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February 2019

Don’t Call it a Fad


Alternative play like FootGolf, FlingGolf, showing real revenue

By David Gould

Year after year, significant time and money gets invested in golf’s grow-the-game effort. Meanwhile, along come new twists on the sport and new waves of people interested in paying for access to the links. The “traditional” golf sector can’t claim it invented FootGolf, FlingGolf or even speedgolf, but so be it. What matters is the revenue and new customers these variations increasingly offer.

As they gain traction, the spinoffs do a good job explaining rules and techniques of play. They also make sure to publicize their national and even international championships. What’s tougher to locate is information on how to adapt an individual golf course’s business model to make room for these new formats — and calculate what the financial rewards might be.

Snowboarding is the obvious precedent for what’s happening. It emerged 20 years ago to energize the ski industry, representing a hybrid activity derived from surfing and skateboarding. In similar fashion, FootGolf is an offshoot of soccer; disc golf — played mostly in parks and forests, rather than at golf courses — comes from Ultimate Frisbee; FlingGolf is descended from lacrosse; and speedgolf is an offshoot of recreational distance running. Those are vast participation markets, each one a potential tributary flowing into golf’s revenue stream.

“Golf is the No. 1 elite sport in the world, for now and into the future,” says Roberto Balestrini, founder of the American FootGolf League and president of the Federation for International FootGolf. “But soccer is the No. 1 popular sport in the world, and over 25 million Americans play. That’s a huge opportunity for golf courses to tap into.”

Balestrini’s personal zeal makes him an ideal spokesman for soccer-meets-golf, while the managerial skills of his wife, Laura — CEO of the enterprise — drive the day-to-day business. As for that guidance mentioned above, concerning how courses can integrate something like FootGolf into their core business, she is an excellent source. Penetration of the U.S. market by FootGolf, she reports, comes to approximately 500 courses, at a fee level of $2,500 for 9-holers and $4,500 for 18-hole facilities. This covers regulation 52-centimeter cups, a supply of rental balls (a set of four is custom-colored so players know which is which) plus consulting on a range of factors from course setup to marketing to FootGolfer training.

Even if a golf operator isn’t currently primed to bring FootGolf in, they’re likely to take interest in the business patterns that have unfolded within the niche. For example, at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club Orlando, FootGolf drove $25,000 in revenues in 2018, marketed exclusively to corporate groups of 40 or more players. At Origins Golf Club Watersound, a short course within a gated resort community in the Florida Panhandle, FootGolf has caught on quickly and now accounts for 30 percent of rounds played.

“Most of their FootGolf play is from the surrounding community, not resort guests,” explains Laura. “That’s not something they’ve been able to accomplish with their traditional golf business.”

One other eye-catching data point from 2018 involves ball rental. At Tupelo Bay Golf Center in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, a lighted 9-hole par-3 course (that complements its executive-length, 18-hole layout) is heavily devoted to FootGolf and disc golf. Recently Tupelo Bay contacted American FootGolf to place a ball order. “They said they’ve had so much play that their original supply was worn out,” recalls Laura Balestrini. “While I was taking the order it came out that in 2018 they had done $20,000 just in ball rentals.”

Now in its ninth year of operation, the company is the most visible golf spinoff and one with high ambitions. Roberto Balestrini talks about the day when FootGolf-only courses will be purpose-built and not designed for the club-and-ball version of the game. One reason for that inclination is that coexistence with golf itself does call for compromise and juggling in many cases. But not at Hunt Valley Country Club in Phoenix, Maryland, where general manager Chris Deprospo has overseen a programming-driven expansion of what facilities like his traditionally offer.

Hunt Valley is private, strictly speaking, but its doors are thrown open to a wide audience via social memberships priced at just $136 per month per family, plus a menu of activities and events that the marketing teams at Chuck E. Cheese’s or Buster and David’s would be proud of. FootGolf and disc golf are important anchors of Hunt Valley’s appeal to moms, dads and kids. 

“Our big advantage is a third nine that’s very separate from the championship 18,” says Deprospo. “We can keep our FootGolf holes and disc golf targets in place at all times, and let everybody choose how they want to get around. From there we just get creative and take advantage of our food-and-beverage strength — you can’t get a table in our restaurant on Thursday and Friday nights.”

Haunted hayrides, a Santa Brunch, kids’ cook-offs, karaoke for the grownups, even a petting zoo in the ballroom with food trucks (minus the actual trucks) — it all adds up to the “cruise ship on land” philosophy that keeps Hunt Valley humming. 

