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Sports Growth Strategy Examples: How to Encourage Beginners to Become Committed

Sports Growth Strategy Examples: How to Encourage Beginners to Become Committed

In 2020-21, Golf and Pickleball Attracted New Players…
But Can They Keep Them?

These growth strategy examples in sports show the power of superfans for both a sleepy standby (like golf) or a brand-new category (like pickleball). But the question remains: can they convert the rush of newbies?

After years of generally-flat, modestly-declining or slightly-growing participation, several outdoor activities exploded in popularity in the last two years:

  • golf – 37 million consumers in 2021 across courses, simulators, and ranges
  • camping – 94 million households in 2021
  • skiing – 61 million visits in 2021   

Meanwhile, pickleball, a sport played both indoors and outdoors, continued its rise to five million players. 

The growth for golf, camping, and skiing came despite headwinds of older demographics, declining youth participation, increasing cost to play, and competition for leisure time from activities like video games.

Sports Growth Strategy Examples:
“Pandemic” Beginners

Driving growth from increased spending and participation from super consumers and fans is a proven strategy across categories, and committed fans and super consumers are important for capturing increased share of wallet, and potentially for recruiting and attracting new beginner users. 

However, according to industry sources, the exciting part of the recent pandemic-driven growth for golf, camping and skiing, is the addition of new users. 

If they can be retained, these new users can potentially reverse the long-term category trends of flat or declining category participation, fueling long-term increases.  

Developing a growth strategy example that shows beginners converted to committed participants is important, or as one industry executive succinctly put it:

“Will they remain or go the way of Peloton riders?”

With increases in remote and hybrid work expected to persist over the next several years, these beginners may also have more flexibility to participate in golf, camping and skiing, all of which require considerable time investment.  A Gallup study found that some 91% of remote-capable jobs are anticipated to remain hybrid or remote, compared with 40% pre-pandemic. Learn more about these consumers in our article, “Customer Segmentation Examples for Outdoor and Active Brands.”

Sports Growth Strategy Examples: How to Encourage Beginners to Become Committed

Golf Growth Strategy Example:
New Players Require a New Approach

The National Golf Foundation reported “a bloom in beginners,” up to 3.2 million golfers in 2021, the highest levels seen in over 30 years.  Prior to 2020, beginner golf course players had been flat to declining for five years. 

Sports Growth Strategy Examples: How to Encourage Beginners to Become Committed

Golf averages a conversion rate of 27% from beginners to committed golfers (who play at least eight times per year).  With 3.2 million beginner golf course triers in 2021, and a 27% conversion rate, there are over 860,000 potential converts to drive growth.    

Golf industry consumer research:

“indicates that getting people to feel comfortable and confident are among the biggest difference-makers in whether newcomers actually stick with the game.”    

The beginners in 2020 and 2021 may be attracted to a different approach to the sport than prior cohorts, so that “tried and true” strategies for converting beginners should be carefully examined. For instance, how can beginners get the same feeling that a video gamer does by earning an “Achievement Unlocked” badge?

Sports Growth Strategy Examples: How to Encourage Beginners to Become Committed

Growth Strategy Example:
Topgolf Does Golf Differently

Living in El Segundo, I drive by Topgolf location The Lakes at El Segundo daily, and I see a facility that provides one answer.

The towering Topgolf building is impossible to miss from Pacific Coast Highway, and the parking lot is always visibly packed. The parking lot is far more packed than co-located The Lakes golf course was prior to the opening of Topgolf.  

Topgolf has achieved a buzz in my circles. 

  • My young adult sons, ages 25 and 28, who are not golfers, both enjoyed their visits to the facility and would go again. 
  • A friend who is a recently-retired Johnson & Johnson executive, shared that Topgolf was the preferred venue during COVID for corporate outings from their east coast location.  She had been four times in the past 12 months. 
  • And a local Manhattan Beach leader reported that his wife has started taking lessons at The Lakes facility at Topgolf, while he recently held his company summer outing at the El Segundo facility.

With the merger of Callaway and Topgolf, there is an explicit strategy to convert these beginners to regular golf course users.  In 2021, Callaway reported total revenues of $3.1 billion, including $2.0 billion of products and $1.1 billion of services.  This compared with 2020 revenues of $1.6 billion.  Golf courses and family fun centers are estimated as an $18 billion industry in 2022, with Topgolf a leading player.  By comparison, the golf course industry is estimated at $26 billion.

As Forbes quoted,

“I refer to it as the culmination of the Topgolf-Callaway strategy all in one place on about 30 acres,” Topgolf CEO Artie Starrs says. “If you’re on the property, you can clearly see our commitment to growing the game—both the traditional game but also the game of Topgolf—and any way you choose to play it.”

“We’re just widening the aperture on this thing that is great, which is golf, but making it a lot more fun and more accessible to more people,” Starrs says.

