Why are golf club memberships declining in the UK? - Full Time Cover

Why are golf club memberships declining in the UK?

Golf club membership across the UK is falling again, according to a survey of the sport across Europe. In England, the number of registered golfers fell by 1.63%. This meant a loss of 10,688 players between 2017 and 2018 for a total of 645,151 compared with 655,839.

But England remains the country with the highest number of members, though Germany have closed the gap considerably and have 642,240 registered golfers. With the undoubted positive effect golf can have on health and well being, why is participation not thriving as it should?

Too Many Courses

An important point is that participation overall, remains fairly stable. However, following the boom of construction of Golf courses, we now appear to have too many to sustain membership. Following a report in 1989 by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club (Golf’s governing body) entitled “The Demand for Golf” over 700 new golf courses were built in the 1990’s and this in hindsight has proved too many to sustain.

Time to Improve Facilities?

Where golf clubs could potentially make gains is ownership of weekend breaks, with much potential for hiking and bike rides, along with spa’s and gyms to allow for a more inclusive weekend for families. Abby Lench, Head of club support at England Golf runs a “golf on referral” scheme to promote health benefits of the sport. “Our research shows that such facilities as a children’s play areas, creches, coffee shops and other sports on site, including gym/health and spa, have a major impact on membership. However, only a small percentage of clubs offer these”.

Cost & Time

Undoubtedly these are two massive barriers to entry for the game. I don’t think there is any doubt at all that golf is nowhere as inclusive as it needs to be. With £400 for a junior set of clubs, coupled with membership fees many potentials are priced out before they can begin.

Nick Pink, Chief executive of England Golf states “Demands are changing and we encourage clubs to respond to this with flexible memberships, academies, fun and short golf formats and by improving the off-course experience. It’s notable that clubs which offer flexible packages to time-poor golfers are increasingly seeing a growth in membership.”

With regards to time, its noticeable that ventures such as Top Golf are proving more popular than ever. Does this show that embracing technology also gives the games biggest hope to engagement with youth.

All the golfing bodies are looking at options to make the game quicker. In this day and age, that’s what people want. We are seeing golf trialling nine holes and sixes.

How will short format golf develop with people and prove that the game can fit into a busy lifestyle? Nick Pink continues “We are partnering the European Tour to promote GolfSixes – six-hole golf – to our members, our Golf Express campaign supports nine-hole golf and we support The R&A’s nine-hole championship, we work with British Speedgolf, and we operate Ready Golf at all our championships”.

There are many comparisons that are easy to make with golf and cricket, with both perhaps perceived as having a stuffy image and living in the past. Cricket has made strides in developing the shorter game to boost engagement and viewership, can golf follow suit?

Sky Broadcasting Monopoly and TV access

Speaking of viewership, and something both sports have been criticesed for – is the Sky broadcasting monopoly on both golf and cricket stopping potential engagement?

Whilst the cricket World cup final benefited from free to air TV, golf had no such boost. Nothing captures the imagination of the nation quite like the Ryder Cup. Would having this back on free to air TV give gof a similar lift? However, our consumption of sport has shifted dynamic dramatically and maybe the argument of free to air events is more outdated. The rise of social media means we consume sport in a way like never before. TikTok is the fastest growing social media platform, and in many ways ideal for golf. Will we see a new charismatic golfer using these platforms to boost their profile and become a figure head for kids to  look up to and aspire to be? The lack of a new Tiger Woods is often cited as a slump in the sport, sure if there is one in waiting the only way forward now will be through strong social media engagement.