Market Focus: Golfers

On the surface, golf appears to be a healthy game, and the people who play it certainly constitute a desirable audience worthy of advertisers' attention. Nearly 30 million people in the U.S. play golf at least once a year and contribute to a "golf economy" estimated at some $62 billion annually, according to recent research from SRI International. That's more than the economic impact of the motion picture and sound recording industries ($58 billion) and the amusement/gambling recreation business ($56 billion).

Golfers wield hefty wallets, with household incomes averaging more than $70,000 per year. Nearly 80% of golfers are men who are well educated (77% attended college) and tend to own more cars (60% purchased a new vehicle within the last year) and houses (80% own at least one real estate property, 20% own two or more). Golfers travel more often (40% plan vacations around golf resorts or courses) and tend to be heavy investors (nearly half have investments in stocks, bonds, or mutual funds). Such a wealthy, narrowly focused audience is a delight to a large number of advertisers.

But a look beneath the surface reveals a conflicting scenario. The National Golf Foundation concedes that 80% of golf rounds are played by 20% of the sport's participants. Moreover, nearly half of the $62 billion "golf economy" consists of money spent to maintain golf courses and develop new ones. Only about $6 billion is spent on golfing supplies, SRI reported.

Nonetheless, the roughly 6 million "avid golfers" Ñ those who play more than 25 rounds a year and spend more than $1,000 on fees and equipment Ñ attract a lot of attention from advertisers. Strategies to reach the golfing community are in flux, with advertising costs necessitating a shift in plans.

"Ad rates have become so expensive on the national golf telecasts that some of the manufacturers are effectively priced out of the market," says Matt Glendon, senior research associate at the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, FL. Only a fraction of golfers subscribe to national trade publications such as Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, and Golf World. As a result, advertisers are looking at ways to reach golfers closer to home Ñ on the courses where they play and in their local media.

"The industry has focused too much on the golf trade publications and forgotten that most of these golfers are reading their local newspapers and consuming mainstream media more often than they are consuming the trades," says Brett Jewkes, an account director with Alan Taylor Communications, a New York PR firm.

Rather than build an expensive national ad campaign to promote Spalding's new Strata Tour Straight golf ball, Jewkes and his team last year crafted a stunt in which one golfer would travel the lower 48 states for two weeks, playing a single hole in each state. In each market, local television and print media turned out to cover the stunt. Total cost: less than $100,000 for an estimated 25 million media impressions. "We could not have bought that kind of coverage with an ad for $100,000," Jewkes says.

Jewkes also likes radio as a way to reach golfers in their cars and offices. He has placed professional players on both network and local sports talk shows and sports radio stations. The stations get access to a celebrity, while advertisers get some free airtime to promote their wares. "Some of these talk segments may as well have been commercials for our clients," Jewkes says. San FranciscoÐbased Pinpoint Golf Marketing has enjoyed some success with product placement at local golf facilities. Clients including Bank of America, Buick, and Calvin Klein also place ads on golf carts, at local driving ranges, and on video screens in pro shops and clubhouses.

At The Burris Agency, a Greensboro, N.C., shop that represents several golf equipment and travel clients, CEO Mark Burris finds the Internet is a great way to reach avid golfers. More than 87% of them have Internet access, a rate far higher than the national average. Passionate about their sport, golfers respond well to online marketing." Golfers are more than willing to tell you what their email address is because they want to know the latest golf information Ñ who's leading the tournament and what the new equipment is," Burris says. Burris Agency research has found that golfers are about 10 times more likely to respond to email proposals and to click through on banner ads compared to the general audience.

Burris does not totally eschew golf trades. "We use the national mass media to keep our name in front of people and to gather information from our audience so that we can communicate more personally with them down the road," he says. If recent trends continue, the audience of golf enthusiasts will become far more concentrated with upper-income men. The Tiger Woods phenomenon has failed to draw substantial numbers of younger players, and a large percentage of people who start playing golf drop the game within a short time. The total number of golf rounds played has fallen for three consecutive years Ñ down nearly 6% in 2002, according to preliminary figures. Because golf is an expensive and time-consuming pursuit, only those players with plenty of leisure time and disposable income will keep playing regularly.

The industry, backed primarily by equipment manufacturers, has embarked on a project known as the Golf 2020 initiative to develop interest among the general public. The effort will seek to double the number of rounds played over the next 17 years, double the number of golf participants to 55 million, and improve the proportion of women players. "These are the people that we are trying to put into the funnel in hopes that they eventually will become some of golf's best customers," says Glendon.

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