Does The Arrival Of The New Normal End Golf’s Participation Party?


By Jon Last, President, Sports & Leisure Research Group
As seen on NGCOA's Research Center dashboard 

March of 2020 sure feels like a lot longer than two years ago. Yet that’s when we initiated our nationally acclaimed Back to Normal Barometer, with the expectation that we’d be at it for a few months. Thirty-one waves and some 20,000+ consumer interviews later the Barometer endures, though COVID-19 related concerns seem to have been placed on the back-burner in mid March of 2022.

sports_leisure_dashboard_graphics_032522.jpg In our most recently fielded research, less than half of active Americans when asked to indicate the seriousness of some 14 different issues confronting the country, considered the pandemic to be very serious. In fact, COVID was remarkably the lowest of all concerns, behind even media reporting, the public education system and the perceived degradation of family values. Nearly 2/3 plan to take a domestic business trip in the next six to twelve months – a 15% increase from what we observed last October. Three quarters of Americans agree that “the pandemic is less of a threat to Americans than it was at this time last year." That’s up nearly twenty points from where we were in January. Just over a third strongly agree that the Omicron variant of COVID is a significant concern; a 23 point drop from October. Nearly three quarters agree that “In general, the people around me have moved on from being pre-occupied with COVID-19.” And for the first time in five months more than half now believe we will be back to total pre-pandemic normal before the end of the calendar year. More than nine in ten are back up and participating in those activities that were a large part of their leisure lives prior to the pandemic.

Slide_1.pngSo, if American attitudes and behaviors have shed pandemic precautions, what does that portend for golf and its participation surge? Will those who increased their play or discovered the game over the past two years go back to their old ways?

One positive indicator for golf can be found in ongoing transformative attitudes and behaviors surrounding work-life balance, that emerged to golf’s benefit during the pandemic. Attitudinally, despite COVID liberation, we have not seen any meaningful shifts in perceived time flexibility. As we saw in November of last year, there are still a third of Americans who strongly agree that they have greater time flexibility and more leisure time available than they experienced pre-pandemic.

Slide_2.pngAdd to this, the observation that even with a majority now back to working exclusively in a dedicated work space outside the home, nearly half are still working at home at least some of the time. In a “buyers” labor market, nearly half strongly agree that “the ability to work from home is something I would value from my job.”

Another positive that we’ve followed closely for nearly ten years, is the incidence of past year golfers who strongly consider the game to be an “oasis” from the stresses of daily life. This metric has consistently portended the ability of the game to break through other concerns and provide a sanctuary from life’s pressures. This measure is at nearly 60%, a high point only matched each of the past two Decembers over the duration of the pandemic.

Slide_3.pngBut there are clouds to be mindful of, as well. Malaise about the economy is at a high point. As the accompanying chart vividly displays, we are seeing dramatic drops and two year lows for those seeing themselves and other Americans better off than they were four years ago, as optimism about the future of our country also hits a nadir. Those Americans who see the prices of consumer goods and services as being somewhat or much higher compared to immediate pre-pandemic times has hit a Barometer high of 83%. In the aforementioned measure of those issues of great concern to Americans, inflation, at 77% considering it very serious, remained number one, above even tensions with Russia.

When we factor in the pervasive incidence of golf facilities increasing rates over the past year, we recognize that we must be mindful of surpassing a tipping point where the price to value ratio for golf no longer accrues to our advantage. In fact, in recent in-depth interviews with NGCOA members, this delicate balance between demand and cost driven rate increases and consumer price elasticity appears as a critical success factor for the season ahead.

And there are some indicators of potential softening. In the latest Barometer, 39% of golfers reported seeing players new since COVID; down from 51% reported last May. Just over a third felt that the course where they play most often was very busy now compared to consistent observations in the mid to high 40%s through the second half of ’21. From an anticipated demand perspective, a third of golfers plan to play in the next week, a figure that is lower than we’ve seen since last February.

Does this suggest that the good times are over? Any such conclusion would be premature conjecture. However, it’s important to recognize where we are relative to the unabated positives that drove the past two seasons. We’ll continue to monitor and report with our most emphatic short term advice being that facility operators should do the same. If there were ever a time to take a rigorous and empirical look at player price elasticity, most acutely at public facilities, now would be the moment to do so.




Jon Last is the President of Sports & Leisure Research Group. This research is featured on the NGCOA's Research Center dashboard.
** The views and opinions featured in Golf Business WEEKLY are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the NGCOA.**