By Barry Janoff
September 25, 2016: According to Arnold Palmer, “What other people may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive. The white ball sailing up into the sky, reaching its apex, falling and finally dropping to the turf, just the way I planned it.”
At a time when the business of golf is having trouble hitting the fairway, TopGolf is driving onto the green, just the way they planned it.
Topgolf is a sports-entertainment destination that launched in the U.K. in 2000 and came to the U.S. in 2005. The company, which serves more than 13 million guests annually and boasts “the world's largest digital golf audience,” is in a pro-active expansion mode, both in brick-and-mortar locations and technology.
In May, Topgolf opened its flagship location in Las Vegas (pictured above), adjacent to the MGM Grand, which features across 100,000 square feet over four levels more than 100 hitting bays, 100s of TVs, a concert venue that holds upward of 900 guests, VIP cabanas and suites and a bar in the middle of a pool.
In addition to play and entertainment, the venue is the site for special events, such as the one scheduled on Oct. 5 for Vitamin Angels, a charity that provides nutritional support to children and mothers in need.
Other new locations include Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Portland (OR, pictured below) and Roseville, a suburb Sacramento. (See a full list of locations here.) Investors include Callaway Golf and Providence Equity Partners, a leading global private equity firm whose other sports-related alliances include or have included Ironman Triathlon, Major League Soccer, Learfield Sports and Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network (YES).
In May, Topgolf acquired Protracer, which pioneered technology to track the flight of a golf ball, display its path in video and analyze each shot. That followed on the heels of the acquisition of World Golf Tour, a digital golf gaming community with more than 14 million players worldwide, where players can access games through desktop, tablet and iOS and Android apps.
Topgolf is seeking to unite its goals with those of pro organizations. The company recently aligned with the PGA Tour and LPGA in an effort “designed to create new fans, participants and enthusiasts and to enhance the playing and fan experiences through event and media initiatives.”
In August, the premiere Topgolf Tour was initiated, with competitions at various Topgolf locations and multi-media marketing. The top players from each venue will come together in November for a championship in Las Vegas.
Topgolf’s growth comes as other industry players are facing challenging times.
No. 1 golf retailer Golfsmith, even as it acquired Golf Town, has filed for Chapter 11 in an effort to streamline its operation.
Nike said it would transition out of equipment — clubs, balls and bags — but would "accelerate innovation in its golf footwear and apparel business (and) partner with more of the world’s best golfers.” That includes a $100 million deal signed this month with top-ranked golfer Jason Day.
Adidas has put its TaylorMade, Adams and Ashworth golf divisions up for sale.
Even with this, worldwide sponsorship spend on golf is expected to top a record $1.8 billion this year, up 5.1% from 2015, according to research firm IEG, Chicago.
The game will be in the pubic spotlight — and on Topgolf TVs — in October when Tiger Woods, who has been off the tour for more than a year due to surgery and rehab, said he would play in his first events, the Tiger Woods Invitational (Oct. 10-11) and then the Safeway Open (Oct. 13-16 on Golf Channel and NBC).
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Erik Anderson, Co-Chairman & CEO for Topgolf, about Topgolf’s quest to attract core, casual and non-golfers; growing the sport during a challenging period and expanding the boundaries and popularity of the game via technology, apps and swimming pools.
NYSportsJournalism.com: The Topgolf experience is new to a lot of people, so can you talk about the beginnings of Topgolf.
Erik Anderson: It goes back to 2000 when two brothers, Steve and Dave Jolliffe, were on a driving range in North London having a debate about ways to keep track of a golf ball, how to improve their game and how to have some more fun with the sport. They figured out a way to put a microchip in a golf ball, which worked out, and built some technology around that, which enables people to track accuracy and distance. That led to them creating venues in the U.K. in which people could swing on a driving range with these golf balls and also have food and drinks.
NYSJ: How did it come to the U.S.?
EA: Myself and other investors, which became the WestRiver Group, brought it to the U.S. in 2005, with a location in (Alexandria) Virginia. Eventually we aggregated the sites in the U.K., bought the technology company and put the whole company together under Topgolf. Our goal was and is today to build a global sports entertainment community. For people to have the best times of their life. So it started with a chip and a ball, and here we are.
NYSJ: Do you see growth being more golf-driven, tech-driven or the combination of both?
EA: Growth has been great from a golf- and technology-driven aspect. This has always been a vision of sports and technology convergence. Our original view was that it would be a fun and engaging golf experience. When Topgolf was starting there wasn't the proliferation of Facebook, Twitter and social media you have today. Our current customers who are now in their 20s and 30s were in their young teens or early 20s. So they have grown up with digital experiences, and Topgolf was created as a digital experience. It is made for social media. As opposed to a person standing alone in a bay hitting golf balls, Topgolf is an interactive, social experience. You are eating, drinking, listening to music, having fun with your friends. We have been able to grow with the changing entertainment dynamics that are ripe for this generation.
NYSJ: How would you define your customers regarding not just age but golf-related demographics?
EA: It cuts across lines. About half of our guests describe themselves as 'non-golfers.' We appeal to people who are golfers, we appeal to people who want to learn the game and to people who want to have fun and experience somewhat what golf is about and come here with their friends. And we will continue to build on that. We are building Topgolf on four key pillars: We want to be involved with the community. We keep adding technology. We are engaged with sports. And we have become a lifestyle brand where people can come in and have a great time. We have in recent years seen a large uptick in the number of women who come to Topgolf, which is fantastic, and we are working on ways to keep building the interest among women not just in Topgolf but in golf as a sport.
