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Guest blog: Colin McDougall on the possibilities of long drive

RT’s note: Regular guest blogger Colin McDougall is an educator in the golf industry who formerly ran equipment maker Accuform (and still plays Accuform blades!). After completing his MBA at Ivey, McDougall attempted to create a long drive concept called Thunderball, a concept he was very passionate about.  What follows is his discussion of the possibilities of long drive. 

Bob Costas: Good evening folks and welcome to our prime time feature segment where we speak with some of America’s greatest athletes right here on NBC.  I’m Bob Costas, and I’m pleased to be joined our special guest and two-time olympic gold medalist in snowboarding, Shaun White.  Shaun, what you do in the half-pipe is nothing short of amazing – that McTwist 720 is absolutely, dare I say, McUnbelievable!”

Shaun White: “Thanks Bob, it’s taken a ton of practice, dedication and focus to achieve this level of performance, not to mention a few Red Bulls. ”

Bob Costas: (nodding and grinning) No doubt Shaun, no doubt.  But my question and I think the question on the minds of most Americans when we see you perform on the slopes so impressively is: How well do you ski?

Shaun White: Excuse me?

Bob Costas: How well do you ski Shaun?  Skiers are, let’s face it, the lifeblood of downhill snow sports right? So how can we, from the more traditional alpine world truly judge your talent at coming down those hills unless we know how good a skier you are?

Seems like a ridiculous question doesn’t it?

Ask a Long-Driver what the first question they get is when someone sees them launch a 370 yard bomb on the driving range and you can bet it’s “nice drive, but what’s your handicap?”

Now, should you ever make a visit to the Re/Max World Long-Drive Championships you’ll see a lot of amazing talent hitting the golf ball unbelievable distances with incredible accuracy, but what you won’t see are greens, flagsticks, bunkers or water hazards.

Why is that?  Because like snowboarding is to skiing, so is long-drive to golf.  Similar enough in terms of equipment, held at the same physical locations but with an entirely different set of rules, focus and underlying intrinsic enjoyment.

The problem with long-drive has been its historical willingness to be treated by the golf community as a derivative of golf rather than what it really is – it’s own sport.

So, sadly when you go to that same Re/Max World Long-Drive Championship what you will see are guys dressed up like golfers, behaving like golfers while being commentated on and analyzed like they are golfers.

What a friggin’ waste!

Being put in the ‘carnival sideshow’ box such as it is by the golf industry establishment has absolutely throttled long-drive’s appeal while constricting its growth potential for over two decades now.

At the same time, other sports/pastimes have made minor changes or innovations to their formula only to see a stunningly meteoric rise in the sporting pantheon.

So why should equipment manufacturers look to long-drive as a source of growth?  Let’s take a look at some numbers and I’ll make that argument.

First, it’s important to know and understand just how important the driver is as a distinct product segment to equipment manufacturers. The reason it’s so crucial is that the driver offers the highest profit margin with the greatest turnover.   Golf consumers buy a new driver every year on average at an often hefty price tag, thereby creating a significant contribution margin for both the manufacturer and the retailer.

What you may not know is the average long-driver typically carries 6-12 drivers for competition purposes at any one time.  They also use much more expensive exotic shafts than regular golfers and break/repair/tinker with their clubs more often.  Therefore, a committed long-driver is equal to roughly 8-10 golfers in terms of driver purchases annually.

Second, long-drivers do in fact hit it considerably farther than even the longest guys on the PGA Tour.  The margin of difference between the top guys on the long-drive circuit in comparison to the tops on the PGA Tour is roughly equivalent to the margin between the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour – approximately 25-35 yards. Most importantly of all, they use legal, USGA approved equipment in doing so.

Third, the golf consumer ‘buys distance’ – or at least believes that is what they’re buying.  Having been a manufacturer for 10+ years myself I can tell you unequivocally that the vast majority of customers would pay almost any amount of money to hit the ball just a little bit further.

So, why don’t the guys who hit it the farthest have an influence on driver sales?

Good question.  I think there are several important reasons but the simplest answer is: they just don’t like it.  After all, it isn’t golf, right?  I suspect the golfing elite view long-drive the same way that ski brands like Salomon, Rossignol & K2 along with governing associations like the FIS (Federation Internationale de Ski) viewed snowboarding – and that is with disdain.  How else could a company like Burton come from nowhere and kick their ass in that product segment?  I mean, where exactly were these brands while this growing phenomenon was unfolding on the slopes right in front of them – were they off enjoying appertifs in the ski lodge for a decade?

