Where have over five million rounds of golf been played with over 500 million shots in the last year? A development tour? Nope. Junior golf in a major market? Nope. The Villages? Well, maybe, but nope again.
The numbers are attributed to Golf+, the biggest-selling golf app in the Virtual Reality world. That’s where you put on a headset and transport yourself to a virtual golf course, where you swing a virtual club to hit virtual balls. It’s golf in your living room. Watch out for that lamp with your backswing.
I subscribe to several golf publications and newsletters that fill my inbox daily and periodically. I focus on the musings of my former colleagues at Pellucid (“Outside the Ropes,” “Pellucid Perspective”) and the NGF’s “Fortnight.” Others I peruse looking for story ideas, like GolfWRX, Geoff Shackleford (a particular favorite), The Golf Wire, Global Golf Post, and MyGolfSpy, which quoted the Golf+ numbers (Oct. 19, 2022).
I have little interest in the latest equipment ratings or pro tour quibbles unless something relates directly to the business of golf – the golf facility side of the industry. However, the confluence of two entries form my Ohio River opinion about how golf will grow.
The Golf+ numbers intrigued me because of this from NGF: “For the first time in history, the overall participant base – the combination of on- and off-course golfers – will top 40 million Americans in 2022. And in another first, the number of people who play non-traditional, off-course forms of the game in the U.S. will surpass the green-grass total.” (NGF “Fortnight,” Oct. 26, 2022). Dr. Joe Beditz goes on to posit that the new entry points to golf – Topgolf and its impersonators, simulator golf, and virtual reality golf will “add to, not take away from traditional, on-course golf.”
Jim Koppenhaver pointed out to me in an email exchange that if these forms of off-course golf are accretive to traditional golf participation, why don’t we see a dramatic upswing in the number of green-grass golfers as the “COVIdend” (his term) and these new on-ramps combine to “create the perfect storm for hundreds of thousands (millions?) of new golfers headed to grass tees?”
Koppenhaver points out that NGF’s numbers might make a credible case that non-grass golf hasn’t been cannibalizing green-grass golf, but to say that it’s accretive isn’t supported. We don’t know the conversion rate to green grass by people introduced to golf at alternative outlets. At best, the facts are minimal. So as Koppenhaver points out, we may have two parallel universes with minimal overlap.
But then I wondered, what if it goes the other way? What if the alternatives drag people off the grass to places where they can still enjoy golf in different, more contemporary, and technically-advanced formats? Is shot euphoria eternal regardless of where and how it occurs?
There is no doubting the attractions and amenities offered by the Topgolfs, putt shops, retail simulator outlets, and virtual reality.
You can play with more than three friends at a time, at night, in climate-controlled comfortable environments, with noticeably better food and beverage choices and quality. Oh, and you’ll lose nary a $5 Pro V1 nor play behind a notoriously slow group of 24-handicappers.
Can we compare what’s happening in golf with something else? Absolutely! If you are reading this on your smartphone, iPad, or other smart devices, the answer is in your hands – streaming, and how it has decimated the movie theater business.
According to a Sept. 6, 2022 report in the New York Times, attendance at movie theaters peaked in 2002 with 1.6 billion tickets sold. However, theaters suffered tremendously in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid, and ticket sales have rebounded somewhat in 2022. The big studios and their specialty-film subsidiaries released about 140 films in theaters in 2002 but plan just 73 this year and 75 big-screen releases in 2023. So, where are the other movies going? Name your favorite streaming network: HBO Max, Showtime, Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Paramount+, Amazon Prime, and probably some others with shared passwords.
Despite in-theater blockbuster releases like Top Gun: Maverick, Minions: Rise of Gru, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Jurassic World Dominion, which eschewed a colon, only 17% of available theater seats were occupied. Some movies, including a few we’d typically see on the silver screen, will bypass theaters altogether in favor of streaming services. Disney+ subscribers will have exclusive access to “Hocus Pocus 2” and “Pinocchio,” starring Tom Hanks. “Knives Out” took in $311 million worldwide in 2019; a sequel arrives on Netflix in December.
And there’s the catch. We can sit home and stream movies on all sorts of smart or connected devices, pop our own popcorn, hit “pause” to go to the bathroom, and not miss anything and watch what we want when we want. Sure, you might have to wait a few weeks for the theater-release blockbusters, and if you are patient and wait long enough, they might be free. Technology and the Internet give us choices and generate behavioral changes, just as they could for golf.
Fortunately, we’re seeing golf course operators invest in and install alternative formats like simulators and Top Tracer or Trackman on their practice ranges. These investments might keep golfers from straying to other outlets. It might also be the best way to get some measure of how many golfers quit the green-grass game but not golf altogether. Sadly, we don’t have the data to know if and how many “real” golfers are moving to alternative formats to continue playing the game they love. But, I’m sure some will – it’s inevitable, just like people ditching their gas-powered cars for electric.
Golf will always hold an attraction of playing on real grass, outdoors, and presenting shot-making challenges at every turn and true shot euphoria. However, how many people it will attract and keep is something I think the analysts need to keep an eye on.
But whatever happens, we know that even in virtual golf, it’s tough to break 100!