SMS reports golfing numbers still falling at The Golf Industry Lunch

At The Open Championship, John Bushell, managing director of Sports Marketing Surveys Inc, addressed the great and the good of UK golf at the annual Golf Industry Lunch. Here GOLF RETAILING reproduces edited highlights of his speech.

It is a real pleasure to welcome so many of you back to the Open Championship Industry Lunch –and for the first timers, you are so very welcome. I say first timers, because this is the fifth lunch hosted by Sports Marketing Surveys and the BGIA on behalf of HSBC Golf Roots. For those of you not used to my few minutes with the microphone, this is where I try to enlighten, amuse and educate you on issues, facts and figures facing the sporting world – with some particular attention on golf.

The golfing scene

Martin KaymerFor the last two years, I have been reporting some dispiriting numbers – and whilst the topline figures continue this theme, there are some good news stories. Overall participation from the SMS annual golf report shows total golfers falling below 3.5 million for the first time in 15 years, with total numbers of 3.36 million. This has been driven by the decline in infrequent or occasional golfers by over 150,000 since 2012. However, core golfers – those who play more than twelve times a year remained steady, and those avid golfers who play more than 50 times a year increased back to 2011 levels.

There have been some good things going on – we had the National Golf Month, an initiative supported by so many in the room to grow the game. Rounds Played for the first quarter of 2014 were six percent on 2013 – although below the absolute levels of 2010, 2011, and 2012 in actual roundage. The trend continues with April and May seeing figures up four percent and 3.3 percent respectively on 2013.

Since Muirfield 2013, we have completed a study on lapsed golfers – and evidence shows that if you can contact these lapsed players within six months of them stopping, then 50 percent of them stated that they were highly likely to take the sport back up. The message – focus on ‘retention’ and ‘re-connect’ rather than just ‘raw-recruitment’. The key issue facing the sport is play frequency. For England Golf, the funding of the sport by government is based on the Sport England measure called the Active People Study – or APS. Funding is based on those participants who have “undertaken 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity four times in the last four weeks.”

This measure which is continuously monitored during the year is consistent across all sports in England from Aerobics to Zorbing – but does not take into account seasonality or other pressures such as major sports events like the FIFA World Cup. As a result, and through no fault of England Golf, the sport can be financially penalised if bad weather should close courses – such as the flooding in the spring of 2014, or when there is a major sports event – the 2012 Olympics, if anyone remembers, cost golf around 900,000 rounds.

Sport England applies this measure consistently – and whilst they do record those who play monthly – the focus financially is on the weekly APS figures. The sport must therefore target ‘Frequency of Play’ whether it is nine hole, driving range or 18 hole play to maintain the investment the sport needs. Through the clubs we have the inventory and venues – let’s now create the frequency focus.

Golfing successes

So, how is the sport doing?

  • There are two GB&I golfers in The World Top ten compared to four at this time last year, and still seven European golfers ranked in the world Top 20, the same number as last year;
  • Martin Kaymer’s victory in the US Open last month – as well as earning him over $1.6 million in prize money, extends the run of European golfers winning at least one major per year since 2010;
  • In fact, 39 percent of the last 18 major campionships have been won by European golfers – and yet European golfers only account for 12.9 percent of global golfer numbers.
  • Since last year’s Open Championship, Europe has retained the Solheim Cup for the first time since the competition began in 1990:
  • Europe’s first victory on US soil, in Denver, Colorado;
  • Largest margin of victory of any team in the contest;
  • Saw Caroline Hedwall becoming the first player in Solhiem Cup history on either team to win five matches in a single competition;
  • For British ladies golf, it saw the emergence of Charley Hull who stormed onto the international scene in a significant fashion.
  • So many congratulations to Liselotte Neumann’s team and the Ladies European Tour.

Obviously, the men are also performing and whilst we were celebrating the Miracle of Medinah at last year’s lunch – it is now only 72 days until battle commences again, and we look forward to Glory at Gleneagles in the Ryder Cup Matches to be hosted in Scotland.

For those equipment aficionados, the other trends on tour include seeing long and belly putter use continuing to decline since the anchored putter ban announcement – now currently at 5.3 percent of putters in play, a decline from 14.0 percent at its peak in 2012.

So let’s turn to another sport that Sports Marketing Surveys is monitoring.

Impact of cycling on golf

Charley HullOur lapsed golfer study showed that of those who stopped playing golf to take up another activity, 20 percent took up cycling. Cycling participation is continuing to rise, now reaching 9.7 million – or 2.9 times the size of golf participation. This covers all formats from competitive and sportive riding – which attracts 660,000 cyclists, to the leisure and recreational cyclist.

This year we have seen Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France start in Yorkshire, but following the 2012 ‘Maillot Jeune’ victory of Sir Bradley Wiggins, and the 2013 win of Chris Froome – a British success this year seems unlikely.

  • The 2013 Tour de France saw Mark Cavendish – aka the Manx Missile – (A thought: perhaps we need to find emotive speed-names for our European golfers) achieve his twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth sprint stage wins – making him the record holder for the most sprint victories on Tour.
  • After “Le Grand Depart” in Yorkshire, and before the race started in France, both Froome and Cavendish had withdrawn through injury. This may only slightly dampen interest in the event – which is getting good terrestrial coverage.

Importance of social media

As I come to a close, there are two areas that I wish to focus on. The first is the international power and reach of social media.

  • In 2013, there were 6.6 million Wimbledon related tweets during the Championships fortnight, and Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory was the UK’s third most-tweeted about moment of the year. This shows the power of sport.
  • During the FIFA World Cup 2014, Gonzalo Jara’s Chilean penalty miss against Brazil in the knockout round saw the highest tweets per minute that Twitter has ever tracked at 382,000 Tweets per minute.
  • Tiger Woods has 3.94 million twitter followers, Ian Poulter still with an astonishing 1.69 million and Luke Donald a more reasonable 498,000.

The year for SMS Inc

So finally, a couple of SMS facts and milestones since the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield:

  • Two of the team have turned 30 – and they are both here;
  • Two of the team are now eligible to play on the European Seniors Tour on reaching the comfortable age of 50 – and I know I do not look anything like that;
  • Two have got married;

In fact, Laura returned from honeymoon yesterday, and Richard goes on honeymoon tomorrow – the connecting factor, they both wanted to attend The Golf Industry Lunch with you at Hoylake.

Ladies and gentlemen thank you for listening. I wish you all a great Open Championship, a GB&I or European champion and an excellent rest of the golf season.

Focus on fun, frequent and family golf is the message for our sport.