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.
With all due respect to Ferris Bueller, “The credit card processing world is changing pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
As operators of golf courses, you know merchant processing used to be a pretty predictable situation. Customers swiped their cards in that electronic brick on your counter. You reconciled the charges with your POS system. Your bank account received the funds in a few days. Monthly statements came in the mail that showed what you paid in fees. Rinse and repeat.
Reading those monthly merchant processing statements has always required a decoder, and it only got more challenging when PCI compliance came into the picture (fees for what?), different kinds of cards were being used (debit, rewards cards, etc.) and swiping took on a new meaning (at the counter? Online?). Each of these variables caused changes in rates (someone has to pay for all those cardholder rewards), but you trusted the system was treating you right. When it was revealed mysterious charges were levied on golf courses a few years back by one of the leading processors (who is now under FBI investigation), mistrust entered into the system. Eyes started opening.
It also used to be that every three days someone was knocking on your door to become your new processing partner, always promising lower rates. Now, it seems those visits have nearly disappeared, because courses find themselves limited to working with only the processors fully integrated into their golf management software (GMS) systems. The software companies have become the gatekeepers, and in some cases, you may not have a choice in who processes your payments. If you want to change processors, you may have to change GMS partners. I fear the limited choice stifles competition among processors, therefore allowing a situation ripe for high rates. In addition, I believe the GMS providers – and maybe even the OTTAs – are looking to merchant processing as a rail on which to ride new pricing schemes. For example, you may find some software providers offer “free” software, as long as you’re agreeing to use their merchant system. Just goes to show how much money can be packed into those fees paid by course operators. Twenty five cents here. Fifty cents there. It all of a sudden added up to tens of thousands of dollars by the end of the year. (Editor’s note: it’s better than bartering tee times for services and giving away price control!)
What I’m also seeing is a shift in who pays for merchant processing. Ever since a 2017 Supreme Court ruling that lifted the ban on surcharging (in most states), more and more merchants around the country are adding “surcharges” to their bills. The consumer may now pay 3 percent if he or she wants to use plastic. This will be interesting, because it’s been unpopular to be the merchant that charged fees for plastic-wielders, but why should all those loyalty rewards (airline tickets, gift cards, etc.) be paid for by merchants like golf courses? As a result of surcharging, courses may have more consumers willing to pay cash. Many private clubs have shifted processing fees to members paying for dues with plastic instead of ACH. The movement is on, folks. I just want you to be prepared.
Amidst all this, I’m pleased to let our readers know First American has just come on board as a new Smart Buy supplier for merchant processing. One thing we’ve learned at NGCOA is we need to be closer to this transactional business, and we are encouraging golf software companies to integrate with First American for two reasons. One is to inject choice into the formula – a good thing for golf courses. Currently, Jonas clients are able to choose First American, and we understand more GMS integrations are coming. The second is using First American ultimately results in supporting NGCOA and our work to help you succeed.
NGCOA is looking out for you. If you’re not a member, there’s been no better time to join. Join at ngcoa.org/join
Every town in America has dead retail space. You know what I’m talking about. The place that used to be a Walgreens. It’s been sitting empty for months – or years – with the “For Sale or Lease” sign in overgrown landscaping in the parking lot. Every time I see these vacant spaces, I think of golf. I think of the burgeoning “golf entertainment” business. I think of places like Beyond Golf Bar + Kitchen in La Vista, Nebraska. Or Venue on Main in Columbia, South Carolina. Places where the general public comes to play, eat and drink, or where the serious golfer can practice or play some amazing virtual golf on high-end simulators. Beyond Golf, by the way, has been doing this 10 years!
And then I think about owners and operators of the legacy businesses – the “real” golf courses. I think about how they perpetually look for top line growth in a relatively flat-demand environment. They do this through “revenue management” and marginal price adjustments to tee times, or maybe new events and outings. It’s tough finding new revenues in a legacy business. But, what if course owners and operators started to think about their businesses as something that could exist beyond the acreage they’ve been managing for years? What if the owners and operators of the legacy businesses went “off campus” and into those dead retail spaces? What if they breathed new life into those spaces with fun, food, beverage and golf?
Think about it. The owners of these dead retail spots are probably more than tired of never receiving a rent check. I bet they’re ready to strike a good deal with just about anyone. Imagine five, eight or 10 bays of simulators on the inside perimeter, with bar and food in the center. People of all ages, banging balls, laughing, having fun and paying an hourly rental fee. Who better to operate such a thing than the owners, managers and golf professionals of America’s existing golf courses? It’s a far stretch for some random entrepreneur to get into this business, but it’s barely an arm’s length reach for people who have been running courses for years.
