After not just surviving but thriving during the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 and 2021, many golf-industry leaders were rightly concerned over how the game and the business would fare as life in America left the pandemic behind and moved forward.
Just as the world was heading back toward normal, with COVID concerns receding and massive disruptions in the worldwide golf supply chain starting to sort themselves out, a war broke out in Ukraine, fuel prices skyrocketed, inflation exploded, central banks jacked up interest rates, the stock market cratered and consumer sentiment about the economy tumbled. Suddenly, we weren’t just dealing with the results of a pandemic but rather the world was hit with multiple economic and political body blows that threatened to derail the worldwide post-pandemic recovery.
However, what does the data really show about how golf is doing? Is the golf business healthier and in a better place than it was pre-COVID? If so, by how much? And where might things go?
The following is a macro-level review of a few of the golf industry’s key metrics, all of which are collected and projected by Golf Datatech on a monthly basis.
Rounds played are the engine that drives the golf industry. When rounds surge, golfers need consumable golf products such as balls and gloves, and when playing frequently, they often decide they want new clubs, bags, shoes, shirts, shorts, distance devices and more.
Golf Datatech, with help from the National Golf Foundation and the National Golf Course Owners Association, collects and publishes monthly data on rounds played across the United States by major metro market, state, and region.
After a massive increase in rounds played during the back half of 2020 and through much of 2021, many industry insiders suggested rounds played would fall back substantially as Americans went back to “normal” day-to-day activities, such as driving into the office, going to their kids’ school functions, and watching the NFL and college football. And while over time the return of these activities will have an impact on the time available to play the game, that hasn’t been the direction rounds played have gone.
On a year-to-date basis through August, rounds are down 2.6 percent, coming off a record-high year in 2021. It is worth noting that March, April and May of ’22 were particularly difficult weather months, so being within a few percent of last year’s total suggests golf’s popularity has not waned significantly.
The summer months of June, July and August 2022 saw rounds grow by more than 3 percent vs. 2021 levels, indicating no weakening thus far in play, even in the face of massive jumps in inflation, which over time tend to hamper discretionary spending on pastimes such as golf.
Most within the industry also like to compare current data to 2019, the most recent pre-pandemic year, and rounds played are ahead by more than 10 percent vs. that time, suggesting there are more golfers in 2021-22 than there were in 2019.
Retail Sales Of Golf Equipment
Golf-equipment sales are a critical part of the golf ecosystem. Golfers are always seeking their “Holy Grail,” those balls or clubs that will allow them to hit their driver 20 yards farther, drill their irons closer to the pin and make every 5-foot putt. Golf Datatech data is the industry gold standard for tracking and projecting sales of golf products through green grass and off-course specialty channels on a monthly basis.
Retail sales of golf equipment skyrocketed in late 2020 through mid-2021 and have held relatively level since. The first graph accompanying this story shows total equipment sales (balls, bags, gloves, shoes, clubs, distance devices) on an annualized basis since 2010. In the decade between 2010 and 2020, sales remained in a relatively tight range before sinking drastically during the early stages of COVID, when lockdowns shut down much of the U.S. economy, before rebounding to record highs in the back half of ’21. For most of 2022, sales of golf equipment have remained steady to slightly down, although they remain far ahead of where they stood in 2019.
When evaluated by product category we can see some stark differences, with consumable sales (balls and gloves) doing exceptionally well, while discretionary durable products such as drivers have tumbled. Often, sales of high-priced golf products such as clubs are negatively impacted by a weak stock market, as lower personal asset values weigh heavily on the purchasing psyche of the golf consumer.
On a year-to-date basis through August ’22, consumable sales are up more than 5 percent, while drivers are down close to double digits. And compared to ’19, total equipment sales are running about 40 percent higher.
Golf-apparel sales remained robust in 2022, up more than 5 percent vs. last year and more than 49 percent against 2019.
Total golf-apparel sales took a similar dip to equipment in 2020 when lockdowns hit, however the category took much longer to recover from the depths of the pandemic, not really hitting its stride and rising higher than 2019 levels until mid 2021. Apparel had multiple issues amplifying its decline, including the timing of the lockdowns in early 2020, which were just as the new season’s merchandise was about to roll out to much of the country.
When shops closed and manufacturers could no longer ship the new product because of cancellations and their own operational issues, massive inventory displacement occurred as the spring of ’20 line was no longer hitting the market in the proper time frame. Then, as brick-and-mortar retail (including pro shops) began to open in the summer of 2020, golfers were less interested in browsing and trying on new apparel. At the same time, the supply chain for new product was in shambles, factories were closed and shipping of product from overseas suppliers became increasingly challenging. All in all, 2020 was something of a lost year for the golf-apparel business, and it took until mid-2021 until sales started to trend above the levels seen prior to the pandemic.
Golf Datatech breaks golf apparel down into eight separate subcategories, including shirts, tops and bottoms (each done separately for men and women), as well as outerwear and headwear (both of which are non-gender specific), and thus far in 2022, golf-apparel sales continue to be brisk, with each and every product category gaining vs. 2021, led by men’s tops and outerwear, both of which are up double digits.
Where Are We Headed?
Golf is not immune to the same concerns plaguing the rest of the economy, and expectations are for golf sales to slow down and likely to decline in both equipment and apparel in 2023. Golf Datatech believes the golf industry will remain in a state of flux (some ups and some downs) over the short to medium term, and it may be another few years until the business totally shakes off the impacts of the worldwide pandemic.
Certainly, no one takes for granted what has been accomplished thus far, but continuing to manage and grow overall participation and rounds is going to take a concerted and focused effort by every sector of the industry.
John Krzynowek is a co-founder and partner at Golf Datatech LLC, the leading independent market research firm in golf.
Top Photo: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images
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