Golf, Signaling, and the new "Leisure" Class

Golf, Signaling, and the new "Leisure" Class

Similar to drinking, trading, and online shopping, many people have taken up golf during COVID. I was already thinking about writing about golf when I came across a great post last week by Myles Udland. The post is half a "it's not you, it's me or, wait maybe it's you?" love/breakup letter to the game that every golfer will appreciate, and half an analysis of where he thinks it will go post-pandemic, and what the industry should do going forward. He writes,

Because it’s more likely the sport’s post-pandemic playbook is to avoid repeating the post-Tiger mistakes we saw during the 1990s and 2000s when too many courses opened, too many companies sold clubs, too many new players wanted to be like the most transcendent athlete in a generation. In other words, if the PGA Tour’s main ad slogan a few years back was to #GrowTheGame, the sport’s actions suggest growth will be found in a smaller footprint.
In the subhead of this piece I asked if the industry wants to make its pandemic-induced gains stick. But it’s not clear this is even the right question. It’s not clear the golf industrial complex really sees new players and more rounds played during the pandemic as gains. Sure, these are nice things. But everyone, deep down, knows that what Lee-Bentham said is the only true thing about the sport’s future: “I love seeing the spike of young golfers. I hope it’s long term but I’m sure it’ll fizzle out after COVID.”

I agree many times over.

Miles goes on to suggest that the industry should find growth through their power users and adopt more subscription based models, something popular in technology for years and becoming increasingly popular in more traditional businesses:

If Amazon has found that Prime members spend more money than non-Prime members, then every golf OEM needs to be thinking about subscription models to cater to their most loyal customers. The golfer wants to be upsold, to feel like their money can actually buy them something. Wall Street analysts covering the golf business shouldn’t cover sporting goods but luxury brands. Golf companies should be more like LVMH and less like Ford.
Every major golf manufacturer should aspire to pull their clubs from the shelves at Golf Galaxy and make their product part of an elevated lifestyle experience. The economics of country clubs already operate under this system — pay us a recurring fee for the ability, but not the obligation, to spend even more money with us down the line. And the membership always pays up.

While I am a huge proponent of subscription models transforming industries, I'm not sure this will do much for golf to move the needle. Perhaps there is some additional scratch to be made, but country clubs are lousy businesses as it is, and while there is surely a market for subscriptions to Taylor Made equipment and apparel, I'm not sure it's a 10x, or even 2x investment for these companies.

Country clubs, courses, and golf clubs still exhibit some characteristics of a Giffen/Veblen good (where an increase in price leads to an increase in demand), but golf, as a game, is no longer seen as aspirational as it once was, or even at all. This makes it increasingly difficult for companies to really extract much value from attacking the right tail of their power user curve for anything other than usage. I would argue that they're already probably extracting too much, and they probably know it.

The real problem is that golf is suffering from how we, as a society, value leisure time and signal status through our consumption habits. There are two great podcasts from Ezra Klein that help explain how we've changed, and present the challenges golf must overcome to pave a way forward.

The first Ezra Klein interview is with Daniel Markovits, the author of The Meritocracy Trap, a book about how the wealthy and elites (what Veblen coined as the "leisure class") have moved away from leisure activities as a signal of their wealth and "eliteness" towards work, in turn creating more of a meritocratic society.

The effect of this is that leisure activities in general are no longer an aspirational endeavor. While it once was a dream to "retire early and play golf all day", it is no longer an aspiration of many aspiring and newly elite because it is no longer an aspiration of elites. If you agree with Makovits' assertion, then you can see how this has been devastating to golf. It's not just that "golf takes up too much time" but it's that the value of leisure time itself has dropped considerably. In my opinion, the growth of golf during the pandemic has more to do with the glut of time many people have than the social distancing nature of it.

This doesn't account, however, for some time-consuming, expensive leisure activities that have actually grown in popularity during the last two decades - most notably cycling. Many have already proclaimed at length that Cycling is the new Golf, but why? Ezra Klein's interview with Elizabeth Currid-Halkett addresses this phenomenon.  In her book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, Currid-Halkett explains how the leisure class has been replaced by a new definition of elites who signal their eliteness through "cultural capital". Traditional Veblen goods like cars and handbags - are replaced by reading the New Yorker, shopping at Whole Foods, going to Soulcycle, or writing a long blog post about golf. Replacing income with cultural capital has made elite status more attainable for many more people, but in turn made certain things less valuable.

