Should golf clubs look more to technology to grow their memberships?

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir May 17, 2018 22:16 Updated

Is added value and innovation needed at your club? How do you decide?

Ninety five per cent of clubs report having vacancies and golf participation is declining, yet over 700,000 people aged 16 and over play the game weekly. Sustainability has been a real challenge for clubs for the last 10 years and many have taken to discounted green fees or discounted memberships to encourage revenue.

With circa 2,000 clubs UK-wide, most acting as independent organisations, it can sometimes be hard to understand statistics and trends that can help clubs decide on best course of action to remain sustainable. What are golfers doing and what are they wanting?

The most recent England Golf questionnaire results were distributed to clubs in November 2016. Sports Marketing Surveys Inc. carry out the biennial assessment and provide as comprehensive a report as exists in the golf industry, to try to aid clubs with information on best practice and trends, amongst other things. Sport England’s ‘Active People Survey’ is another useful resource. This survey tracks participation and is carried out by TNS, the last survey ended in September 2016.

England Golf survey key points (602 clubs responded):

  • Average Membership 460
  • Membership for 65+ gone up 13%, other ages stayed the same or declined
  • More golfers playing monthly but not as many playing weekly
  • Retaining existing membership is critical
  • 89% of clubs have a website
  • 75% market via social media
  • 66% use more traditional media and promotional material.

Sport England survey key points:

  • Weekly golf participation is down by over 1%
  • 729,300 people take part in golf on a weekly basis in England (In 2006 it was 889,100)
  • 519,900 take part in some form of organised competition (regularity not known)
  • 520,600 are members of a club.

Whilst the above trends aren’t catastrophic the market appears to be shrinking for clubs and with the main growth area being 65+, clubs would be wise to look at all their demographic and come up with a way to encourage growth. Sport England is clear that other sports are growing and this may be a threat to golf clubs and membership. Cycling is one example supported and buoyed by the development of the excellent Strava app that tracks progress, fitness and allows all subscribers to compete and compare themselves with anyone who happens to have rode the same geographical ‘sector’ as them.

Retention and growth has been the main challenge for clubs and one size doesn’t generally fit all due to the specific environment and challenges or constraints each club faces. Online marketing is on the up and stats suggest many are treading water but how do you nudge those golfers back onto your course where they see value in their membership and their annual return is a given? How do you make sure the people you don’t see every day still want to be part of your club? How do you ensure the four hours they need for a round are seen as value? England Golf and the regional officers do a great job of supporting clubs and offering initiatives but there needs to be more. Does your club engage with the home golf unions?

A recent initiative from The Members Club (TMC) seeks to recover ‘lost’ golfers, encourage new members and offer an innovation that benefits clubs and players that may well reverse many trends all on its own. Considering that one size doesn’t fit all, TMC has set itself out as a possible exception to the rule. TMC aims to engage golfers to get them motivated to play more within their club environment.

An app supported by a website offers all golfers the opportunity to track their progress and compete nationally via an order of merit (to win prizes across up to 20 divisions, not just split on handicap or score) whilst simply playing at their own club. Those less motivated by competition can track via GPS their distance walked and hit, and can see the consistency of their distance and scoring across the season or particular areas of strength and weakness in their game. Friends can be added to mini or society leagues with stat comparisons and achievements can be earnt.

It does appear that clubs need this sort of innovation. The club model can’t change overnight, nor should it but the next five years are critical to steering the proverbial ship away from the rocks and back to the calmer seas when considering finances and numbers playing. If tradition can be sustained, with the use of existing technology that requires very little additional input, it has to be worth a look. Green fees may be driven to affiliate clubs at a time that suits and members will have something additional to play for encouraging them to play more.

Innovation is what the golf industry needs but the present model is reliant on members increasing and playing at their own club and paying annual fees for the privilege with nothing new attached, trends suggest the present model isn’t sustainable. Is a suggestion like TMCs the right level of innovation we have been waiting for?


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir May 17, 2018 22:16 Updated
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