Thursday, February 23, 2012

Let's #GrowGolf Through Honest & Open Dialogue

I am a firm believer that the solution to the golf industry’s troubles is to grow the game amongst new players as opposed to trying to squeeze more money, time and participation out of existing players.  This may seem like an obvious statement but not everyone in the industry agrees with me, starting with some major equipment manufacturers who have told me as much.

In order to grow the game amongst new players, we need to do two things:
1.    Be honest in our assessment of where we stand and why.  We don’t always see this, as evidenced by this recent Tweet by SNAG on February 13:
snaggolf@snaggolf – 10 million kids learning #golf using SNAG!
If you click on SNAG’s link, you’ll see that it’s a Press Release not for SNAG, but The First Tee (and SNAG is not mentioned once) announcing The First Tee's goal of reaching 10 million children.  It caught my attention because I know there are only 2.5 million kids total playing golf in the U.S.  Nevertheless, I saw industry members Retweeting this post believing it to be accurate.  I know and respect SNAG’s executive team and like what they’re doing for the game, so I hope this misleading Tweet was a mistake.  Regardless, it's a good example of what many golf companies and organizations are doing – claiming lofty achievements that aren’t really there.  And it needs to stop.
2.    Have active, open and engaging conversations about ways to grow the game.  To that end, two platforms have recently emerged that are facilitating good discussions: 
A.   The first is the Twitter hashtag #growgolf.  As to be expected, some people add it to Tweets that aren’t actually about growing golf but you can find some real idea gems if you read through the timeline.  More importantly, it’s a positive step towards initiating a valuable dialogue and I’m happy to see participation from industry leaders on down.
B.   The second is a LinkedIn group for Junior Golf that has had some compelling discussions.  If you’re in the world of junior golf, I encourage you to join the group and jump in on the conversations.  I know it’s been an educational resource for me.
My challenge to the industry is to stop focusing energy and money on PR campaigns about growing the game that serve as smoke screens for the fact that, in the last five years, youth participation has dropped 34% from 3.8 million to 2.5 million and overall participation has dropped 13% from 30 million to 26.1 million.  (The full participation report is below.)  Those are staggering statistics.  And, they tell me that none of us in the industry are doing a good enough job – myself included.
Once we take ownership of our reality, let’s have an open dialogue about solutions where innovation, entrepreneurship and efforts that have tangible proof of growing the game are embraced.  I’m happy to see this happening on Twitter and LinkedIn and I hope other platforms arise as well – starting with this blog.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Significant, Sustainable & Non-Radical Solution to Golf's Participation Problem

The Wall Street Journal published an article last weekend called “The Battle for the Soul of the Game” and it captured the essence of this interesting time in the golf industry. 

The article discusses how the golf industry is thinking about combating the game’s declining participation, causes of which include 5-6 hour rounds, expensive green fees, increasingly difficult courses and little overall accessibility.  Industry leaders face difficult decisions because many of the popular solutions to these problems require a fundamental shift in the traditions, values and “soul” of the game.

Some of the more radical ideas include: two sets of rules – one for professionals and one for amateurs, golf balls that fly farther or shorter to accommodate courses of different lengths, doubling the size of the hole, building courses with less holes and so forth.
I understand why these ideas exist but I don’t support them because they disrupt a fundamental aspect of the game that I believe should be forever sacred – “the number.”  Every round of golf produces a score.  Golfers can compare it to previous performances.  It’ll make them feel good about themselves, or strive to be better, or both.  They can compare it to others.  It can be discussed at ease with both golfers and non-golfers alike.  They can even compare it to professionals.  Thanks to one set of rules, 18 holes, normal-sized golf courses, standardized equipment and a 3” hole, every score produces a number that means something.  In many ways it means everything.  And it should never be taken away.
There are traditional solutions as well – moving the tees forward, eliminating carts on courses where they have to stay on the path, increasing marketing efforts, etc. – but these all feel to me like using a band aid where stitches are needed.
There is one solution, however, that was discussed in the Comments section of the article that I think is game-changing because it would solve these problems in a significant and meaningful way while also preserving the traditions of the game.
The concept is to create a system where people need to be able to achieve a certain handicap on a short course and pass a rules/etiquette assessment before receiving a card that would allow them to play on an 18 hole regulation facility.  This policy would apply to juniors, men, women, everyone.  It makes a lot of sense and would do several things:
1.    Create inherent demand for building short courses and a sustainable business model to support them.
2.    Provide a nurturing, non-intimidating environment for beginners to try the game and develop some skills before going to longer, harder, more expensive and time-consuming courses.
3.    Offer all golfers more opportunities to enjoy the game in a relaxed setting for two hours or less.
4.    Speed up play at 18 hole facilities.
Failing golf courses could convert into a short course as opposed to closing, thus saving jobs and making the transition to this model smooth for everyone.  In the interim of building the short course, or in areas where it would be impossible to sustain one, regulation facilities could utilize the family tees or create a modified routing format (such as Tierra Rejada's innovative "Players Course") on certain days/times for beginners.  USGA members with a handicap below a certain number would be grandfathered in while all others would need to pass through the program.
I’m sure there are many more considerations as I dive deeper into the concept, including potential legal and political complications, but this to me makes a lot of sense on many levels… much more so than some of the alternatives.  It maintains the integrity of “the number,” preserves the game’s traditions, makes it more accessible to beginners, presents more opportunities for seasoned players to enjoy it and has a sustainable business model to support it. 

