As you may have seen in today’s news, the purchase of EZLinks by NBC Sports Group merges the two largest online tee time agencies (OTTAs) into one entity. This puts into one set of hands the lion’s share (some estimate now over 90%) of the golf industry’s aggregated, online tee time inventory. Many details of how this will evolve are unknown, including if software platforms will be combined, if TeeOff.com and GOLFNOW will remain as separate brands in the marketplace, etc. I’m sure executives at both companies will be providing more details soon.
It is generally understood that the American economy is built upon healthy competition between and among suppliers. Customer value increases as multiple suppliers compete on service, features, price, etc. When two large competitors in one industry merge, concerns about customer impact are natural. The question that has always challenged the OTTA suppliers in particular has been, “Who is your customer, the golf course or the golfer?” Inevitably, executives at both organizations have said to me, “both,” but usually without conviction in their voices. And yet I sense this merger will be a big benefit to the golfer.
The OTTAs were built upon the inventory of golf course operators, without whom there would be no ability to sell to the golfing public through their platforms. Thus we see golf courses as the backbone and primary customers of the OTTA business. And yet, the economic model that has made these two, now-merging companies exceedingly successful is a model that continues to (in my opinion) weaken the average golf course, and by extension, our industry. The bartering of tee times in exchange for technology and marketing services has been a common practice in our industry for well over a decade. Yet it’s the price abdication (giving your OTTA the ability to price your inventory as low as 80% off, or even free) that allows for the rampant discounting and unnecessary imbalance in this part of the golf economy. We are seeing an increase in strategies and tactics to further monetize bartered inventory, which is only going to result in the further erosion of tee time pricing, and ultimately a commensurate revenue decline to the hard-working golf course owners and operators everywhere.
This merger of two of the largest brands in golf may result in more light shining on our great game and more choice, on one screen, for the golfer. It also may result in greater investments in their respective technology, used by thousands of golf courses. Yet I am not convinced it will aid the financial success of golf courses. My concern is the merger consolidates inventory and power to sell more heavily discounted and bartered golf. With the supply and demand realities in our industry, golf courses need no help in selling golf for less. Nevertheless, as I did with EZLinks CEO Gary Cohen yesterday, I look forward to stepping up our direct dialogue with the OTTA executives.
While the dealings between technology and marketing companies in the golf industry are outside the control and influence of golf course operators and NGCOA, what’s not outside of control is the ability to negotiate terms that are advantageous to your business. NGCOA continues to encourage course operators to engage in partnerships with software companies and tee time marketers only if they are clearly and indisputably advantageous to your business. Soon, we will be publishing a guide to better understanding the economics of bartering. As well, we will have workshops on the topic at the upcoming Golf Business Conference. In the end, we hope it will help you make more informed decisions about these ever-important practices.