2005: Overstated or underserved?

Women. Can’t live with ’em. Can’t live without ’em. For many in the male-dominated golf industry, few statements probably resonate more – not that any sane executive would ever utter such politically incorrect words.

But at one point or another, it’s a safe bet that the men who work in this business have grumbled a complaint or two about the opposite sex:

They don’t play enough. They don’t spend enough on equipment. And they don’t stay in the game long enough.

Yet for the all the consternation women allegedly cause, men in the business can’t ignore the facts: Women account for nearly 25 percent of all golfers, and their purses continue to pack more of an economic wallop.

To address this dilemma, Golf 20/20 – the industry coalition dedicated to growing the game – a year ago devoted its annual conference to discussions about increasing female participation. Advocates for the women’s movement gushed about their gender’s unbridled potential and lamented their pitiful underrepresentation in the game. After all, golf supposedly is a sport almost anyone can play, and women account for 51 percent of the U.S. population. But many of the conference attendees (again, mostly men) had heard the speeches before, and it was evident that some had grown weary of trying to realize ever-so-elusive potential. Amid the polite applause, they privately declared the summit a waste of time.

Recalling that moment, Sara Hume – executive director of the Executive Women’s Golf Association and one of the few women in attendance – says: “We all saw the eyes rolling. We get it all the time.”

But with participation still flatlining, and the industry’s health in doubt, one question lingers when it comes to courting women golfers: Are they worth the trouble?

Eager to avoid a feminist attack, even skeptics say they’re grateful for the core women golfers in the game – those who play at least eight rounds annually, and along with their male counterparts, account for 87 percent of golf-related spending in the United States.

These active female participants number 2.5 million, and each year play nearly 100 million rounds and spend about $3.9 billion on golf services and products, according to the National Golf Foundation.

But what troubles naysaysers the most is the fact that the golf industry hasn’t been able to efficiently convert more women players into this vital demographic.

Half of all male players are core golfers, but only 36 percent of women participants fall into this category. What’s worse, the 2.5 million tally of core women golfers hasn’t budged in 15 years. (The male core golfer population currently stands at 10.2 million.)

Subscribing to the “men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus” school of thought, some in the industry establishment maintain that women are fundamentally different than men, inherently limiting their ability to appreciate, and engage in, what historically has been a male sport. Their reluctance to market to women, they say, isn’t personal. It’s business.

James Koppenhaver, founder of golf research firm Pellucid Corp., has even more data on the women’s market – based on an annual survey of 25,000 U.S. households – and his numbers aren’t pretty. The female “play rate” – defined as rounds per capita – is one-third that of males, which Koppenhaver explains this way: “For every male that you bring into this franchise, it takes three females to equal his weight to the golf industry in frequency of rounds.” He also notes that the attrition rate for women, after five years of playing, is almost twice that of men.

Says Koppenhaver: “So if you’re a business person, this is the proposition. You’re going to go chase a segment that is declining faster than the overall market, has less involvement and is likely not to be a long-term, recurring customer.

“Do you take that bet?”

Women’s advocates, including Hume, dismiss the naysayers’ market assessment as flawed. It’s no revelation, they say, to conclude that a sport conceived by men, for men, will produce more male, than female, participants. They insist that if the game of golf actually adopted practices designed to create women golfers – voila! – women golfers actually would appear.

“We don’t expect juniors to just run up and enter the game,” Hume says. “We create environments for them. That same kind of model needs to be implemented for women.”

And there is evidence to support the notion that once women become engaged in the game, they exhibit behavior similar to male core golfers. According to NGF research, core male and female golfers play almost an equal number of rounds, 37.7 vs. 36.0, respectively. Both watch golf on TV often (65 percent vs. 63 percent). The men buy clubs more often, but women take golf trips more frequently. (See chart, p38)

More important, organizers of the EWGA and new player programs such as Link Up 2 Golf say they know not only how to recruit women to the game, but how to make them core golfers. The secret: well-organized and scheduled playing opportunities, such as nine-hole leagues.