The cross-pollination possibilities excite me the most. The golf course could promote their “off campus” business as a place to go at night or when it’s raining. A place where you bring groups for an hour or two of fun. A second location where the PGA professionals set up shop to teach lessons and engage those groups. A place where the high school team could practice, and then come back with their families on the weekends. And the folks who come through the off-campus location learn all about the golf course, how to make a tee time, how to transition to the green-grass experience, etc.
With a little gumption and a lot of understanding of lease agreements, code requirements for this kind of space, and access to people with an enthusiasm for the game of golf, this could be a reality. The legacy golf courses out there don’t have to lose out to someone else building and benefiting from “golf entertainment.” If they reach out their arms and grab it, existing course operators can be the ones who benefit (and who can probably run them better than anyone).
American Golf is doing it with Drive Shack. ClubCorp is doing it with Big Shots. Even a muni in Helena, Montana, is in on the action! Why can’t the Steve Graybills of the world do it with the Foxchase Golf brand? Steve and his family run a very robust public golf operation a few miles outside of Ephrata, Pennsylvania. I bet there’s a 5,000-square-foot dead retail space somewhere near downtown Ephrata itching for this. Imagine, if you will: “Foxchase Golf on Main.” I’m looking at you, Steve!
On a related note, NGCOA members save on GOLFZON simulators, if you’re looking to get into the golf entertainment revenue business! Click here to find GOLFZON in our Smart Buy family of partners.
“I don’t believe most golf courses need the OTTAs’ marketing services to meet the natural demand for golf in our marketplace, nor do I think they stimulate incremental demand for golf.”
Wow. Now that I read that a month after the print dried on the last issue of Golf Business, it sounds rather harsh. I think it’s because I’ve become friendly with a couple individuals trying to make a go of it in the Online Tee Time Agency world, despite my skepticism, and I don’t feel good about using my bully pulpit in ways that could damper anyone’s success in golf. It’s not the “golf way” to be so public with criticism like this.
Nevertheless, let me see if I can get this straight. We have millions of people interested in playing golf (apparently, “latent demand” is as high as it’s ever been), but who are not moved to do so. The volume of tee times and players have both declined since about the same time OTTAs came on the scene. The price of golf is cheaper than ever (compared to the Consumer Price Index).
Profitability is arguably tougher to achieve than ever. While the golf course economy has been living under black clouds (literally and figuratively), tens of millions of dollars annually are poured into OTTAs each year. Something is incongruent here. If you look at it from the bird’s eye perspective, how can you not be a skeptic?
Over the last three years, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve encountered a course owner who praised their OTTA. Rather, nearly every time the topic is broached, there are words of frustration, rolling eyes and shaking heads. The fact you can’t even have a conversation about OTTAs without an undercurrent of negativity tells us something is rotten in Denmark. Talk all day long about golf cars, insurance, balls, sticks, apparel, turf equipment, F&B, etc. and it’s all pretty copacetic. Mention OTTAs, and you’ll see the tone go south more quickly than Ohioans converging on Myrtle Beach in April. If these relationships were healthy, this simply would not happen.
A year and a half ago, the CEO of one of the OTTAs (who shall remain nameless) literally jabbed his finger in my chest and said (expletives omitted), “I’m sick and tired of NGCOA being anti-third party.” Let me be crystal clear. I’m not anti-OTTA. I’m just against anything that doesn’t clearly and unequivocally support the success of golf course operators. Or in the case of “disintermediary,” anything or anyone who comes between the golf course and the customer.
If OTTAs want to win my favor or (infinitely more important) the favor of the thousands of courses that also look upon you critically, here’s your simple recipe:
- Stop the incessant discounting. In the race to the bottom, you’re handing out the bibs, the running shoes and you’re manning the Gatorade stations.
- Abdicate your ability to price tee times. Let courses price their inventory against the natural supply and demand without your finger on the scale.
- Implement demand-generating marketing and technology aimed at bringing revenue that wouldn’t have happened without you. Prove to a course owner you’re bringing them new customers and increased play from existing customers. Don’t leave it up to the course to figure it out.
- Provide rich data on revenue and activity from the bartered tee times, so a course operator has transparency into the value of the relationship.
