While golf purists still head to the traditional driving ranges and practice greens at their local golf course to practice their skills, a new golf entertainment paradigm with a broader-based appeal has been gaining traction at locations all across the United States.
The latest thing in golf-related entertainment combines golf shots with jello shots; it’s a place where a chicken wing doesn’t necessarily refer to a flying right elbow in your backswing; and where the person in the next bay is more likely to ask you to crank the music up than to turn it down. It’s called Topgolf.
Texas-based Topgolf Entertainment is the originator and exemplar of this new type of golf entertainment center, and their success has not gone unnoticed – and while the Dallas-based entertainment company has a big head start in the field, competition is starting to crop up.
Born in the U.K., Topgolf blossoms in the U.S.A.
The Topgolf brand was the brainchild of English twins Steve and Dave Joliffe, who dreamed up the entertainment-based model after they grew tired of waiting in line at London-area driving ranges. After its start in Great Britain in the early 2000s, Topgolf jumped the Atlantic and began expanding in the United States. After initial openings in the Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Dallas metropolitan areas, the franchise has opened facilities in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Kansas, Utah, Oregon, California and Nevada – 27 locations in all. The company’s strongest presence is in Texas, thanks in part, no doubt to their now-Texas-based ownership.
The company’s success is based on a formula that is basically a golf-based, 21st-century update of the venerable bowling-alley paradigm, combining food, music and socialization around a basic sports activity which can be pursued as competition or just for fun.
A Topgolf range is sort of a driving-range-size high-tech dartboard laid flat. Players hit micro-chipped golf balls at targets on the range, where their distance and accuracy is automatically tallied. Results can be counted up just for bragging rights with friends and colleagues, or for scoring within the various competitive leagues that the venues support.
More than just a golf-based, bowling-alley concept
In addition to the high-tech golf shots, Topgolf pulls out all the stops when it comes to food and drink, too. Far from the pedestrian “beer, burgers and fries” menus of the old-school bowling alley example, Topgolf locations boast food and drinks menus that rival the best high-end sports bars. In many ways Topgolf venues are like sports bars – but with the added attraction of a fun, high-tech sports activity that patrons participate in rather than just watch on big-screen TVs – and they are also family-friendly.
Topgolf embraces the social connectivity which is so important to the fast-growing “millennial” demographic with its social leagues, catering to a wide range of players. While fewer than half of Topgolf customers play traditional golf on a regular basis, about one-third play monthly and about a quarter play weekly. The company averages 35,000 visits per day across its 27 locations nationwide, with a 2-to-1 male-to-female ratio and with just over half of their visitors in the coveted 18-34 age group.
Success breeds imitators
With the kind of success that the Topgolf franchise is having, it’s no surprise that there is competition springing up. Currently two new franchises have sprung up hoping to get a piece of what Topgolf’s success has shown to be a lucrative market.
The first challenger on the horizon is Tulsa, Okla.-based Flying Tee, a 53,000 square-foot venue which follows a concept that is similar to Topgolf, but with a few important differences.
Flying Tee, which was started by a trio of longtime Tulsa-area friends – brothers John and James Vollbrecht, and Ryan Tawwater – with backgrounds in high-tech, hospitality and golf, brings those worlds together in their three-level facility. Flying Tee differentiates between sports-bar, date-night-style dining ambience, and private-suite accommodations on its three levels, allowing patrons to choose from a variety of experiences.
The second, and newest, aspirant to a piece of the golf/entertainment pie is the Drive Shack, a three-story, 66,000-square-foot dining and entertainment complex which is planned for the Sports and Performance District in Lake Nona, Fla. Yes, that Lake Nona: The high-end central-Florida town which boasts residents from the golf world elite such as Ernie Els, Annika Sorenstam, Sergio Garcia, Nick Faldo and many others.
Plans call for the Drive Shack to have 90 outdoor driving bays – with published plans showing a range setup very reminiscent of the Topgolf “electronic target” model – as well as a restaurant, bar, shops, a lounge and rentable event space. The most intriguing thing about the Drive Shack, though, is not the location or the layout, it’s the identity of one of the companies behind the project – TaylorMade, which is squaring off in this new arena against one of their biggest rivals in the golf equipment market, and now in golf-based entertainment, Callaway Golf.
Topgolf’s success will undoubtedly spawn more imitators, but their head start in the market may be a hard act to follow. These venues are large, land-intensive operations which require specialized facilities and are generally located within high-cost districts, posing a certain level of risk for business developers looking to tap into this lucrative market. However, as the appeal of the sport’s “young gun” stars reaches out across a broader demographic, reaching beyond the core market of dedicated golfers to more casual participants in the game, the appeal of this popular mix of golf, food, and fun is certain to grow.
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