Golf for millennials: fast, arcade style and boozy
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 bracketstyle 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.”