- Stop using a course’s own brand to market against it in search engines and on your own directories. When an OTTA uses a course’s name in the search engines to direct business to competing courses, how can you not shake your head?
When I started writing this, I was hoping to talk myself into a kinder position. But I’m not there yet. I need to be convinced the net result of all of this is a positive one – for every single course that participates, and for the industry as a whole. Until then, I ask my readers and NGCOA members – am I being too harsh? I’m a reasonable guy. Tell me what you think.
Post script thoughts since my column printed in the magazine:
- Some course operators shared with me that OTTAs may be more valuable to courses in destination markets, where a lot of golf is not local play. Point taken. Most golf is local play, and for that type of play, there is almost zero need (in my opinion) for online aggregators, except to facilitate booking of EXISTING demand. But how much should a course pay to help existing demand book golf through a disintermediary?
- What if OTTAs allowed courses to only post inventory they wanted help selling? Forget the high demand times. Who needs help with that inventory? Or, better stated, what if courses only gave OTTAs inventory they wanted help selling? In fact, isn’t that how a large OTTA got its start years ago – by helping golf courses out West sell their “junk” tee times? I’m certain hotels don’t give OTAs (like Expedia) access to all rooms for every night of the year. Hotels pick and choose what room types and how many can be sold on the aggregators.
- OTTAs can help an individual golf course build their database, that is true. But some might still make the course work for it (in addition to pay for it). If the golfer bought a bartered tee time, it’s still on you to get their data (shaking my head).
- Some OTTAs offer critical technology and services, and that’s really good stuff. The more advanced and helpful the technology can be, the better the course operations can be. There can definitely be symbiosis there. But accessing that technology should not necessarily involve selling tee times through the same company to get it. You can get some great technology from purveyors in our industry without having to open the kimono of tee time inventory, let alone give the OTTAs power to price YOUR golf.
- I had a laugh on the phone the other day with a great course owner. We were trying to establish the best analogy for these new dynamics. We settled on this: course operators want to have a faithful marriage with their members or customers. To nurture a long-lasting, loving, symbiotic relationship. OTTAs want to get in on the action too, but only by getting courses and golfers to have “open marriages” with them, and all the courses they are in relationships with. But is that really sustainable for the golf courses?
- In the tug of war of supply and demand (courses on one side trying to provide a quality product at a strong price, and golfers on the other side wanting a quality product at a lower price), OTTAs are providing the rope and saying they want to see both sides win. But is that just fantasy thinking? One side is just going to get stronger as it grows a following, and the other side will get tired and weaker from pulling and not getting anywhere. Course owners – do you think pulling on the rope is making you stronger and better? Or is it time to just let go of the rope?
I’m just asking the questions, folks. I’d love to hear from you. Tell me your OTTA success stories! Tell me your OTTA failure stories! We’re all in this together.
While there are promising indicators and progressive things happening in golf that cause me to be quite bullish about the long term prospects of our industry, the business of running golf courses in America – by and large – has been a slog for the past 15 years. The supply and demand curve has been moving in the wrong direction since before the Great Recession. Most experts agree the number of course closures will continue to far outpace course openings for the next decade. If you compare the average price of a round of golf ($38 according to We Are Golf) to the change in Consumer Price Index, golf is arguably cheaper than it has ever been. Pellucid Corp reports that 39% of golf courses in America operate in the red. Despite the challenges, I do not believe there is a macro, existential crisis (there are over 14,000 golf courses generating an $84B impact on the American economy). However, this is our current climate. It’s still a great business, but it is hard to succeed.
While the economic pie of rounds and revenue seems to shrink, one can’t help but notice the prosperous rise of Online Tee Time Agencies (OTTAs). With too many courses and not enough golf being played, the supply and demand plight naturally causes downward pressure on the price of golf, thereby creating conditions incredibly challenging for the typical golf course operator. Golfers can find affordable golf in every market in the United States. It’s a buyer’s market, plain and simple.
The OTTAs in golf claim to serve both the supply side (primarily through technology and marketing services to golf courses) and the demand side (primarily through easy booking of tee times for golfers). However, from my observation, their value is heavily weighted towards the needs and desires of the golfers – the aggregation of tee time options at multiple golf courses, all on one screen. I don’t believe golf courses need the marketing services of OTTAs to meet the natural demand for golf in our marketplace, nor do I think they stimulate incremental demand for golf. But that’s me. Unfortunately, despite the positive contributions to the game of golf from the parent companies and organizations affiliated with the OTTAs, the dominating push by the OTTAs to sell the lowest priced tee times, which conditions golfers to favor those times, is an albatross around the necks of the golf courses who provide the inventory.