“All (the woman golfer) needs to do is join and show up. We take care of everything else,” Hume says. Approximately 64 percent of EWGA members play more than 25 rounds annually and spend three times as much as the average woman golfer each year.

“What I ask is, ‘Why?’ Do we just have all the women who want to stay in golf? I don’t think so,” Hume says. “My contention is that we have created an environment which nurtures women. And if you do that, they will come. They will learn. They will play. And they will spend.”

But skeptics question the validity of the data from the EWGA, whose membership is 18,000, of which the majority are avid golfers. And while the EWGA has been able to convert some new golfers into core participants, it hasn’t demonstrated that such success can be replicated on a mass level, critics say.

“You’re not going to get the golf industry to hand you the keys to the car just based on the fact that you have all this upside potential,” Koppenhaver says. “The ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ strategy, in my mind, is DOA.”

Overcoming the industry’s male DNA and changing women’s behavior will be as difficult as hard-rock mining, critics say. The current trend, for example, to build longer, more difficult courses, certainly doesn’t make the game any more appealing to women.

Compounding such challenges is women’s lesser interest in sports, especially male-dominated ones.

“There’s a real attachment by (male) participants,” says James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, which conducts gender and generational research for clients, including the sports and leisure industries. “It becomes a symbol of who you are and how you spend your time. People rearrange their lives for it. And golf is one of those sports.

“But for women, the depth of engagement isn’t there. Even for those who are really active participants, the sport is just a part of a social experience.”

Another obstacle at the most fundamental level is that women disdain the basic process of entering the game.

“Men think nothing of walking out to a golf course and getting on the first tee with three complete strangers,” Koppenhaver says. “But a woman would no more do that than fly to the moon. She would absolutely want to know at least one person in that foursome and have some downside protection that she’s going to have a decent conversation.

“So if our choice to them is play with strangers and take a risk, they’ll go to the mall.”

For these reasons, many industry executives believe it is unrealistic to think the number of women and men golfers will ever be equal.

But Chung insists if the industry crafts unique messages and products that resonate with women consumers, significant growth can be achieved.

“I believe golf’s population could become one-third women,” he says.

Chung also maintains that they can become big spenders. His primary argument: The ski equipment industry, a comparable male-driven business, has resuscitated itself in recent years by generating robust sales from women skiers.

According to Chung, ski equipment manufacturers had been “clobbered” by consumers’ growing preference for rentals. And companies endured slumping sales for the longest time, refusing to target women on the assumption that they don’t buy premium hardgoods frequently.

Eventually, however, one major manufacturer, K2, made a serious commitment to pursue the women’s market. It engineered skis specifically to enhance women’s performance and marketed aggressively. The brand, called T9 – a tip of the hat to Title IX – made the sport a dramatically different experience for women.

Since then competitors have followed K2’s lead, and Chung says, “They’re now doing 30 percent to 45 percent of their business with women. Before, women’s sales were trivial.”

What’s particularly striking to Chung is that nearly every women’s generation provides an immediate opportunity for the golf industry.

Baby boomers (born 1945 to 1964): “The willingness of these empty nesters to try new things is unmatched. And think of how many of these people are buying homes in golf communities. They’re literally waking up in front of your business every morning. If you’re not capturing some of that, well. . . ”

Generation X (born 1965 to 1979): “This is the group that walked away from golf because they don’t care as much about status. For them it’s all about family. You can crank up women’s participation here by positioning golf as the ideal family sport.”

Generation Y: “Sports is expected to be part of their life. And it’s an exciting time for women’s golf. There’s real opportunity for trial (See story, p40).

Slowly, ever so slowly, there is indication that some industry leaders are “buying into” these propositions. And even some who haven’t are grudgingly beginning to court women, more because they’re resigned to the notion that the male golfer market is tapped out.

Regardless, the difficult process of changing the industry’s culture finally appears under way, and such labor may yield dividends sooner than expected.

“We certainly believe women represent a viable market,” says Roger Warren, president of the PGA of America. “For those who say it isn’t, that’s because, honestly, it’s only been in the last year or two that we’ve taken major steps in player development.”

