically at least 18 holes and can even be multi-day events; you will rarely find 9-hole tournaments. One tournament is typically more expensive than one league round, given you get awards, prizes and gifts included in the fee. And depending on the tournament, you may or may not need a handicap to play.
Contrast that with golf leagues, which are held at the same course weekly. Leagues usually take place on a consistent basis at the same time each week. Many leagues are played during the evening after work, but sometimes there are leagues that take place during the day (these are typically for retirees). Golf leagues usually charge an upfront league fee and you pay for the greens fee each week as part of the league. League membership ranges from $50-500 upfront and greens fees can cost $20-50 a week depending on the golf facility you are playing and if you are walking or taking a cart. Golf leagues are usually only 9 holes, to accommodate the time schedule of players who are working full time and schedule their golf after a work day. In fact, many golf leagues are corporate leagues with co-workers competing as an after-work activity, ideal for networking.
The key difference for golfers is that a tournament is a one-off affair while leagues are a recurring pastime that run for weeks at a time. For the owner/operator this is also a critical difference and a compelling reason to promote league play. Where tournaments can be very labor intensive, requiring dedicated resources to execute successfully, leagues guarantee a large group of people convening at the facility repeatedly. And the group not only will play golf; they are candidates to be consumers of every product and service available at the course, from hard goods to handicapping services. And if a facility can get multiple leagues operating, targeting a variety of audiences, that vertical can become a pillar of reliable income season after season.
To make it even easier for operators to offer league play, there is a growing number of entrepreneurs who offer league play in partnership with facilities. One of those is Spark, a network of 9-hole, social golf leagues played on weekday evenings. According to its website, more than 1,200 courses will host Spark Golf across the US and Canada in 2023. Spark offers a “welcoming format and relaxed rules…designed for players of all skill levels who are looking to have fun while playing in a friendly competition.” The idea of a format that is less about the rules and the score and more about the fun is especially appealing to both new and returning golfers who are more interested in a great time than a great score.
The value side is appealing as well with Spark, because it’s free for golfers to register. Once a golfer signs up, league rounds are available for purchase each week, or a player can save money by prepaying for multiple rounds at a discount. There is no minimum-round commitment so participants can play as their schedules allow.
For operators who would like to ramp up their league offerings, there are a few things to consider.
Let patrons know that you are interested in promoting league play. There is always a group of people at any facility who are the organizer-type; these folks will help you organize your leagues and recruit players.
Offer a range of flavors. Organize league play available for a variety of tastes, from serious low-handicappers to high-handicappers, gender-based, youth and other categories. And let the participants have a large say in the rules and atmosphere of the league.
Reach out to local businesses and organizations, as they can be tremendous drivers of business. Making positive connections with a company’s employees could lead to business that extends beyond the league, such as meetings, weddings and other events.
It’s never too late to get started. If you don’t feel that you have time to get leagues up and running in the spring, set your sights on having an offering for the fall season. There likely will be plenty of golfers who can be available for one and not the other.
Leagues have been around for a long time. But with a new breed of player emerging at golf facilities, these bastions of competition are now becoming a source of fun and camaraderie for patrons and reliable revenue source for owner/operators.