Golf’s Social Conscience & Economics

During the past 6 months our world has changed. Not only are we dealing with a global pandemic, the resulting economic recession and the associated stress, but the senseless murders of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Ahmad Arbrey in Georgia and the more recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin have rocked the social fabric of our society like never before.

As many have been working from home golf has seen a resurgence fueled by a newfound freedom from the office and most clubs and courses have reported increased (if not record) activity and packed tee sheets. The question is whether it’s sustainable.

One of golf’s enduring challenges has been the inability to expand and diversify participation beyond its core of white males.

Just in the past few days, the National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB) and Major League Soccer (MLS) have cancelled games in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM). The Milwaukee Bucks (NBA) started the trend by refusing to play in a playoff game. The Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers voted to sit out the remainder of the season. Tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the semi-finals of the Western & Southern Open over the “genocide of black people”.

Of course, all of this comes on top of the kneeling of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players beginning in 2016 which resulted in derailing Kaepernick’s playing career, as he became the target of criticism from then-candidate Donald Trump and others.

The most recent examples of social expressions of athletes have largely been supported by their teams and leagues. Even Commissioner Roger Goodell of the NFL recently said “we should have listened” to Kaepernick’s message, rather than allow him to be effectively blackballed from the league.

Yes, the world has changed. Golf has yet to establish its position in the social landscape of 2020. No PGA Tour players have spoken out. The USGA, PGA and other golf bodies haven’t yet addressed the issue, even as other sports make definitive expressions of promoting the elimination of social injustice in the larger society.

Golf may have the most to gain by stepping up and getting out front in this movement – economically. The game has long been perceived as culturally exclusive and statistics clearly show that we’ve not done a good job of promoting diversity, all while golf participation has declined and golf course facilities have disappeared in recent years.

Golf lags the broader population in terms of gender and racial equality and diversity.  According to NGF’s 2019 Industry Report[1] only 23% of all golfers are women compared to 50% of the nation’s population.  A similar story is true with respect to racial diversity.  Only 18% of all golfers are non-caucasian, compared to more than one-third of the nation’s population. The Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA), which until 1961 had a “caucasions only” clause still claims only 186 African-Americans among its 29,000 members.

Imagine the positive economic impact if all other things were equal and the percentage of non-caucasion golfers grew to just 20%. If just 605,000 new minority golfers were somehow encouraged to enter the game and played just 10 times per year that could generate 25,000 rounds per year for 242 golf courses that might not have had to close. Even if they played only 5 rounds per year, it could save 121 golf courses from closing.

If even those courses generating only $1 million in revenue stayed open the economic impact is in the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues. The impact on the market value of most golf courses would be positive.

If the game is to achieve growth, one way is to look more like America. It would seem as though now is a great opportunity for the golf establishment to step up, get on board with the fight against social injustice and promote inclusive policies throughout the game. While debates on social issues will continue in perpetuity, for golf to embrace diversity and inclusion by joining the opposition to social injustices is simply good business.

Recent years have brought decline in the number of courses and players. While the COVID pandemic may have spiked rounds played, many see a looming recession which would render this spike as unsustainable.

Corporate America has recently seen many changes in names and symbols and certain particularly sensitive symbols have been banned or retired, such as the confederate flag from NASCAR and the Mississippi & South Carolina state flags. The Washington “Redskins” are no more as the team considers their name for the future. Many golf courses and clubs are examining their names and images for insensitivity.

Economically, golf can possibly prolong the current COVID inspired spike in participation using this opportunity to promote inclusion where we’ve been weak in the past. We can save golf courses from extinction and grow the game to look more like society.

As my mother always used to say, “make lemonade form a lemon”. Golf has a great opportunity to benefit from a bad situation by showing sensitivity and promoting inclusion and diversity through actions not just words.

[1] 2019 Golf Industry Report – National Golf Foundation, Jupiter, FL