2002: PGA Show: Sex appeal over substance

Orlando, Fla.

Either the display girls are getting prettier or I’m getting older. “More than a little bit of both,” said a friend who accompanied me on the floor of the 2003 PGA Merchandise Show at the Orange County Convention Center. A basic adage of advertising is that when you don’t have substance to sell, you rely upon sex appeal. That was in abundance last week at the industry’s 50th gathering.

It was hard to conclude otherwise, even when companies with seemingly interesting new products, like La Jolla Club Golf Co., relied upon scantily clad Orlando Magic dancers to showcase their Knife fairway metals. They even had backup in the form of a University of Central Florida crew. You could hardly tell one from the other, especially with so many provocatively (un)dressed women running around the floor.

Perhaps Reed Exhibitions, the firm that has owned and run the show since 1998, could do what my health club has done to relieve middle-age anxiety – impose a dress code that prohibits bare midriffs. But that would force us to take a closer look at what actually is being offered.

More than most trade shows, this one has a basic problem, namely that it’s based upon a fundamental illusion. The truthful matter that no one in the business likes to own up to – especially those responsible for recruiting and keeping new players – is that golf, while a wonderful sport, is difficult, time consuming and far more expensive than it needs to be. To distract us from all of that, show purveyors trumpet their wares on the basis of a fantasy that underpins much of the golf industry: purchase a powerful piece of technology that will solve all of your swing problems (equipment), or at least look good flailing away (fashion).

In abundance in Orlando was the kind of introspective buzz that’s a sure sign of an identity crisis. The question on everybody’s mind was, “What do you think of the show?” To which the standard answer, with nary a variant, was that it was palpably slower than in previous years but at least the quality of traffic and trade appeared to be a bit more substantive.

In other words, you actually could have sustained conversations with all the people you were looking for, since folks weren’t as busy in the past hobnobbing, glad-handing and feasting on free shrimp the size of cherubs.

A decade ago, you could drive from Orlando International Airport to the Convention Center during show week and see two dozen massive billboards touting golf equipment exhibitors and trendy golf fashion lines. Many are gone now. Also a relic of the past are the garish product debuts, such as the time TaylorMade rented out a launch pad at John F. Kennedy Space Center and caravanned 12 busloads of overfed and overlubricated journalists to view the latest line.

The PGA Show, like the nation’s economy at large, has hit a downturn. From its peak two years ago, exhibitor participation is down about 20 percent. Since 2001, net square feet of floor space declined from 712,675 to 560,000; the number of exhibitors likewise slid, from 1,515 to 1,250. Media coverage, measured in terms of press attendance, fell by 25 percent, from 942 to 700.

The basic question facing the golf industry is whether these are short-term adjustments in a normal boom-bust cycle or foreboding indications of deep structural transformation. There’s no question the golf market is glutted with too many courses that are up for sale at seemingly bargain prices. The high-end private clubs in major cities appear to be immune from such downward pressures. Real estate remains a solid sector of the course development market thanks to a wave of retiring baby boomers and the fact that the stock market is still an unreliable place in which to invest money.

While those niches of golf are doing well, others are aching. Mid-range private clubs in all but the biggest cities are in serious financial trouble because of defection by middle-class golfers who find their discretionary income shrinking. And upscale daily-fee properties are having a hard time persuading everyday golfers that triple-digit fees are worthwhile.

The healthiest market of all comprises the affordable, daily-fee courses – precisely those facilities where golfers, by definition, do not spend a lot of money on big-ticket items.

All of which means a shakedown in the market and a clearing out of fluff and fantasy. The golf industry, as it turns out, is a very hard place to make real money. How many individuals buzzing around the show floor last week actually take home $100,000 per year? Not many. Not enough. Those who recognize that golf is really hard work have the best chance of showing up next year.

Bare midriffs or not.

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