Cycling is the new golf. Don’t believe it? Just look at worldwide apparel giant Nike, which has exited the former sport while doubling down on the latter.
Much has been made about US President Donald Trump and golf. From campaign trail heckling of President Obama for his trips to the links, to Trump’s own (broken) promise to keep off the greens if elected, to the big revenue losses reported on Trump’s signature courses in Scotland, golf has, like it or not, been officially stamped with the presidential seal.
But Trump would be better off trading in his golf cleats for a pair of fancy cycling shoes, as, reflecting ongoing societal shifts, high-end cycling is now speeding ahead while golf keeps missing the fairway.
Last summer, as groundskeepers worked under August’s heat to keep their greens from browning, sports apparel giant Nike made a big announcement: after 20 years, the company was getting out of golf. Still planning on selling clothes and footwear for the sport, Nike decided that it would no longer be making golf clubs and golf equipment, citing declining sales and, effectively, standing as a sign of the times.
Nike broke into the game in 1996 by signing a $40 million deal with Tiger Woods, when golf’s fortunes were on a definite upswing. Courses were opening up all across Canada and the US, in line with rising real estate developments which prized properties that backed onto fairways and in hopes that even those retiring baby boomers who had never picked up a five iron would want to buy into the country club lifestyle.
Our dealer base has seen a significant spike in sales from business men and women who have made the transition from golf to biking…
For a while the plan worked, and participation numbers rose from 3.9 million Canadians in 1990 to 4.8 million by the mid-90s. But a changing economic and work climate coupled with demographic shifts spelled trouble for the golf industry. Today, the name Tiger Woods won’t be found at the top of the leader board, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother many millennials, apparently, who are not finding their way to the sport. “From the golf industry statistics, we know that rounds are down. We know that millennials are not picking up the game, and boomers are aging out. The game is in decline,” said Matt Powell of industry-research firm NPD, in response to the Nike decision.
While still Canada’s most popular participation sport, golf is in the midst of a significant claw-back. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of rounds played on Canadian courses fell 10 per cent, and golf courses in and around Toronto are now being sold off in a heady real estate market. No one seems to have the time nor the interest to spend the better part of a day strolling around 18 holes anymore. Plus, there are just too many courses.
“We built an awful lot of golf courses in the previous 25 years, and so the supply-demand balance got a little bit ahead of itself, and it happened to align with the weakest half-dozen years of fragile economy that we’ve had since the Depression,” said Jeff Calderwood, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association last year to the CBC.
“As a retailer, we’re finding people are coming in with more disposable income to put down on a nice bike,” says Marco Penna, who deals with special orders for the Cyclery bicycle shop in Ottawa. “They’re ready to spend the $8,000 for the bike, the shoes and the expensive helmet.”
Penna says that while some of the trend involves “more macho riders who want to show up their friends,” a good portion are also commuters and general fitness types. “You have the people in their 40s and 50s who are looking for a way to keep themselves fitter longer,” says Penna. “They want to extend their active years and biking can do that.”
Cycling also jibes with the trend in urban planning towards densification, environmental consciousness and developing neighbourhoods less around cars and more around walking and biking. By comparison, golf courses require vast swaths of land for use by a scant few people and need both pesticide treatments and constant watering.
A 2016 report by Lucintel predicted growth in the bicycle industry over the next five years, mostly due to increasing fitness consciousness, increasing traffic congestion and governments promoting cycling.
Keith Stark, who travels Western Canada as a sales rep for a high end Canadian bike company, says there are a number of reasons people are switching from golf to cycling.
“Our dealer base has seen a significant spike in sales from business men and women who have made the transition from golf to biking,” Stark says. “This tends to be more on the road bike side of the business, but we are also starting to see this growth from the same demographic group on the mountain bike side as well. I believe the health benefits, sustainability and lower costs have all contributed to this switch.”
The shift is worldwide, too. While China’s retail bicycle industry has suffered recently due to the rise in bicycle-sharing in the country, one portion that is expected to continue to do well is the higher-end and custom bicycle market. And in the United Kingdom, the retailer Halfords, which sells one in every three bikes in the UK, reported a 2015 rise in overall bicycle sales of 11 per cent, only to be outdone by sales of “premium bikes” which rose by 24.9 per cent.
And so, while the golf industry tries to figure out how to squeeze a leisurely chip and putt into the average work week, cycling, with its car-averse millennials and fitness-hungry seniors, looks like it’ll keep pedalling forward.