Why “FREE GOLF” is detrimental to the health of our industry
If you are among the audience or followers of NBC, NBC Sports or the Golf Channel, you’ve likely seen the recent launch of the new GOLFPASS program. GOLFPASS is Golf Channel’s investment in the subscription model of services for their golfing customers. Leveraging the celebrity of Rory McElroy to give it serious fuel, GOLFPASS offers golfers one free round of golf every month, access to subscriber-only golf content, 400+ hours of instruction, travel credit at golf resorts, and more – all for as little as $99 for an annual subscription, or $9.99 per month.
As a subscription service, there’s actually a lot of value packed into GOLFPASS. It reminds me of Amazon Prime. For the low fee of $12.99 per month, Prime subscribers get free, two-day shipping on over 100 million items, exclusive access to favorite moves and shows, unlimited access to millions of songs, unlimited photo storage, free online gaming, and more. Compared to when free shipping was the only benefit, it’s easy to see why consumers are so attracted to the value package. Looking at GOLFPASS, there’s a lot of value packed into the offer. It will no doubt increase engagement in golf, and that is a good thing for all of us concerned about retaining interest and involvement in the golf economy. Although GOLFPASS marketing doesn’t appear to single out the free round as the primary feature (as free shipping has been the primary feature of Amazon Prime since the beginning), I cannot help but be fixated on the free golf. But I am biased, because I represent the supply side of the industry – the golf courses around the United States. Free golf is the fatal flaw for all the golf courses now inextricably and unwittingly involved in the program.
This Tweet was removed by GOLFPASS. It’s an example of the gluttonous posture towards golf courses.
Let’s attempt to follow the dollars and see what is happening. Joe Mulligan gives his Visa card number to the Golf Channel as a new GOLFPASS subscriber, and the Golf Channel bank account increases by $10 per month – automatically (and exponentially, of course) – while Joe likely forgets over the next four years that his card is even being charged buy fake id. Isn’t that the little secret of the subscription model – that the seller benefits from the “breakage”? Meaning, if Joe doesn’t actually – or frequently – use the benefits being offered, the Golf Channel still gets Joe’s regular monthly payment. Many companies – even golf courses themselves – are moving in this direction. Nevertheless, score one for the Golf Channel!
Joe gets his first monthly promo code from GolfNow and goes to GolfNow.com to book his free round of golf in the Orlando market, and claims his “Hot Deal” (free round promo codes can only be used on the bartered tee times, and only Mon-Thur after 12:00 pm). If the Golf Channel is lucky enough, Joe got his buddies to sign up for GOLFPASS, and they all sign up for the 12:08 p.m. tee time on Monday. Joe and his buddies enjoy their round of “free” golf, go home, and hope to do it again next month after GolfNow emails the next promo code. Score one for Joe and his buddies!
See how the monthly promo code reduced the price from $38 to $0. Price integrity be damned!
While incurring the costs associated with Joe’s round of golf, the golf course received no income and attracted customers whose primary motivation was to pay as little as possible. One can make an argument that the golf course scored by receiving some marketing and technology benefits (among other possibilities) from GolfNow in exchange for no-revenue, bartered tee times. And some might argue that Joe and his buddies are going to buy some hot dogs and beer while on property. But I think that is a dubious position (more on that later). So for argument’s sake, I say the golf course scored zero.
No matter the deal or the no deal between golf courses and GolfNow, the last thing our industry needs is major corporate media promoting free golf to the masses on the back of golf course owners and operators. OTTAs are already adept at peddling rounds of golf at 20-80% off the rates of adjacent tee times on the tee sheet. Do golfers now need free golf in order to play? Is it hyperbolic to think the only natural progression after free is that golf courses will one day have to pay golfers to play their courses?
GolfNow’s first Tweet after the media launch of GOLFPASS. Notice the emphasis on FREE golf.
If GOLFPASS is wildly successful, it could very well mean millions of rounds of free golf being played all across the land, while golf courses continue to bear the burden of the significant fixed and variable costs needed to keep the golf courses running. The shrinking effect on the bottom line will be harmful at best and devastating at worst, leading to greater struggles and possibly more closures of good golf courses. How would this ultimately good for the golfer? How is this good for anyone in golf, including employees that work at golf courses and vendors that partner with golf courses? What about the housing development adjacent to those courses now offering free golf? Are they looking forward to viewing fallow land out their back windows?