Connecting the variant forms to “straight golf,” as Deprospo calls it, is a viable aim and well worth doing. “We do get grownups who jump right into FootGolf, have fun with it, then get the itch to play the original form of the game,” he says. “They start out as social members, allowed to play a round of golf per month, but at any moment they might be one great drive from getting hooked and needing to upgrade.”

The ultimate example of a variant form of golf that doesn’t require any directing of traffic by management is FlingGolf. The sport’s inventor and sole entrepreneur, Alex Van Alen, says FlingGolf rounds have been played at Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines and even the Old Course at St Andrews. “I’ve played many rounds of FlingGolf in the same foursome with people playing regular golf,” says Van Alen, who launched his idea in 2014 and has his own portfolio of 500-some courses where golfers carrying FlingSticks are a common sight.

One early-adopter facility, Woodstone Meadows in Massanutten, Virginia, recently hosted a 24-person family reunion that included a golf outing. “Twelve of the members played normal golf and 12 played FlingGolf,” says Van Alen, taking a measure of pride in his game’s contribution to family harmony.

The patented FlingStick, not available other than through Van Alen’s company, New Swarm FlingGolf, is the revenue source that keeps this spinoff chugging along. One end of it is for distance flinging and the other end for putting. The ball used is a standard golf ball.

For no particular reason Van Alen can discern, San Diego, Houston and eastern Virginia have been particularly adaptive markets — with his top performer doing $50,000 a year in FlingGolf green fees.

“We’re purely additive,” he asserts. “I played a round once with a guy who was hacking it up with his golf clubs miserably, and by the third hole he had switched to FlingGolf. But generally we represent people coming to the golf course who otherwise would never patronize it, including a lot of younger people.”

A customer with a FlingStick shouldn’t pay any less than a customer with woods and irons, according to Van Alen, except as an introductory rate to welcome players and build the business.

The same equivalency in rates doesn’t apply to Speedgolf, another growing offshoot of the Royal & Ancient game, because speedgolfer usage of a course is so much smaller a time demand. Rounds shoot by in minutes rather than hours, according to Garrett Holt, an active participant in Speedgolf, but also a PGA professional who runs the golf operation at Horton Smith Golf Course in Springfield, Missouri. Its sister course, Rivercut Golf Club, hosted the Missouri Speedgolf Open last year, and will do so again in 2019. Sunday mornings, “at first light,” a contingent of speeders goes off the first tee at Horton Smith — they certainly don’t hold up the regular golf play that comes afterward. The same crew also plays league Speedgolf at Rivercut on Thursday evenings. Even in the spring and fall they can go off at 7 p.m. and have plenty of time to cover 18 holes.

“Speedgolf play happens at off-peak times, and it’s over in one-third or one-fourth the time it takes for a golf round, so charging $15 or $20 when golfers are paying $50 is considered fair,” says Holt. It’s possible for one or two groups of speedgolfers to be on the course with regular golfers, he says, given how quickly they shoot past once they’ve been waved up.

“We’ll skip a green if the crew is mowing it, and we’ll cut to an open hole if we’re running into a block of regular golfers,” he says. “Speedgolf is still in need of acceptance, so the last thing we want to do is have golfers or staff members thinking we feel entitled.”

Course owners should take note that their facility’s instruction program can leverage the value of the variant forms. Veteran teaching professional Brendan Post, director of instruction at ClubGolf Performance Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is “at the liberal end of the spectrum when it comes to making golf easy for newer players, because you can always make it hard again.”

When he worked at a course that featured a FootGolf routing, Post would have his less-experienced golf students play to the tub-sized FootGolf holes, thus lowering the frustration factor. Other teachers have set up golf playing lessons on the format of disc golf for one hole, FootGolf for the second and regular golf for the third.

To circle back to the snowboarding comparison, it’s worth noting that snowboarding’s grand favor to mountain resorts isn’t delivering as it once did. The trade group SnowSports Industries America reported that snowboarding peaked in popularity in the 2011, declining in each of the next three years before rebounding modestly. Early-adopter ski areas can congratulate themselves for maximizing the value snowboarding has represented.

This is not to suggest that golf’s hybrid variations are destined to plateau or decline anytime soon, merely a reminder that opportunity doesn’t knock forever.  

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business.


Numbers that have golf course operators giving alternative play opportunities a second look.

25K -- Revenue driven by FootGolf at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club Orlando in one year

30% -- Percent of total rounds played accounted for by FootGolf each year at Origins Golf Club Watersound in Florida

20K -- Revenue in ball rentals for FootGolf at Tupelo Bay Golf Center in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina

50K -- Green fees collected last year at FlingGolf’s top performing course.


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