I think another reason manufacturers haven’t gotten involved is that the sport has seen little to no growth over its 25+ year history.  Why invest substantial money in something that has shown no progress, right?  This is a logical, verifiable reason to hang your hat on when the topic comes up at the annual budget meeting I’m sure.  The problem with this past-as-sole-predictor-of-the-future thinking is that it completely misses the instances where small changes in approach were able to unlock enormous financial growth.

Here are two clear examples as to why the historical performance of a sport was not a strong predictor of its market potential:

 

  1. The UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), purchased by Zuffa Inc. comprised of brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and a guy named Dana White from near bankruptcy in January of 2001 for $2M is now valued at over $1.2B (that’s BILLION!).  The UFC had been around since its first fight held in 1993 but it took a completely different vision and approach by new ownership to unlock its true potential.
  2. The World Series of Poker was bought by Harrah’s Entertainment in 2004 after the ratings of the 2003 broadcast skyrocketed due to a seemingly minor change in its television production content.  The addition of a ‘hole-cam’ where viewers can see what cards are held by each player, and an algorithm that shares the odds of each player winning, connected viewers to the action in a new and incredibly compelling way.

Let me state clearly that there are lots of other contributing reasons for both sports’ respective rise in popularity – it’s never just one thing. But my point is that in both cases were one to judge the future potential of the sport strictly through the lens of their past, neither would be the industry behemoths they are today.

Now, it’s easy to fall into the ‘past performance determines future results’ mindset.  Heck, the entire US sub-prime mortgage fiasco was based on financial models utilizing that exact underlying assumption. So, golf manufacturers shouldn’t exactly be blamed for using the same approach when making its determinations on the future prospects of long-drive.

Having said that, if I were one of the big-name golf equipment brands, I’d be far more concerned about a brand like Krank (a long-drive focused driver company) because of their Burton-like position in a market that could explode at any time than I would be about my current competitors where change is measured in small increments of market share and everyone is playing by the same set of rules.

…..and hopefully for them it won’t be while they’re enjoying appertifs in the clubhouse!

 

Next time, I’ll share some thoughts on how long-drive can change its course to reap the rewards of its vast potential.

 

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Interesting approach. I think the analogy between golf / long drive and skiing / snowboarding is a weak one. Skiing and Snowboarding share the same basic challenge and enjoyment of getting down the ski hill. Both have nuances of technique and gliding in getting from A to B and the challenges a skier face are similar but different to what a boarder faces.

    The same is not true for long drive / golf. Golf has challenges of distance, touch, weather, hole dynamics, lies, wind, elevation to name a few. Long Drive is basically distance with wind. Weather never seems to be an issue (have never seen long drive competition in poor weather conditions), ball is always teed up, play is an open field (albeit with boundaries), no elevation issues, etc.

    There may be interesting challenges to the complexities of long drive but they are so subtle and not obvious to the viewer that it is difficult to appreciate, let alone enjoy when viewing. It appears to be tee it up and whack at it….which I know is not a fair perspective.

    And last, one the strong appeals of golf to the viewer is the ability for the everyday golfer to hit the same shot as the pros on TV. Sinking a sliding 10 footer is the same shot for Tiger Woods on Sunday as it is for the average weekend player (albeit without millions watching with big dollars on the line with a 13 stimp on the green) but the stroke is the same. How many golfers can hit a 400 yard drive?

    This is not to say that long drive cannot develop a broad appeal, it is just the analogy with skiing is questionable. Long drive may be its own sport but the challenges needed to overcome in order to convert it into one with mainstream appeal are significant.

  • W.E.

    Good note – obviously i disagree, and with proper marketing and education the viewer would be much more interested in the outcomes, especially when they come to learn the nuances involved in competing at a high level (and there are many).

    As for the analogy of snowboarding to skiing i’d suggest that it is apt on a host of key points but is mainly meant more as a means to show the conceptual box long-drive is stuck in currently.

    The challenge for most is that they can’t see what it can be, only what it’s been and I’m suggesting that a new approach (you’ll hear more on that next) may (i repeat may…) change that view and unlock some substantial value.

    Until next time!

    Thx!

    CM

  • Colin. You and everyone else knows why long drive hasnt grown. His name is Art Sellinger. The greed and shadiness at the top has killed the sport and most of the great competitors no longer compete.

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