Media reports about the global business of golf are full of references to its diminishing fortunes. The gloomy tone should be familiar in horse racing circles. Golf, Inc. magazine lamented: “The dark economic clouds that have long threatened the golf industry are now fully upon us. The unemployment and financial wakes of their storm are splashing over every golf course and golf-related company in the world…reduced rounds, vanishing members, layoffs, or product closures.”

The near-term anxiety in both golf and horse racing is that the core customer base of older patrons is shrinking and people in their 20s and 30s are not taking up the sport like they once did. Retiring baby boomers are unquestionably curtailing their golfing, likely due to living on reduced incomes and incurring physical ailments. The longer-term looks even more worrisome—a study by the National Golf Foundation found that the number of golfers between the ages of six and seventeen decreased from 3.8 million in 2005 to 2.9 million in 2008.

Beginning with the mid-1980s until the turn of the century, the number of golfers in the United States grew at a compound rate of three percent annually. However, since 2000, the trend is negative. The number of rounds played has declined by almost six percent resulting in over 800 golf course closures. From 2005 to 2009, the golfer population decreased by over 13 percent to 26 million players.

Most of the proposed solutions to golf’s problems have already been recommended for horse racing. For instance, the Golf Inc. feature “How to Fix the Golf Industry” suggested four common-sense initiatives that are apropos for racing, such as providing a welcoming experience to novices, encouraging veteran golfers to play with family and friends, improving golf courses as hospitality centers, and using celebrities as goodwill ambassadors to reach out to mass audiences.

Like racing, golf is also trying to innovate. For instance, Jack Nicklaus is experimenting with rules adaptations in an effort to speed up the game and make it less difficult. Recently, Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Golf Club held truncated 12-hole tournaments that players had to finish in 2 1/2 hours lest they be penalized one stroke for every five minutes over the time limit. Another modification was that the holes on the putting greens were 8 inches in diameter rather than the regulation 4 ¼ inches.

Golf and horse racing are tradition-steeped pastimes struggling to attract patrons. Purists undoubtedly look with disdain at dramatic departures from convention such as clocked 12-hole tournaments, exchange wagering, and a nighttime Kentucky Derby. Yet if an eroding fan base is to be replenished, these classic turf sports must continue to acclimate to the times while retaining the essential qualities that made them so popular in the first place.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

Originally published in the Blood-Horse. Used with permission.