Topgolf as a growth strategy example to attract beginners, and convert them to committed golfers who use golf courses is still a considerable leap.  A Topgolf outing paid for by the employer is different than a consumer paying out of pocket.   

Other growth strategy examples can leverage gamification principles and encourage a sense of community with clubs and excitement through tournaments and events.

Sports Growth Strategy Examples: How to Encourage Beginners to Become Committed

Pickleball Growth Strategy Example

With an estimated five million players, pickleball is the one of the fastest-growing sports.  Pickleball grew 15% from 2020 to 2021, with an average five-year growth rate of 12%.  

While we are underrepresented in Los Angeles for pickleball locations, the current national footprint is approximately 10,000 locations, with more on the horizon to meet player demand.  As a frame of reference, there are approximately 9,000 golf courses, a number that has declined.

Similar to Topgolf, pickleball is highly visible in my community.  When I go to work out at the Bay Club El Segundo, I can’t miss the sign encouraging me to try pickleball during this month. 

  • My alumni group has a pickleball tournament coming up, explicitly geared at beginners. 
  • And, one of the biggest points of excitement on our 2022 Hawaii multi-sport tour with Backroads wasn’t the bicycling, the hiking or the kayaking. It was the hotel-offered pickleball that most compelled members of our tour group.

Like other sports, pickleball has a mix of core, super-consumer players (estimated at 29%) and casual players and beginners (estimated at 71%). 

For pickleball, the definition of a core player is someone who plays eight or more times per year. Despite differences in the sports, this is the same frequency that the golf industry uses for a committed player.

Pickleball’s reputation is that it is friendly to older consumers, and USA pickleball reports that 33% of core players are 65+, and an additional 19% are 55-64.   In total across both core and casual, adults 55+ make up 30% of pickleball players, while youth ages 6-17 represent 21% of players, 18-34 represent 29% of players and 35-54 represent 20% of players.  And, the fastest growth is coming from younger players.

Stu Upson, CEO of USA Pickleballs said:

“We’re still small and scrappy, but we’re not so innocent anymore…. People are looking for avenues to have some fun, get some exercise, but do it in an environment that’s not divisive. .. That’s a pretty important thing in our society today I believe.”

Pickleball has a folksy image, with an origin story from founder Barney McCallum, of bored kids, sent outside with ping pong paddles, a badminton net and a softball-sized ball on Labor Day weekend in 1965.

The CEO of Life Time Fitness Bahram Akradi is investing in pickleball and expects continued growth. Currently Life Time has 84 courts in 30 clubs. Says Akradi:

“I love the sport because it’s the first sport I see bringing all of America together. It is accessible to everybody and easy to learn…By the end of next year, our plan is to deliver 600 to 700 dedicated pickleball courts across the country. So a Life Time member can participate in events even if they’re traveling… the company will invest $50 million to $75 million and build out the additional courts by the end of the year.”

With long-term growth anticipated, some experts believe pickleball may ultimately make a successful bid to become an Olympic sport, and that it can develop a spectator base with a breakout player. MIT Sloan School Senior Lecturer Ben Shield explains:

“Think about all of the new digital experiences that are available to sports leagues to connect with fans — streaming games in an interactive way, fantasy pickleball, which brings fans in on a different level, all the social media conversations and experiences you can create around the sport…I think if pickleball, in its own humble way, can continue to grow its participation and find ways to make the sport a compelling fan product, who knows, 10, 20 years, it could be a very viable competitor in the global sports industry.”

As of early September, there are over twenty upcoming pro pickleball tournaments for the rest of the year, supporting ongoing growth and interest in the sport.

An example of commercializing gamification for pickleball is picklejam, which offers scored replays of the most memorable moments in the game, and player badges and statistics.

Sports Growth Strategy Examples: How to Encourage Beginners to Become Committed

Pickleball also seems to pair well with restaurants/bars. With six locations currently, the Chicken N Pickle  chain offers pickleball courts and yard games in an indoor/outdoor setting along with a restaurant and sports bar.  While Chicken N Pickle isn’t as large as Topgolf, it’s growing rapidly, and according to my colleague in Kansas City “minting money.” 

Use These Growth Strategy Examples to Inspire Your Outdoor Brands

Like RVs, golf, skiing and pickleball, if your category and brand have benefitted from the increased interest in spending time outdoors in 2020 and 2021, what growth strategy will you use to convert beginners to committed users?  These growth strategy examples show that while time-tested strategies may yield results, it’s critical to understand the needs of the newer users, rather than make assumptions.  Says Stephanie Maez, Outdoor Foundation’s managing director:

“For us it’s about identifying what those motivating factors are for new participants.”

For more growth strategy examples, visit the growth strategy resources page. Or join us at an upcoming office hours.