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Growing a Game One Foot at a Time

HOT TAKE Hot Topics with Harvey Silverman

GolfBusiness Magazine, May-June 2022 Edition. Pages 22-25.


It's Not a Soccer Thing, And It's Not a Golf Thing. It's Both.

We read stories all the time about startup concepts and companies attracting millions of dollars of venture capital and launching in ways inconceivable decades ago when startups were funded by raiding the savings accounts of Grandma and Grandpa, other family members and friends. But for every huge success funded by other people’s money, there are successes achieved with dreams, guts, perseverance and pocket change.

The golf industry was floundering in 2011 with declining rounds and participation. As a result, golf course operators desperately searched for new means to raise revenue. Alternative forms of golf emerged like Fling Golf, Disc Golf and even a bizarre one using bow and arrow. But one other married the world's most popular sport of soccer with green-grass golf. Called FootGolf, it is now played in more than 40 countries, organized under the umbrella of the Federation for International FootGolf - FIFG.

What began as a grassroots (pun intended) dream of Roberto and Laura Balestrini has grown into an international organization on the cusp of broader acceptance with "observer" status with the Global Association of International Sports Federations, the first step to consideration by the International Olympic Committee. FootGolf is included along with dodgeball, kettlebell lifting, match poker, pole sports (settle down, guys) and more, representing the wide, wide world of sports. So where is Jim McKay when we need him most?

The American FootGolf Federation (AFGF) is the non-profit and governing body for the sport in the US and the exclusive member of the FIFG. The AFGF manages Team USA for any international team competitions and is co-founder of the Jansen Cup, a version of the Ryder Cup contested by US and Great Britain teams.

The first iteration of FootGolf in our country was the American FootGolf League (AFGL), to which courses hosting FootGolf play are connected. The AFGL runs competitions for both the amateur side of the sport, the US FootGolf Tour (USFGT), and the highest level of play with the AFGL Tour, where players compete for ranking points in the US, regionally (North and Central America) and a World Tour. All tournaments have a cash purse. The AFGL even has an app that lets players follow events and players worldwide in their languages.

Under Balestrini's guidance, major FootGolf events mirror those of real golf and soccer. The AFGL will hold its eighth US Open this month with its largest field ever of 200 worldwide competitors. It will coincide with the Jansen Cup mentioned above and the Pacific Trophy played between Team USA and Team Japan. Then, the fourth FIFG FootGolf World Cup happens in 2023, with 1000 players competing for ten days in individual and home-country team events. Team USA won the first Team Competition in the World Cup in 2016 in Argentina and placed third in the 2018 Team Competition in Morocco.

And where will this year's events and then the 2023 World Cup be held? How about Disney World in Orlando?

"We are proud to be hosting one of the American FootGolf League's major events and equally pleased to welcome international teams from the United Kingdom and Japan this summer," said Bruce Gerlander, general manager of Walt Disney World® Golf operated by Arnold Palmer Golf Management (APGM). "It's been a distinct pleasure for us to have played a leading role in supporting this relatively new and growing sport since 2018. "FootGolf has grown in popularity in recent years, and resort visitors can get their kicks playing FootGolf with a soccer ball on Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course in the late afternoons on select days. Players are provided a soccer ball for their use at no additional cost.

FootGolfers travel the country and find other golf facilities where their game flourishes. Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento, run by the venerable Morton Golf, was the first facility in Northern California to install FootGolf. Mike Woods, PGA Director of Golf and FootGolf (does the PGA have that moniker in its glossary?), told me, "The long-term success of Haggin Oaks is based on attracting the 90% of citizens who are non-golfers to our facility. We started this strategy in the mid-'90s, as it was clear that golf was on a slow decline.

“As a result, we built the Haggin Oaks Super Shop, a retail store for golfers and non-golfers, and the Haggin Oaks Pavilion for weddings and special events. And we started FootGolf in 2013 to attract soccer enthusiasts, families, and citizens who felt golf was too intimidating or expensive.

"FootGolf has been a huge success for us and continued to be a success through the Covid Years. We offer FootGolf on our Arcades Creek course after 1 pm, seven days a week. We are fortunate to have a wonderful community of FootGolfers passionate about the sport and play regularly. That includes employees like Nick Wallace, who has risen to be captain of FootGolf 's Team USA. And, we enjoy offering a unique kids' birthday party or corporate activity that is far more accessible to the average Sacramento citizen than golf. Our business is more diverse, and our customer base reflects the Sacramento Community much better as a result. We work to build long-term relationships with our guests and position Haggin Oaks as a ‘Community Asset’ for the entire Sacramento community, not just the golfers."

On the opposite coast is Crystal Springs Resort, in New Jersey, where vice president Art Walton watches a growing FootGolf business. "We added FootGolf at Crystal Springs Resort right after I read this author's article in another publication,” Walton said. “It was timely as we were experiencing under-utilization on a couple of our courses.

“It didn't take long before we had guests – singles, couples, and families – enjoying something they'd never done before – kicking a soccer ball on a golf course. In fact, we hosted the first professional FootGolf tournament in the US in 2014. FootGolf added another fun and revenue-generating activity to our resort, producing several thousand rounds yearly. My advice is, you don't have to love soccer. But you can bet lots of people in your area do, so give them a chance to spend some time and money at your facility playing FootGolf."

FootGolf has come a long way in ten years, from the Balestrinis barnstorming from the trunk of a car to recognition and legitimacy as a worldwide sport with outstanding golf facilities hosting people of all ages and types kicking soccer balls on fairways. I don't think we'll see it at Pebble Beach, Oakmont, Merion or Augusta National. Or any Trump National. But where it does exist, it will benefit from the exposure of upcoming events at Disney World. Dovetailing on that can mean new and incremental revenue for NGCOA members opening their courses to FootGolf. GOLFBUSINESS.COM


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