Why bartered golf is the kryptonite weakening our industry
We cannot separate the danger of free golf from the fact that over 6,000 golf courses willingly provide the bartered inventory to allow this to happen. Barter itself is not an evil concept. As a method of exchange, it dates back to ancient times. If bartering involves the fair trading of goods or services between two willing parties receiving comparable value in the exchange, there is no problem. However, a “haze of ambiguous value” clouds the entire barter economy in golf, thereby preventing course operators from truly understanding what they are giving up in this exchange.
OTTAs that offer barter to golf courses as a compensation option are not evil per se. OTTAs, like GolfNow, capitalized on an incredibly clever business concept that was once much more discreet in nature. Before the meteoric rise of GolfNow as we know it today, the lowest-demand tee times were once peddled only through vehicles like email, where a golfer couldn’t easily compare the discounted rounds against all the other rounds in an aggregated view.
When the bartered round of golf was made the centerpiece of the relationship in an online environment, which included handing over partial or total control of pricing to the OTTAs for those rounds of golf, the OTTAs found themselves sitting on a treasure trove of inventory over which they had partial or total price control (certainly the fatal flaw operators have made over the years in these dealings). The decade around the Great Recession only made the conditions more conducive to build this treasure trove, because they were offering services for no cash-out-of-pocket. There might be nothing more seductive to a cash-poor business that runs below 50% occupancy than free technology and marketing. Thus, the permeation and influence of the OTTAs spread like a viral infection in our weakest moments. Some argue that the bartered inventory did nothing more than create new, virtual golf courses that compete directly against the very ones that supply them with their inventory. Research from the Golf USA Tee Time Coalition reveals that 47% of golf courses participating on OTTAs believe they are in direct competition with their OTTAs (an additional 26% are on the fence). Unfortunately, Coalition data also reveals that golf courses that barter don’t appear to be ready to give it up. While more than half of golf courses do not agree that barter should be a payment option in our industry, 86% of those who barter would prefer it to continue. These relationships are complicated, to say the least, and wrangling back control of pricing and inventory is going to be its own slog.
The ORCA Report, which has approximately 700 public golf courses sharing performance data every month, yields one of the most important data points in our industry and helps to remove the haze: Barter Opportunity Cost. BOC indicates what income a golf course might expect to earn had they sold those bartered rounds on their own (at an average price based on the price sold of adjacent tee times). Early insight into ORCA data coming from nearly 400 golf courses engaging in barter reveals an average of $37,000 in BOC for 2018. I recognize that golf courses participating in barter might not sell all of those tee times on their own, and OTTAs are not getting full price for those rounds. But this certainly gives you an indication of what the recapture could be if golf courses employed better marketing and price controls.
One real course example of Barter Opportunity Cost in 2018 – nearly $90K.
OTTAs do anything they can to monetize those bartered rounds, including the use of discount codes, gift cards, and now subscription. They’ve moved from gluttony (who remembers the rap video at the GolfNow sales meeting about selling boatloads of trade time?) to desperation (free): both deadly sins in business. All this on the backs of golf course owners and operators. I am gravely concerned that price abdication by golf courses and the prolific offering of heavily-discounted and free golf will grease the already-slippery slope towards struggle and possibly more course failure. What the golf industry desperately needs are these OTTAs to emulate the restaurant industry’s OpenTable, which facilitates no discounts or free meals. The OTTAs should have no influence on price. Let the courses compete on their own merits, and just give the world frictionless, beautiful aggregation and ease of booking – and get out of the way.
Each bartered round sold that strengthens the OTTA simultaneously weakens the golf course. The parasite-host relationship is not symbiotic.
Later this season, NGCOA will publish a guide for course operators interested in understanding the details of barter. This resource will take a comprehensive look at the economics of barter in our industry, services offered in exchange for barter, prices that can be paid for such services, tips for negotiating healthy contracts, and more tools and knowledge to help course operators calculate the cost-benefit equation. The manifestation of GOLFPASS and marketing of free golf should cause course operators everywhere to take a fresh look at their dealings. At the very least, explore what the pay-to-play options are, and calculate your BOC. Talk with your neighbors. Have you gone on and off barter and have a positive story to tell? Please share it with us. Course owners and operators: we have to stop whistling past the graveyard and end this race to the bottom.
Chief Executive Officer
National Golf Course Owners Association