This makes the difference between between cycling and golf more apparent. Cycling is aerobic exercise, environmentally friendly and urbanization friendly. Golf can be played by overweight presidents, is not environmentally friendly, and largely a "suburban thing". Additionally, golf has traditionally been a game played mostly by men with other men. Twenty years ago, it may have been acceptable, even aspirational, to leave your wife and kids for half the weekend and play golf with your friends. Today it is not. As gender roles in the home have become much more equal, both the shift in the distribution of leisure time available and the cultural capital you either earn or spend as a family both do not favor golf. Golf, as it stands, is probably one of the least cultural capital efficient activities to choose to participate in, especially when on a dollar for dollar basis.

Golf is like a less cool Vegas. It's Atlantic City, but not even the Borgata - which is a bit too on the nose at the moment.

Before Golf can even think about asking it's wealthiest or most loyal customer for more money it needs to stop making all customers feel like they are wasting their time and it needs to stop asking them to expend cultural capital whenever they play. Here's a few ideas to get started:

  1. Free  child care at every golf course - This is something that gyms, and even casinos have understood for quite some time. You need to enable families to be able to participate. The cost can be embedded into the rest of the fees while playing - greens fees, the hot dogs at the turn, the bar and dinner afterwards. Some country clubs have this, but every course that wants to start to go more premium should offer it. Imagine if you could play 18 holes with your wife and a few friends, dump the kids with all their friends, have dinner and not have to worry about the kids or pay a babysitter. Golf would be insanely popular. Nobody would even have to care about the golf. It would just be a means to an ends. Not only would golf start to move into a more acceptable form of leisure time - child playdates and dinner with friends, it would  also erase away at one cultural capital cost that hurts golf - gender/family dynamics.
  2. Combine golf course management and farming - If golf courses are using all this land - add some farm land in the mix. Golf courses are just fancy farms anyways and they already likely have at least one person on staff who understand agriculture. Add more. Add some fucking livestock. Turn all farm land into hazards and weave the courses around it. Use a little of the harvest in your restaurant, give 1/3 away to the needy in your community, and sell 1/3 at the farmers market. Nothing will make a golfer happier than eating the steak of the cow she sliced a 4 iron into. Nothing also earns you more cultural capital than producing farm to table meats and produce, having a restaurant that serves it, and giving back to those who need it most. I'm dead serious.
  3. Make it hiking + yoga - If someone told you they went on a 6 mile hike where they had to maintain a constant meditative state you'd make it rain cultural capital on them. Golf needs to position themselves as this - because this is what golf truly is, or at least was meant to be.

    Golf needs to ban golf carts except for the disabled and elderly. Burn the golf carts. They have killed the game. If thats a little much and you want to ease into it, give walkers preferred tee times and make riders play behind them. If you can't walk, you can't play. The pros walk. You can too. Allow caddies, but let a third party caddy app fill that hole - similar to Handy or TaskRabbit. Don't worry about that shit, anyways. You now have a farm and kids to tend to, which are much better uses of your time.

    While you're at it, make golf yoga. Golf is probably the most challenging mental activity most people will ever experience. It is literally an exercise in self control, confidence, and focus. If you're a pro, 99% of the game is in your head. If you're not a pro it's closer to 90%, but thats a lot. Make golf more like yoga - physical and mental alignment. Get a little granola or even self-helpy. Rename the name of caddy. Call it a Sherpa. Most of your customers (wrongly) believe it to be about how hard you can swing, and how long you can drive it anyways. It's worth it at the very least in order to keep them, because, like yoga and hiking, golf can be hard.
  4. Turn your tee sheet into a local Cameo - Every golf course is a potential social network. The aspirational nature of country clubs has always been the ability to network with the influential members of the community. Now however, the upper crust that you wish to network with no longer really plays golf. They're busy. In other words, you on Myspace. Nobody cares about playing with Jim Fucknuts who is in Pharmaceutical Sales and has an awful slice, but if you had a few tee times each day where you had a local politician, venture capitalist, or business leader on the tee sheet then had people pay or bid on tee times to fill out a foursome, you'd both make more money and also escape being stricly "leisure". Pay them with a lifetime membership and you'll see even more rounds and lifetime value.

Thats just a few and just really addresses the game and the courses themselves, but a rising tide, and all that jazz. I'm not a big believer in 9 hole courses or Top Golf saving the world, or the fact that the cost of clubs is holding anyone back at the current level of general malaise. Golf needs to drive people the courses, period. In order to do that it needs to be aspirational again. MGAA, or something like that.