Jul 3, 2016

Throw out the golf clubs, it’s time to get on your bike

Golf was traditionally the game for those in management who wanted to network while off duty. 

It complemented the martini lunch of the Mad Men era. An 18-hole round was a six-hour opportunity to close a sale or build a business relationship. But now the sport appears to be facing challenges.

The up-and-coming generation of bosses are under more time pressure. Men are expected, quite reasonably, to devote much more attention to their children than in years gone by. And if they can spend only an hour or two away from the family, rather than almost the whole day, they want some real exercise because everyone is more aware of their health.

There are now about three times as many weekly cyclists as golfers. Brompton Bicycle — where I am a director — is even holding a racing world championship in London on July 30 for fans of its folding bikes.

Swimming, the gym and even triathlons are becoming more popular among aspiring leaders than a gentle stroll around the greens. Risk Capital Partners owns Zoggs, the goggles and swimwear retailer, which means we benefit from the fact that 2.5m people swim in this country every week.

In the past, golf generally represented a chance for male bonding at the club. In 2016 that sort of old boys’ get-together is deeply out of fashion. Corporate boards are expected to be diverse: the snobbish impression communicated by some in the golfing fraternity can be off-putting to women and the young. Start-up entrepreneurs are not completing deals on the golf course — they are probably doing it in an espresso bar. In terms of exercise, modern bosses are more likely to take up spinning or even yoga — very much unisex activities that provide a speedy workout or form of relaxation.

Moreover, golf is an expensive hobby, especially in southeast England. Maintaining a course is costly and, as membership numbers have declined, so fees have risen. Unless the game reinvents itself, I predict more courses will shut.

In Japan and America, historically the two countries where golf and business were mostly closely intertwined, golf club membership has been falling for more than a decade.

I played golf a lot as a teenager, but gave up because I was so out of practice I embarrassed myself on the course. Perhaps it would have been a useful business tool, but I worry that Millennials have no interest in the sport, so clubs are dominated by older men (like me), have tedious dress codes and discourage families.

Of course, sports come in and out of fashion, and golf will no doubt achieve retro appeal in years to come. Globally, it remains a big business. The market leader in American golf clubs is a public company, ClubCorp, with more than 3,400 holes, 430,000 members, 200 clubs and ebitda of about $250m (£180m). Acushnet, which owns the Titleist golf balls, clubs and accessories brand, is about to go public in America. But it is hardly a growth industry.

In my twenties I played a bit of squash, which was fairly popular then, and kept one pretty fit. Sadly, it has been in a slump for some years, but it will become trendy again.

Table tennis is already enjoying a revival: we recently opened a bar in Reading called Smash, with a floor filled with Olympic-standard ping-pong tables, and twentysomethings are queuing up to play.

I am pleased to see that tennis is also experiencing something of a boom. It has become one of the important activities for our travel business, Neilson. At our Mediterranean beach clubs we now devote far more resources to tennis coaching than a few years ago. Tennis can be both mentally and physically stimulating. The psychology of the game provides valuable lessons for business. In particular, in the amateur game, avoiding unforced errors can lead to victory — just return the ball and wait for your opponent to make an error.

The same principle applies to investing. Also, I have discovered that remaining focused on my winning shots — and not dwelling on my losing ones — improves my play.

Nowadays, for games to succeed they should be fun, unisex, fast moving and easy to play. The rules must be simple and the organisation of teams flexible. Informality is essential. People still enjoy the sociable aspects of sport, the competition, the exercise and the contrast from work. And relaxing while getting to know clients will always be a way of developing business connections.

Unfortunately, the one sport that seems de rigueur is football — usually watching it, rather than playing it. Any interview with a business person tends to include details of their favourite football team.

I would have to reply that I’m not a fan of any of them. Generally speaking I have no interest in watching sport; life is about being a participant, not an observer.