2017 PGA Merchandise Show

JANUARY 25: Callaway during the 2017 PGA Merchandise Show. (Photo by Montana Pritchard/PGA of America)

ORLANDO, FL. –  For 30 years I’ve made my annual January pilgrimage to Orlando to cover the PGA Merchandise Show – the foremost event displaying all the equipment, specialty goods and apparel tied to the golf industry. It is the Super Bowl event in that category. The show took place last week and the juxtaposition from the “buzz” of the ’17 show to ones previously was clear to those with the perspective to see.
I witnessed the high mark back in the early 1990’s when the Orange County Convention Center was completely filled — exhibitors who could not even get a space within the cavernous building and had to either find space just outside the main hall or book a hotel suite and invite buyers to their location. The event at that times was akin to a Moroccan Bazaar — a nonstop beating of the drums — optimism front and center — buyers lining up to consume whatever was placed on the market.

The issue impacting golf is a fairly simple one — but one far from having a simple answer.

The golf industry is overloaded with festally aging out players — particularly baby boomers — those born in the 1950’s thru 1965 — nearing retirement. The belief that Tiger Woods arrival back in the mid-90’s was going to dramatically alter the golf landscape with a surge of minorities and other young people playing the game did not happen.

Golf is viewed by Millennials — those born in 1980 and later — as a game played by Dads and Grand Dads. The pace — or lack thereof — when playing golf — is also a key issue. Millennials are loathe to commit to five hours or more to play 18-holes. The need for speed is what motivates many of them. Golf doesn’t fit in easily to an emerging market dominated by those who value the brevity of Twitter.

2017 PGA Merchandise Show

JANUARY 27: Maurice Allen takes a photo with an attendee during the 2017 PGA Merchandise Show (Photo by Montana Pritchard/PGA of America)

There’s also the issue that golf is a tough game to play reasonably well. Patience is a big factor — and that’s what’s in short supply among prospective players. Golf is also handicapped by the sheer costs one needs to spend — not just to get started — but to maintain connected to all the new items tied to technological improvements. State-of-the-art drivers cost upwards of $500. Titleist just rolled out the latest updating of its highly successful Pro V1 and Pro V1x balls. Cost per dozen? Try $50 plus.

The teaching of the game has also not made major headway — handicaps for men and women have only been lowered less than two strokes over the last 25 years.

For too many years the key people tied to the merchandise side in golf believed any slow time was merely cyclical in nature — a quick reversal just around the corner. The Great Recession that happened in late ’07 was a profound wake-up call — clearly showing a long term paradigm shift is underway — and not abating.

I can remember when one attempted to walk the aisles on the first day of a PGA Show would be nearly impossible — the numbers staggering — the overall “buzz” electric. That energy would carry over to the second day and often to the final third day. This year’s event had a bit of “buzz” for the first few hours on opening day and afterwards was merely going through slow motion.

The golf audience remains overwhelmingly white — getting older and in a short time — fading from view as the dominant contributors. There’s been movement in getting younger players started with the game and that bodes well. But the seeds that should have been planted for Generation X and Y — never really germinated. There is some good news — the only two sports showing some real growth in terms of younger players — those below 18 years of age — lacrosse and golf.

The overall golf industry is also saddled with 16,000+ courses in America. The demand side is weak in many areas of the country and those courses seeking to ride things out had best have deep pockets because players are shopping constantly for the lowest green fees and related bargains via such providers as Golf Now, among others.

 2017 PGA Merchandise

JANUARY 27: Merchandise during the 2017 PGA Merchandise Show (Photo by Traci Edwards/PGA of America)

Nike, the sports and apparel equipment behemoth, ended its desire to continue in the golf equipment arena in ’16. Other companies are also having to rethink their role in golf will be. Innovative companies such as TopGolf have come forward but will the early “buzz” generated truly sustain itself? No one can say with certainty that those going to TopGolf will actually graduate to traditional golf.

I will be attending the upcoming USGA national meeting in Washington, D.C. later this week. Getting a gauge on how that specific audience views the overall scene will be interesting to observe.

The PGA Show for so many years was the happening spot to be when it seemed golf was on the launching pad for bigger and bigger things. There’s still air in the golf balloon but the trajectory that seemed limitless is clearly flying far lower. The prospects for the near term don’t appear to be especially promising. The powers-that-be lived in a self-enclosed bubble world before finally admitting the obvious. Growing the game is now the phrase uttered in just about every corner.

Golf faces the very real possibility to retreat back to the time when only the elites of society were engaged with the sport.

This year’s PGA Show is now in the rear view mirror.

Golf had better act fast. An industry’s past is not enough to maintain a future presence — particularly for a new core audience with neither the time to give nor the patience to stick it out. There were those who boastfully stated the Titanic was the one ship that would never sink. Many at the high levels of golf think simiarly. We wll know what happened to that famed ocean liner. That doesn’t mean the harrowing call of “head to the life boats” is imminent but this year’s gathering in Orlando clearly showed the golf boat is indeed showing clear signs of sustained leakage.