As evidence of the PGA’s commitment to growing the game, including boosting women’s participation, Warren cites his group’s continuing efforts to expand Play Golf America – the umbrella brand under which a variety of player development programs are offered.

In the past year, more than 6,000 PGA and LPGA member facilities hosted at least one Play Golf America program – a 25 percent increase from 2004. More surprising is how quickly some of these efforts transformed women into core players.

According to a survey of new women golfers who participated in a Play Golf America program, nearly 78 percent of them remained in the game a year later. During that period, they played 10 rounds (either nine or 18 holes) and spent $1,260 on green fees, merchandise (including equipment) and food and beverages. That expenditure is greater than the average spending of female golfers ($740), and more important, male golfers ($982).

Whether such numbers and spending can be maintained, of course, depends on whether facilities’ women-friendly initiatives are just occurrences or become habit. For the latter, the PGA realizes it needs more women in its ranks. Currently, fewer than 1,000 of the PGA’s 28,000 members are women. To bolster that tally, the organization in 2001 began a recruiting drive it hopes will double their numbers by 2011.

How important is a female staffer’s influence? Kelly Sheehan-Gay, who recently became the first female head professional within the Ritz Carlton-Marriott Golf organization, expects to soon boost women’s sales from 12 percent to 20 percent at her pro shop at the Ritz Carlton Golf Club in Orlando, Fla. She already has made some subtle changes that likely wouldn’t have occurred to a man – creating a continuous video loop for the hotel’s “room channel” that showcases not only golf apparel but women’s resort attire in the pro shop.

“We have (women) guests who may be occasional golfers, but playing isn’t their top priority,” she says. “But if they see the resort wear, I can attract them to the pro shop. And if I can get them in, I can persuade them to play.”

In the private club sector, too, leaders such as ClubCorp are launching women specific programs out of necessity. Once a decision made almost exclusively by men, joining and paying for a membership is now a couple’s affair.

“We have to connect the woman to the club as much as the men,” says John Beckert, ClubCorp’s CEO. His company created Divots and Drinks to engage women. Beckert describes the event as “extremely social with a bit of golf” – 45 minutes on the range, a scramble for two holes and then drinks in the clubhouse – but a sell-out hit.

Creating such a social environment may seem minor, but it requires a change in mindset, staffing and budgeting.

At Haggin Oaks Golf Complex, a Sacramento, Calif., facility widely regarded as a leader in player development, the staff is planning next summer to hold nearly 100 evening events, ranging from putting contests, swing clinics, women’s nights and family nights – all intended to woo women when it’s convenient for them. To accommodate such an intense schedule, Haggin Oaks is hiring evening help to supplement the day staff.

“We’re going to have to invest some dollars and take some risk, but I believe this is a calculated risk,” Ken Morton Sr. says.

He estimates less than 10 percent of all U.S. golf facilities have player development as a permanent line item in their budgets. But that number should grow, and as it does, it should increase women’s appetite for the game and its products.

In anticipation of that, TaylorMade-Adidas Golf recently hired Andrew Lasher as the company’s global marketing intelligence officer and charged him with the mission of “truly understanding women’s needs and aspirations.” The company’s recent tour staff addition of Paula Creamer, joining Natalie Gulbis and Se Ri Pak, and a new line of Miscela women’s clubs reflects TMAG’s belief that real growth in the women’s golf is approaching a tipping point.

“A 30 percent increase in (core women golfer) spending nets out at about an increase of $1.2 billion, or $5.1 billion total,” Lasher says. “That’s very tough to forego.”

Likewise, Nike Golf’s signing of Michelle Wie speaks volumes. Cindy Davis, the division’s general manager, says a major women’s initiative isn’t imminent from the company, but hints it’s just a matter of time before it launches one.

“Our brand has a heritage of supporting women,” Davis says. Even without a major push, Nike Golf women’s sales will “double within two to three years as a percentage of our business,” she projects.

The cumulative effect of all these changes make women’s supporters such as Morton optimistic of finding success in the women’s market.

“Believe me,” he says, “Someone is going to figure it out.”

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