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Pro golf has new reason for optimism

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Golf equipment sales, a category that includes clubs and balls, fell slightly in 2016. In 2017, through May, according to NPD Group, sales fell even more, by more than 20%. Last year, Nike and Adidas both divorced themselves from golf equipment: Nike Golf halted all manufacturing of clubs and balls, and now makes only apparel and footwear, and Adidas sold off its once-successful golf club business TaylorMade to a private equity firm.

It may sound like the news for golf is all bad.

But after the Travelers Championship last weekend, a PGA Tour event in Connecticut that Jordan Spieth won in thrilling fashion, golf has new reason for optimism.

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The Travelers Championship was a PGA Tour stop “on the verge of extinction” just 10 years ago, in 2006. Travelers Insurance signed on as title sponsor in 2007, and has worked to bring the event back to prominence ever since.

This year, by every metric, it was a smash success.

Travelers Championship set records

Spieth and Rory McIlroy, two of the youngest, most talented stars in the game today, both played the tournament for the first time this year. That was a win already, before the golf had even begun, and it helped propel the event to record-high advanced ticket sales and gate receipts (tickets sold at the event). Ticket sales were up 30% overall.

In addition to record ticket sales, the tournament sold out its vendor tents (outside companies that pay to get a tent in the Fan Zone, where they can run promotions) and had a waiting list for the first time; it also sold out the Aer Lingus Champions Club, a premium hospitality venue overlooking the 18th hole.

Overall, the Travelers Championship increased its charity raise (the net revenue from the event, after expenses, goes to charity) to $1.6 million, up 15% from last year and its highest total ever. The lion’s share of that goes to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a Connecticut charity for children and families dealing with serious illnesses.

And then there was the electric atmosphere at the course when Jordan Spieth won the tournament by sinking it from inside a sand bunker. The crowd was shrieking, a rare moment at a pro golf event; fan videos of the moment rocketed around social media the next day.

Jordan Spieth (R) wins the Travelers Championship and celebrates with caddy Michael Greller (L) on June 25, 2017. (Getty)

The exciting fourth round on Sunday, culminating in a playoff between Spieth and Daniel Berger, helped make the event a ratings hit. It was the second-highest rated PGA Tour event (non-Major) this year, behind only Pebble Beach. And it was the highest ratings for this event since 2003, when it was called the Greater Hartford Open. 

Of course, the Travelers is just one PGA Tour event, and it is not one of golf’s four Majors, and it is not even considered one of the biggest non-Major tournaments. But its success this year is an encouraging indicator for golf.

“We judge our success by how much we can generate and give back to charity, and our charity raise has grown every single year,” says Nathan Grube, director of the Travelers Championship. “So I do think the business of professional golf and the PGA Tour is growing, along with the value that sponsors find in a tournament.”

Tournament purses for the top finishers also keep ballooning: the Travelers purse was an eye-popping $6.8 million, up from $6.8 million last year. Spieth took home $1.2 million of that.

Pro golf vs recreational golf

One problem with headlines about the decline of golf is that they conflate the pro sport with the recreational level.

That phenomenon is particular to golf (and perhaps to tennis as well): the two are closely linked, and if all is going well, one should do well if the other is doing well. For the moment, the financials for recreational golf look ugly. But if the pro game can continue to thrive, recreational golf should return (especially as the market keeps gaining).

Despite discouraging sales numbers for equipment, there are some positives. While Nike Golf, TaylorMade, Wilson Golf, and Titleist saw equipment sales declines last year, Callaway’s equipment sales grew by about 15%, NPD Group says. Cobra Puma Golf also saw slight gains in 2016.

On the footwear side, Nike, Adidas and Skechers all saw golf shoe gains. Golf apparel overall also saw an increase in the low-teens, driven by knit shirts, a category that grew especially for Under Armour.

When doomsayers rail about the death of golf, many point to the absence of Tiger Woods from competition as the biggest contributing cause. But the equipment sales declines trace back to 2009, which was when the economy crashed (and, yes, the same year the Woods infidelity scandal erupted).

Many in golf see hope in the parity of the game today (every tournament is up for grabs, rather than being won by the same one or two stars) and the abundance of young personalities on the course: Spieth, McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, and Smylie Kaufman are all under 30.

Indeed, NBCUniversal’s Golf Channel, in the past year, has repeatedly shared numbers that suggest a growth in millennial audiences. (A vocal contingent of people on social media believe that bump is thanks to the rise of daily fantasy golf contests.)

“The younger players now, they respect what Tiger did, but they’re reaching fans in a completely new way,” says Grube of Travelers. “The social stuff they do is creating a new interest in the game. Or you can look at TopGolf [a high-tech golf entertainment venue quickly growing across the US], and these things are broader than golf. The fact that Rickie Fowler makes headlines when he goes to the Kentucky Derby, or Bubba Watson with his jetpack, these guys are fueling a broader interest in the game.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite

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