And, this model would present ample opportunity for entrepreneurs to capitalize on the shifting landscape.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Last Week Was A Great Week For Golf

The Waste Management Phoenix Open last week was, like always, an awesome tournament.  Making it so unique was the fact that even if Spencer Levin won easily with zero drama (as most predicted entering the final round), or if Kyle Stanley didn’t pull off an amazing turnaround following his Farmer’s Open collapse the week before (something that golfers, entrepreneurs and many others can learn from), it still would’ve been an awesome tournament.  Why?  Because the people who put it on – the “Thunderbirds” – focus on making it an all-around fun experience as opposed to just a golf spectator event.

There’s the famed 16th hole with its stadium seating, a seemingly simply concept considering all other major sports have 360 degree seating formats, but this is unique to this one hole.  This one tournament.

There’s the Bird’s Nest across the street where the likes of Will.I.Am and the Goo Goo Dolls performed in the evenings, with players like Rickie Fowler making stage appearances.  Again, unique to this one tournament.

Simply put, the Waste Management Phoenix Open is one big party.  Which, not surprising for the golf industry, means that some folks don’t like it.  Last week I shook my head as I read tweets and comment threads on blogs/articles questioning whether this was good for golf.  “This” being the raucous crowds at 16, the drinking, the atmosphere.

I think there's no question that this tournament is good - make that GREAT - for golf.  Here’s why:

Attendance for the Saturday round alone was 173,210.  That’s a record for single day attendance of any golf tournament ever.  In history.  Consider this – event organizers for the Farmer’s Insurance Open the previous week at Torrey Pines (in the heart of San Diego) estimated attendance at 150,000 … for the entire week.

Overall attendance at the Waste Management Phoenix Open was over 500,000.  Compare this to last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional, where total weekly attendance was “nearly 230,000 people.”  And the field in Phoenix featured only two players in the Top 10 of the World Rankings, with the highest ranked golfer being Webb Simpson at #6.

My take is this – anything that brings people into golf and gets them excited about the game is good for the game.  It should be encouraged, embraced, studied and replicated.  The 16th sat 22,000 people and anyone who watched the tournament could see that the fans, players, caddies and everyone else loved it.  Who will forget Bubba Watson and Ben Crane reuniting as the Golf Boys?  Pure entertainment.

For the detractors, I encourage them to read about the Haimish Line because I think their view comes from the wrong side of it. 

Last week, 500,000 people hung out on a golf course in Scottsdale – more than ever before in the history of the game – because it was a fun, social environment.  That's a valuable lesson for anyone in the golf industry looking to grow the game.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Clarity Within the Noise

I was recently invited to be a mentor for an incubator called StartEngine, which is a 90 day program for very early stage technology companies to get their startups off the ground.  I’ve met with several companies since and I’m noticing a recurring theme – the entrepreneurs are getting conflicting information from the various mentors/investors/advisors around them, and they’re having trouble making sense of it. 

Here was an exchange I had last week:

Entrepreneur with a social media / mobile app company – “Last week we had an investor come in and say that we had to have a business/revenue model from the outset.  Then one of our mentors told us that we don’t need to worry about a business model right now and instead just need to build product.  Then a separate person told us that it’s all about users.  Which is it?”

Me – “It depends.  What do you ultimately want the company to be?”

Entrepreneur – “(insert standard 30 second pitch)”

Me – “Doesn’t answer the question.  Let’s try it this way – why did you get into this business?"

Entrepreneur – “To make life easier for my market of users.”

Me – “Ok, then answer me this – one year from now, would you rather have 100,000 free users and be dependent on outside funding or have 10,000 paying users who each pay a couple of bucks and have you on the road to sustainability?”

Entrepreneur – “Not sure, which one would investors look more favorably upon?

Me – “That depends on what you ultimately want your company to be.”

This discussion is typical of several conversations I’ve had with other entrepreneurs about the unique challenges and decisions they face with their business.  It’s not too different from the process I go through daily with folks interested in starting a TGA franchise.  With all of the noise out there offering business advice and guidance – blogs, books, Twitter, advisors, mentors, investors, etc. – it is understandable why many young entrepreneurs find themselves with spinning heads.

When it comes to big decisions, my advice is simple – always remember why you got into the business (vision) and know what your long-term goals are (strategic plan).  Then make decisions that align accordingly.  It works because the vision is set in stone at a period in time, and thus will keep you grounded, while your long-term goals are malleable and thus will allow you to adjust and pivot. 

I was discussing these thoughts yesterday with our Curriculum Consultant at TGA who has a doctorate and 25 years in education, and she told me about a book called “The Element” by Sir Ken Robinson.  She described it as a book that identifies four conditions for achievement – aptitude, passion, attitude and opportunity.  The two features of being in one’s “element” are aptitude and passion, and the conditions for it are attitude and opportunity.  Basically, you’ll be successful if you do something you’re good at and passion about, so long as you have a positive attitude and the right opportunity.  I ordered the book last night and I look forward to diving deeper into the concept as I think it aligns with the advice I’ve been giving to the entrepreneurs.

I make a concerted effort to constantly read, learn and surround myself with people smarter and more experienced than me.  I certainly encourage all entrepreneurs to do the same.  But when it comes to big decisions with your business, the focus shouldn’t be on what others are telling you but rather on what aligns with your reasons for getting into the business and what you ultimately want it to be.