New challenges

Grant Wright, owner of World of Golf in Croydon and CEO of New Malden Golf Centre, argues that golf clubs need to work harder than ever before to attract customers in an increasingly demanding environment. 

I spent the first 20 years of my career in the sports, health and fitness industry. They understand a lot at David Lloyd and other gyms about getting and retaining members. I remember a speaker at a conference saying that, ‘taking up exercise is like giving up smoking – you know you should, you know the benefits, all your friends tell you to do it but it is difficult and it is so easy to slip back into old habits.’ Out of that insight we realised in the gym world that it was not just our job to have great facilities and classes but to inspire people to come more often. Usage equals member retention.

Sports are often run by their keenest enthusiasts and, though understandable, this has significant risks. These are the people who do not find it difficult to motivate themselves to come on a wet Thursday evening after a bad day at work. For most people it can be a knife-edge decision – do I go out again in the rain to practice at the range or course or do I sit in and watch Sky TV? Most people see their ‘competitors’ as other golf clubs or facilities but the real competitor is apathy and other leisure activities.

Other leisure activities are booming with things like Trampoline parks coming from nowhere to 100 UK sites in four years and new sports such as Roller Derby proving to be a huge hit with girls. The most threatening new entry to the leisure market is e-gaming which involves paying to watch other people play computer games. Before anyone scoffs at e-gaming like I did, here are some stats: 36 million people paid to watch the League of Legends final in 2015 and all teams are now professional ‘athletes’. A recent DOTA tournament had a prize pot of $18million. In 2017 there will be more e-sports paying fans than American Football. This phenomenon has come from nowhere five years ago to threaten many other sports – both for participation and spectating.

More traditional sports have had mixed fortunes. Some have adapted well such as Rugby Union and Cricket and have seen participation grow. Others have suffered such as Squash, Fishing and Rugby League. All sports are desperately trying to attract and retain new consumers and it has become a competitive marketing battle to keep numbers up. There are lots of examples and initiatives done by other sports that golf could learn from but I find that golf is cut-off from the rest of the sports fraternity.

One uncomfortable fact for golf is that female membership and participation has hardly changed in 20 years. Much more recently Rugby Union, Cricket, Football, and even competitive Weight Lifting have got serious about attracting female users and all have done much better than golf. My opinion as a non-golfer who joined the golf industry eight years ago is that golf is institutionally sexist. Too many clubs are run by men for men and I have not seen a coherent plan to get to 50 per cent equality like there are for other sports.

Many clubs and courses claim to be family friendly but it does not stand up to closer inspection. My quick test for a family friendly club is, ‘do you have children’s cutlery?’ I have only come across one that does.

Golf needs to replace ex-players with new ones in a constant battle of sales and attrition. Attracting young people is getting more difficult due to a host of new activities vying for their time and the fact they like technology to be integral to their activities. Sky TV with SkyGo and Box Sets want your customers watching television and other sports are trying harder with innovative programmes to attract and retain converts and then inspire them to keep coming for more.

As the owner of a London range and the CEO of the famous New Malden Golf Centre, I live with these problems on a daily basis and we responded by running the world’s biggest learn to play scheme and now having Protracer on a big screen in every bay making practice fun, dynamic and competitive. I think these type of programmes, often lifted from other sports, will do more to promote usage and therefore retention than some rule changes. The future is a fun, technology based hour of leisure that builds to become a serious hobby. Golf needs to reflect this.