On Friday nights, millennials are flocking to a driving range to play a sport that experts say they have little interest in.
Some even say the sport is dying, citing the lagging sales of golf equipment and apparel and steep decline in television ratings. In April, the final round of The Masters drew its lowest ratings since 2004, and this month the U.S. Women’s Open garnered just 760,000 viewers, its worst showing on record.
But Topgolf, a high-tech driving range and entertainment company, has set out to prove otherwise. It thinks millennials might well be the key to reviving interest in the sport. The company has tapped into the social potential for golf, creating a space best described as “where a lounge meets a tee box.”
Topgolf, which opened a location in Jacksonville last year, is at once old-fashioned (a little bit like Skee-Ball) and modern (technology lets you track your performance, shot by shot — and compete with your friends). And the setting is loud and lively, not your typical back-nine fare.
After launching in England in 2000, Topgolf came to the states in 2005 when it opened in Alexandria, Va. It now has 30 U.S. locations and 33 worldwide. The Dallas-based company has plans to add 10 more locations this year. On Thursday, the company received approval to build in National Harbor, where it plans to one day relocate its Alexandria location.
“Our core business is really nice,” Topgolf CEO Erik Anderson said. “If you go from 30 to 40 in a year, that’s 33 percent. So that’s pretty good.”
“Clearly we have struck a chord with millennials,” he added.
At Topgolf, customers can play a number of games, but in the most common one they hit golf balls with a microchip inside to measure the distance it travels into a field of roughly five targets. The farther the ball flies - if it hits a target - the more points. The farthest target, at the back wall, is about 215 yards from the tee box.
While one person is playing, the rest of the group can carouse at a table just behind the tee box, ordering food and drinks from wait staff. And Topgolf hopes its guests will download its app to track their scores over time - and of course take lots of photos to share on social media.
“The way they provide entertainment is revolutionary,” said Nicholas M. Watanabe, a sports and entertainment management professor at University of South Carolina. “They have taken the idea of sports entertainment and put it into golf. It’s like having the ‘Happy Gilmore’ crowd [be] into golf without being in ‘Happy Gilmore.’”
Topgolf also has an element of the country club experience, where people pay up front for a membership and can bring guests. The company, which is private, declined to provide any financial figures. Per person, it costs $8 a game. A cheeseburger costs about $12, and the cheapest pitcher of beer is $15. It says that more than 10 million people played at its sites in 2016.
Sameer Gupta, 18 and a freshman at the University of Virginia, said he plays a decent amount of golf, but he goes to Topgolf with his friends because of the atmosphere.
“It’s a place where a lot of kids just socialize and hang out, apart from the golf,” he said. It’s also fun, and “gives people the opportunity to play without judgment.”
The company does a Topgolf tour, which consists of two-player teams in a bracket-style tournament, which culminates at the company’s Las Vegas location. The winners get $50,000.
Topgolf’s success doesn’t seem to reflect the broader fortunes of the game. According to Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at the NPD Group, a market research company, millennials been slow to pick up the game. After three rough years, sales are down 20 percent this year.
Millennials seem turned away by the expense of the game (which can cost hundreds of dollars in lessons, clubs, gear, course fees) and time required to play (four to five hours for a round). It’s also a fussy game with a lot of rules, and not particularly suited for large groups.
Anderson said he saw those obstacles when he first got involved with Topgolf, and the company works around a lot of those drawbacks.
“This was an authentic golf experience that would entice a lot of people and remove a lot of the barriers,” he said.
So can Topgolf bridge enlist millennials to save the sport?
Chad McEvoy, an avid golfer and physical education professor at Northern Illinois University, sees lingering challenges.
“The trick is sort of conversion,” he said. “Let’s just say someone has fun at Topgolf and goes to play 18 holes the first time. Will they be turned off by the lack of music and the no-wait staff? That might be a tough obstacle to overcome if you think about the industry trying to convert those people to regular golfers.”
Anderson said that of the company’s total guests, 53 percent were ages 18 to 34 as of June. And 32 percent were women and 68 percent men. In 2016, 37 percent of guests were non-golfers and 49 percent were casual golfers who play a few rounds a year. Only 14 percent of customers were avid golfers who play over 25 rounds a year.
“We’ve brought millions of people to the game,” Anderson said. “If you get started in a fun way and you start to get better, your mind gets opened up. We’re introducing and reintroducing millions of people to golf.”
Dereje Tekle, a Falls Church, Va., native said Topgolf got him into the sport and it helped him go from a novice to someone who plays a couple rounds of golf a week. As he’s improved over the years (he says his handicap is three), he’s treated the place more as a regular driving range.
“I don’t put it in the sensor. I just want to work on my swing,” he said. With Topgolf’s games, “you can hit a bad shot and get a good score. So most of the time if you’re focusing on the score, it doesn’t mean that you’re improving. You just know how to score.”
Anderson says that like regular golf, the objective of Topgolf is to get the ball in the hole. A shot can go straight and far, but if it doesn’t get it in the hole, it might not be a great shot.
McEvoy looks at the company’s success as positive.
“Anything the golf industry can do to get people playing golf, even if it’s Topgolf and not a 18-hole round, is great,” he said. “Will that result in more people playing more rounds? I think the jury is still out on that.”