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Tracking the trends, we’re all in the same boat

Although growth has eluded recreational boating for what seems like ages, the industry can take some comfort in the fact that it’s not the only higher-end pastime without much wind at its back. Golf and thoroughbred horse racing are also suffering from a steady stream of dead air.

As I was putting the finishing touches on my last column about the importance of tailoring marketing campaigns to different generations, I came across some reports that add context and put the lack of growth in the boating industry into perspective.

Of particular note is “Twilight at the Track,” a six-page piece by Time magazine editor-at large David Von Drehle that appeared in the May 13 issue. Harking back to a time when horse racing was in its heyday, Von Drehle observes that America was then “largely rural, most Americans knew something about horses and racing was truly a national passion.”

Today, he says, “The sport of kings is struggling to avoid being buried … under the march of suburbia beneath the inexorable forces of change.”

Von Drehle bases his grim outlook on a 2011 head-to-hoof examination of the horse racing industry by Dan Singer of McKinsey & Co. Singer reports that betting has plummeted 37 percent, attendance is down 30 percent, race days are off 14 percent and one in four tracks will be forced to close in the next decade.

“By any measure,” he says, “thoroughbred racing has declined over the last decade primarily because of a failure to innovate fast enough and well enough to compete for new fans.”

Faced with such dire prospects, Von Drehle thinks thoroughbred racing will keep shrinking until its appeal is more on the order of polo.

What is this industry doing to broaden its appeal? It has developed a brand, “America’s Best Racing,” launched websites and designed social media games.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Or how about golf, a sport and recreational pastime played for the most part by the upwardly mobile? What began as a sport for kings more than 500 years ago in Scotland has, until recently, been known more as a “gentleman’s game” (sorry, Tiger).

But although golf mushroomed in popularity for much of the 20th century, the percentage of the overall population that plays has declined during the past 20 years. According to the National Golf Foundation, 12.1 percent of the population played the game in 1990. In 2000 it was 11.1 percent, and by 2010 it was down to 10.2 percent. In the early part of the new century, rounds played were down 5.7 percent, from 518.4 million in 2001 to 463 million in 2011.

By contrast, boating’s participation rate has reportedly remained remarkably steady during the past few decades — that is, depending on how much weight you give the industry’s statistics. According to the NMMA, boating participation increased 10 percent in 2011, to 83 million — the largest proportion of adults (34.8 percent) who went boating since 1997 (35.8 percent). How the boating industry actually defines who “went boating” has long been a mystery to me.

There is, nonetheless, a glimmer of good news from the links. The latest golf stats are in, and it appears that participation is no longer sinking. The stats are up, at least for the first two-thirds of 2012. The number of rounds played increased 7.4 percent from 2011.

Call me a stickler for detail, but these percentage increases for boating and golf just don’t hold much water for me. An “increase” from one year to the next is no trend, especially if the prior years were already low.

So what might cause an upward swing in golf participation? Although better weather and an improving economy won’t hurt, the Professional Golfers Association last year rolled out what it’s calling Golf 2.0, which, according to COO Darrell Crall, is a “philosophy and a belief that golf must change now.” Because many consumers have less discretionary income to spend and more entertainment options to pursue, Crall says, “we need to figure out a way for consumers to have what they want, when they want it.”

The revolutionary concept behind Golf 2.0 is a comprehensive program to educate golf course operators in this new philosophy and turn their facilities into centers of hospitality. To do this, the PGA established a permanent department and hired 24 full-time employees, armed them with customer service training from Ritz-Carlton and American Express and sent them across the country to preach the gospel according to Golf 2.0.

Imagine the smiles on the faces of boating consumers if marinas, dealers and boat repair shops adopted such a philosophy.

Not surprisingly, they’re also looking to increase the number of female golfers. They now constitute just 20 percent of all golfers. That said, I’ve yet to see a sustained campaign supported by the marine industry to attract women to boating since Wanda Kenton Smith first raised the issue five years ago at a panel discussion I produced for Boating Writers International called, “Expanding the Boating Universe Beyond Middle-aged White Males.”

At this point, it remains to be seen whether Golf 2.0 will increase participation and ultimately drive sales. What is noteworthy, however, is that the leaders behind Golf 2.0 recognized that they couldn’t just keep on talking about what needed to be done. They developed a strategic plan, committed the resources and put boots on the ground.

What could cause a real game change for recreational boating?

I’ve argued in previous columns that boating needs to sell the dream as much, if not more, than the stuff. The industry needs a celebrity spokesperson that consumers can identify with, and it needs to use television to get more consumers interested in boating.

We’ve also got to figure out how to make boating less expensive and easier to get into. Although many people might like to take up boating, not everyone has the time to devote to owning a boat. Boatbuilders need to figure out how to make leasing and fractional boat ownership work.

The industry should also embrace new concepts such as Cruzin (, an Internet-based service launched earlier this year that makes it easy for boat owners to rent out their boats, just like does for house rentals. Boat owners can make some money to offset the costs of an idling asset and potential boat owners get the opportunity to try out different types of boats without having to plunk down a boatload of cash. The model works, and it’s a total win/win for all concerned.

While I’m throwing these ideas against the wall to see whether anything sticks, my former BoatUS colleague Dave Pilvelait of Home Port Marketing has actually begun building bridges between boaters and duffers. He has launched Marine Industry Golfers, which, Dave says, is designed to “expand our industry networking opportunities while we share our passion — and frustration — with a game we all probably love a little too much.”

Perhaps some new ideas on how to grow boating will take root on the links. At least we’ll have an inside look at how Golf 2.0 is faring.

Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of Boating Writers International and the Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue.



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