EDITOR’S NOTE: This story concludes a two-part special report on the challenges facing recreation-based industries and what is being done to overcome them.
There’s a lot to love about golf.
That’s the sport’s new slogan; however, according to the National Golf Federation, a golf course closes in the United States every other day. In 2014 only 11 courses opened. That trend can partly be attributed to the aging of core participants.
By the same token, the average boater is about 55 today, and the age increases by six months a year. So that means that in a decade the average age will be 60, says National Marine Manufacturers Association senior vice president Carl Blackwell, who runs the Discover Boating program.
“I don’t want to be one of those industries like golf,” Blackwell says. “The golf industry is addressing this [decline] in several ways — ways that help them overcome some of the barriers they face. I think in the past year in the boating industry you’ve seen an acceleration of new product coming to market to address some of the same barriers — time, affordability, changing demographics — especially reaching out to younger adults. Add that to drought in many areas of golf’s most well-known locales, and that industry has a long road ahead.”
However, the golf industry is now reaching out to more generations, non-white races and women in new ways, according to a Men’s Journal magazine article detailing what it calls “the death of golf.”
Golf might have more of an uphill battle than boating. Although both are seen as sports that cater primarily to older white men, Augusta National, home of the Masters and one of the world’s most renowned golf clubs, did not accept black members until 1990 and women until 2012, according to the article.
No more Tiger
Tiger Woods did give the sport an incredible boost — until he didn’t. Participation in golf can almost be tracked by his rise and fall, from a high of 30.6 million people in 2003 to 24.7 million in 2014, according to the article. Long-term trends also are troubling, with the number of golfers ages 18 to 34 showing a 30 percent decline during the past 20 years.
Though the industry has united fairly quickly to come up with a national ad campaign, the efforts haven’t paid off — at least not yet. A release from the U.S. Golf Association doesn’t say how the industry is funding the ads — and no one contacted in the industry wanted to comment for this story — but four TV ads that were launched last June reflect the industry’s broader message. The USGA also benefits from a new 12-year contract it signed with Fox this year. As mediapost.com put it: “The message — sometimes implied, sometimes stated — is that the game is for all, regardless of race, ethnic background and income, and you don’t have to be a pro to enjoy it.”
That message seems to be helping draw more people to the sport, a new report from the National Golf Foundation shows. But because 90 percent of those who tried golf in 2015 didn’t stick with the sport, it may not be helping to retain them.
A lot of people “don’t feel comfortable” playing golf, said Wall Street Journal writer Jason Bellini on National Public Radio. “They don’t know the rules of etiquette” and find it too formal, he said.
Money and time
Although you might not have to be a pro to enjoy golf, you do have to have a fair amount of disposable income, which also can be said of other leisure-time activities, including boating, skiing and snowboarding. A 2014 Forbes article blamed a dwindling middle class for huge declines in recreational activities.
A season ago, the Aspen Daily News in Colorado lamented rising lift ticket prices at the Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts. Walk-up, single-day lift tickets topped $100. Aspen quickly followed suit, and ticket prices at resorts across the country have consistently increased.
“The trend has raised a question that has dogged the ski industry for years: Is the sport becoming unaffordable for the middle class?” the article asked. Several reports emerged about the same time, discussing how inexpensive downhill snow sports could be in light of heavy discounts.
But despite the availability of deals, a report that the National Ski Areas Association commissioned last August found that the percentage of people who participate in snow sports with household incomes above $100,000 has risen during the past eight years, from 45 percent of ski area visitors in the 2006-07 season to 56 percent in the 2013-14 season. During that time there were fewer participants who earned less than $50,000 a year; the percentage dropped from 30 to 19.
Skipping over affordability
The extensive 40-year study didn’t conclude why snow sports weren’t able to reach additional demographics, but it said that in future studies the group will “examine why past programs built from the recommendations of past research failed to grow the base and what new paradigm-busting programs have potential to grow the sport today.”
However, it did not seem to acknowledge in its conclusion that one of the largest barriers — affordability — had not really been addressed, with lift tickets on the rise, instead pointing to the discounts available for last-minute or flexible shoppers.
Harley-Davidson offers motorcycles at a variety of price points, with the Street 750 starting at $7,500 and the Iron 883 starting at $8,400, says Tony Macrito, the company’s corporate media relations manager. But those “appeal to more than just young adults,” he says. “They appeal to anyone interested in that type of riding experience, or that price point.”
For example, Macrito says, “The Harley-Davidson Street motorcycles start at a price point that is great for someone looking to get into the Harley-Davidson brand. However, Street [model] motorcycles are also appealing to those interested in a bike built for the tight turns and quick moves of an urban environment.”
Golf has been trying to reduce the amount of time people spend on courses in its effort to attract younger players. The U.S. Golf Association has been encouraging players to go for nine holes instead of 18, in part because it takes roughly five hours to complete a full round. And reducing course sizes comes with an additional benefit — less green to water. A typical golf course requires 100,000 to 1 million gallons of water a day, according to the Alliance for Water Efficiency. Golf courses in the Southwest had the highest water costs, according to the USGA — about $107,800 a year for an average 18-hole course.
It’s been a long process, but the age demographics of RV users are trending downward, and that’s a good thing, says James Ashurst, communications and marketing vice president for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association and manager of that industry’s GoRVing campaign. The focus on younger families in GoRVing’s outreach efforts has helped, he thinks.
“I came on board in 2010, and the industry was focusing very heavily on price coming out of the recession,” he says. “Affordability will always be part of our message, but I really wanted to get back to that emotional message of spending time with family, or outdoors, connecting with people and nature. We made a strategic shift in that direction and a strategic shift in digital outreach. Our Facebook [page] had 11,000 fans, and now we’ve got almost 700,000.”
Although he says Facebook likes are a vanity measure, the numbers in terms of sharing content have been high, which he attributes to the emphasis on the emotional part of RVing. The Discover Boating Stories of Discovery also are seeking to make that type of emotional connection, and Ashurst thinks it’s important.
“I think a lot of people go RVing for the same reasons they go boating,” he says. “I think it’s important to get products in front of them. The statistics show us that if you get kids in these activities early, they continue into adulthood. If they aren’t doing it as kids, it’s very difficult to get them to adopt them when they’re older.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.