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Why footgolf is not a grow-the-game lifesaver for ‘beleaguered’ golf industry

Players line up a “putt” on a footgolf course in Germany. Though similar in many respects to the game of foot golf as it is played in other countries, American footgolf is played almost exclusively on layouts at existing golf courses.
Players line up a “putt” on a footgolf course in Germany. Though similar in many respects to the game of foot golf as it is played in other countries, American footgolf is played almost exclusively on layouts at existing golf courses.Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

There is much ballyhoo and hand-wringing going on these days about the future of the game of golf. Industry analysts say that rounds are down, revenues are down, and more courses are closing than opening. The scaremongers got a boost last week when major sports retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods laid off its entire workforce of in-store PGA professionals—478 men and women, a number that represents nearly 2% of the PGA of America’s membership.

The debacle at Dick’s Sporting Goods is largely the result of a poor business model. Dick’s is the largest retailer of TaylorMade products, and TM has been the subject of much media and consumer buzz for their rapid-fire introduction of numerous, successive models of clubs, especially the big dollar “big dog” in the golfer’s bag—the driver. Dick’s bought all four models of the driver that Taylormade introduced last year, and the rapid turnaround of new models meant that drivers that were retailing for $299 when first introduced some 20 months ago are now being discounted at $99, causing revenue to fall well below projections. As the bottom-liners will do when revenue projections fail to come true they looked for someplace to slash costs as an offsetting measure, and the in-store PGA staff were the victims.

Many in the industry are stretching their outlook for ways to grow the game despite many good-news data points in the accounting of the health of the game of golf. Bump-ups in the sales of irons—the highest-dollar purchase a golfer makes—and wedges, and a mild increase in rounds-per-day through June 2014 despite near-record wet weather in much of the United States, show that projections of the game’s imminent demise are exaggerated, and based on a narrow, retail-centric viewpoint.

Still, numerous “outside-the-box” ideas for growing the game abound, one of which is footgolf—a soccer-golf hybrid which is being touted as a grow-the-game initiative that may help shore up declining participation. Played with a size 5 soccer ball that is kicked to, and into, a 21-inch hole marked with a flag, over 190 footgolf facilities have been installed at golf courses in 37 states, including 21 in Northern and Central California.

The American Foot Golf League (AFGL) touts the game as a means of support for the golf industry, and in a statement on their website, http://www.afgl.us, they declare that they have no intention of building or recognizing stand-alone or custom-made footgolf courses outside of existing facilities. This both supports the organization’s declared mission to support traditional golf courses and reduces the up-front costs to get courses, and participation in the hybrid game, up and running.

In a recent Golf World article, Ron Sirak, executive editor of Golf World and a senior writer at Golf Digest, likened the relationship of footgolf and golf to that of snowboarding and skiing, saying “…remember it was a thing called snowboarding that reversed the economic downturn of skiing and exposed kids to the game.” Though not totally without merit, this analogy is flawed.

The similarity between the two situations lies in the fact that a new, related activity, snowboarding, attracted a new group of participants to the facilities, ski resorts, just as footgolf is supposed to attract new users to golf courses. In the same article Sirak goes on to state, “The first step toward getting people to play golf is to get them to the golf course. Foot golf could do that and, not insignificantly, it can increase revenue at stressed facilities.”

Ron Sirak is a respected journalist, and a writer whose work I have read, enjoyed, and admired for years, but in this instance I must disagree with part of his conclusion. While an influx of footgolf supporters may represent a new revenue stream for golf course facilities, it is highly doubtful that footgolf players will make the transition to golf just because they happen to pursue their activity at a shared facility. Just as few snowboarders have used that activity as a springboard into traditional skiing—in fact, the two groups, skiers and snowboarders, coexisted uneasily for many years, sharing the slopes only grudgingly—it is unlikely that people who play footgolf will take up golf. Snowboarding and skiing are variations of the same activity—sliding down a snow-covered slope while standing up—and differ only in the configuration of the apparatus which facilitates the action. Golf and footgolf, on the other hand, share only the most basic of qualities.

While the two games have similarities—they are both played with a ball, and the goal of the game is to propel the ball from a specific starting point, over a similarly configured playing ground, into a target hole—kicking a soccer ball along the ground in the desired direction, for a specific distance, is a much different action, and a much simpler proposition, than hitting a golf ball through the air in the desired direction, for a specific distance, with a golf club.

Kicking the ball is the basic foundation of the game of soccer, but it has the same relationship to playing soccer as shooting baskets in your driveway does to playing a game of basketball. Golf, on the other hand, is not merely the distilled essence of a more complete activity. Rather it is a complete and complex game whose various aspects—driving, approach shots, and putting, not to mention playing from varying lies and out of hazards—make it the most challenging game played with a ball that has ever been invented.

Footgolf may, as its supporters have posited, lend support to the golf industry at green facilities—golf courses—but unless it actually becomes a conduit by which people take up golf, this is not growing the game of golf. I would be very much surprised to see footgolf become more than just a niche activity at the existing golf facilities where it is put in place, and as a matter of fact, the AFGL’s insistence on recognizing footgolf courses only at existing golf courses may turn out to backfire on them.

There is significant evidence of resistance, among golfers, to the co-existence of golf and footgolf at the same facilities, especially when the footgolf course is laid alongside of, and shares space with, part of the traditional golf layout rather than being laid out in a separate area within the grounds of the course. It is not outside the realm of possibility that a course’s gains from footgolf will be partially or wholly offset by losses due to golfers taking their play elsewhere.

Projections and suppositions notwithstanding, only time will tell whether footgolf gains a toehold, and what exactly its impact at shared facilities will be. Whatever the final result, the chances of this oddball hybrid game playing a significant role in increasing the number of people playing actual golf are vanishingly slim.