Jeremy White: Don’t Call Me Junior!

During a recent #GolfChat, we were discussing ideas to increase women’s and junior participation in golf, when 12 year old Matty Du Plessis, tweeted the following:

I’m the father of a 6 year old junior and even at the – air quotes – “progressive” course we play at, almost every week there are adults who see a kid and immediately ask (shout down the fairway actually) to play through. I ignore them and soon enough they notice we’re easily keeping up with the group in front. Most of them are quite nice after that and compliment my son’s swing in an apologetic manner. Much like the tweet thread above, once they realise they’re not being inconvenienced, they revert to being nice.

It’s funny. Life makes us intolerant of idiots. Golf makes us intolerant of newbies. Even though we know they’re the future of the game.

Don’t worry. This isn’t a, “Why can’t we all be friends?” article. Influencing golfers’ behaviour is about as hard as converting devotees of any faith to another side. Very few of we pilgrims seeking enlightenment 19 holes away would think of ourselves as having a problem with etiquette or speed of play or whatever, yet we automatically seem to assume other golfers do.

Irony, thy name is golf.

Most juniors are introduced to golf by a family member or friend, who is likely to be a player themselves. My father doesn’t have a PlayStation or XBox in his house, so when the grandkids go there he takes them cycling, swimming and to the driving range for a bucket of balls and an ice cream afterwards. That visceral feeling of hitting a ball with a stick and satisfyingly watching it fly off into the distance isn’t one limited to grown-ups. Maybe it was the ice cream afterwards, but it was all a positive experience and my son came home with a little bag of cut down clubs and a passion to play the game. “Can we go to the golf club, Dad?” I tell my wife we can’t argue with the boy and exit the house with a smirk.

Unfortunately junior introductions have dropped away in recent years. We all know the reasons.  Economic uncertainty and cost, family and career pressures, the lessening of the Tiger Effect, plus competing interests for younger people’s attention.

So how does golf renew itself if the family and friends of new juniors can no longer do it fast enough?

I’m a firm believer that school-aged development is a sustainable growth strategy for any sport. That’s based on programs I’ve witnessed working here in Australia and that I think could be adapted for golf.

For the most part, Australian sporting codes control the money from their own broadcast rights, a significant portion of which is invested into mixed junior development initiatives, which are then delivered in schools.

Take Australian Football, for example. It is one of four Winter football codes in a very competitive market. I like to describe “Aussie Rules” to foreigners, as a bit like a fight with a ball involved. To the uninitiated, it seems like a mad scramble with some incredible skills and athleticism.

Its governing body, the AFL, spends tens of millions of dollars on development programs each year. Professional players’ AFL contracts have community work requirements, including in schools, and the kids love being able to have a kick with the players while envisioning a pro career for themselves.

However, it’s not a talent identification strategy. It’s a fan creation strategy. The AFL knows most of the kids won’t play the game professionally, but by engaging them in school, a seed is planted which can turn them into lifelong fans of the game. Paying fans.

It’s working too. The scheme has been operating for over a decade and all major KPIs continue to trend upwards. Participation. Diversity. Membership. Attendance. Ratings. Revenue.

Significantly, female participation has exploded, growing over 60% between 2014 and the end of 2015. A professional league for women is starting in 2017. My 4 year old daughter loves playing “footy” and could one day be paid to play the game. Amazing.

Not bad for an indigenous sport with only 1.2 million participants, but which attracts 3.5 million fans (14% of the Australian population) to watch its Grand Final. Our version of the Super Bowl. The ultimate compliment being paid to the AFL is that the other sporting codes, like rugby and cricket, are copying its development model.

Australia has 1.1 million golf participants, but the similarities end there. Diversity. Membership. Attendance. Ratings. Revenue. Down or flat.

An interesting statistic which holds true for many sports, including soccer and Australian Football, is that the ratio of junior-to-adult participation is 60-40. In golf it is 10-90. Very similar to the US number.

I understand it’s a little unfair to compare activities where player longevity in each sport can differ by decades. The point I’m trying to make, however, is that even after a footballer’s knees tell them to stop playing, they continue to purchase tickets and merchandise, attend matches, consume broadcasts and introduce their own kids to the sport. Their children are born fans, almost without a choice in the matter.

Such is the case with my kids. Both are miniature footballers and golfers, which I consider one of my, still early, but crowning achievements as a parent. Even without me, both would have been introduced to football at primary (elementary) school.

Not so, golf.

As anyone who is reading this would know, golf is fantastic fun, even if we suck at it. Poor play can always be made up for with a couple of drinks and some trash talk in the clubhouse afterwards. My kids look forward to a soda and chips at the end of every round, sitting in the sun watching other golfers mosey up the hill on the last hole. It’s a heart-warming ritual, and my golfer’s lament, apart from my own game of course, is that more children, both boys and girls, aren’t exposed to golf at the same age.

One of golf’s greatest attractions is that it can be played for as long as each participant can swing a club. It is far easier, and more profitable, to create a golfing fan in a somewhat captive school market, than it is to convert them later in life. Not to mention the longer-term benefits that would accrue to the industry.

Clearly the issues of financing and delivery strategy would need to be worked out, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another day. The primary message for now is to get them…,

“While They’re Young.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @connectgolf

jeremy_white_bio_pic@connectgolf in ‪#‎Golfchat‬, Jeremy is 80% dad, 20% golfing entrepreneur, who in the 90 minutes each day he has to himself, works as the #GolfChat Authors editor, works on a golfing Not-For-Profit, and tries to reverse the decline of his golf game with positive thoughts (no time for practice).

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