NYSJ: What genre does Topgolf fit into: Sports bar, sports entertainment, Dave & Busters or Buffalo Wild Wings with golf bays?
EA: Broadly speaking, it is experiential entertainment. We see Topgolf as being in a category of one. The places you mentioned are great companies, which we hold in high regard. But we are unique; we stand out from others that combine sports and entertainment. We are outdoors. It turns out people like being outdoors. And we have a 12-14 acre scale. So with a lot of room, we can go big. Big HDTV screens everywhere. Big entertainment platforms. So you can watch games and you can compete. We opened our flagship location in Las Vegas in May, which has taken us to another brand-awareness level and raised awareness among the public about Topgolf as a sports and lifestyle destination. In Vegas we have more than 100,000 square feet across four levels. We have a pool with a bar. A concert stage. More than 100 climate-controlled bays. So we have really evolved the sports and entertainment community.
NYSJ: Have you been able to monitor how long people spend in your locations?
EA: It is really designed to spend hours there, which we see most people doing. They come to eat, watch games, hack around a bit, as I like to say. Sit around with friends eating and watching games on TV and then going back to the bays.
NYSJ: Your company signed an alliance in May with the PGA Tour and LPGA to bring Topgolf to more golfers and more golfers to Topgolf. Is it too early to tell if people are aware of the alliance, and what marketing and other support activations do you plan to put the strategy into operation?
EA: It is early, but more people are becoming aware of Topgolf because of this alliance. The Topgolf Tour is our first big collaboration, with qualifying events (in August and September) and then the Topgolf Tour championship (Nov. 12-14) in Las Vegas. We are working on a lot of things to grow that and engage people. In markets where we already have or are planning to open a Topgolf location, there is the opportunity to tie into PGA Tour and LPGA tournaments and activities, with such events as parties for the golfers themselves, hosting sponsor functions and media events. We each have social media platforms that can bring people together and drive awareness. And with our TVs, we can show PGA and LPGA tournaments and help drive awareness. And we are looking into ways in which Topgolf would have a presence at the tournaments that take place towns where we have locations. So we are pretty excited about this.
NYSJ: Are people attracted by the technology that has taken golf into another level/platform?
EA: This has been a technology-driven company from the beginning, and we continue to add to that. In May, we acquired (Sweden-based) Protracer, which developed proprietary software that can do things such as track the flight of a golf ball, show its path on a video screen, register distance and analyze each shot. We have a lot of plans to enhance that with TopGolf Tracer. We love having that technology. We will be putting that into our venues as well as out on the courses. We will create more engagement for our audiences. We had the first Topgolf Tracer at the U.S. Open at the driving range, a virtual range experience. There is a lot of engagement there. So that will be a primary push for us as well as for the next year or two. We can well imagine more involvement, having more physical presence there and more brand presence. And that certainly is what (PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan) and our team wanted.
"Topgolf was created as a digital experience. We've been able to grow with the changing entertainment dynamics that are ripe for this generation."
NYSJ: You have hosted events such as the one with NFL quarterback Drew Brees in June in Topgolf Austin with The Brees Dream Foundation in support of pediatric and adolescent health care at the Dell Children’s Medical Center; and pro athletes from golf, the NBA and elsewhere have been to locations. Do you foresee signing any athletes, from golf or elsewhere, as official Topgolf endorsers?
EA: We've hosted the event with Drew Brees for two years and we did something with (NFL wide receiver) Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. And, as you said, we know a lot of pro athletes and celebrities come into our locations. Usher shows up in Atlanta quite a bit. Drake in Las Vegas. We are a young brand, a young company, that is growing. So I think you will see us working more on an official basis with tournaments and supporting players. We want to grow the whole game, so through the PGA Tour and LPGA these alliances might happen. Now we are also speaking with the PGA and the USGA and all of the golf organizations. But at the same time we have to be careful. There are only so many things you can do at once. We have 11,000 associates now and we could be at 20,000 by the end of next year. So there is a lot of growth. But we are committed to the young players and the game, both men's and women's, around the world.
NYSJ: With the NHL coming into Las Vegas, the NBA Summer League there and the NFL’s Oakland Raiders looking to move there, do you see the flagship Topgolf location as being a destination for a lot of pro athletes?
EA: It certainly has the potential to be. We already know that athletes and celebrities come in. We have been talking about hosting a celebrity event when the Topgolf Tour comes to Las Vegas. I can see some of them coming in to raise money for their (charity) causes. We want to engage athletes as to how we can use our venue to raise awareness among fans for good causes, which in turn raises awareness for Topgolf. We are a natural for that. That was a key strategy behind us acquiring World Golf Tour, which has more than 14 million (Web and mobile) players worldwide. It also is why we created Topgolf Media. We see it the way Red Bull built a media division and what Major League Baseball Advanced Media is doing. Creating an engaged audience all the time, not just in-venue. Building the lifestyle and the opportunities that come with it. And working with Topgolf International to build and develop the company and these plans around the world.
NYSJ: How have have people responded to the food and drinks?
EA: We have gotten a lot of great reviews. And we try to make it better every day. That is part of our goal. We have top chefs and the best drink offerings. To have the best experience for our guests. These partnerships with leading brands and entertainment companies and top entertainers is all about building this fantastic community to do good things. And for the communities we are in, to make sure people have a lot of fun and to keep growing the game.
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