Introduction

COVID-19 turned the international sports world upside down almost overnight and represents, therefore, a significant market shock to sports. For the first time, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic is giving global sports a timeout, and it will, as initial figures show, almost certainly lead to a global economic crisis (Mohr et al., 2020). In March 2020, professional and recreational sports worldwide came to a standstill within a few days as mass gatherings, whether for music, religious purposes or sports, have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 (Memish et al., 2019). In that month, the World Health Organization confirmed that COVID-19 had reached pandemic status (WHO, 2020). As there existed long time no effective vaccine, COVID-19 has also generated a new set of unknowns and uncertainties in the context of sports (Ludvigsen & Hayton, 2020). Consequently, COVID-19 has impacted sports at different levels, elite, community and grassroots (Parnell, Bond, et al., 2020), so that many (major) sports events around the world have either been cancelled or postponed to reduce transmission through close contact among spectators or athletes (Clarkson et al., 2020; Toresdahl & Asif, 2020). For the first time, the Olympic Games were postponed to the next year. Even during the World Wars, sports and (especially) football stopped completely in only a few countries for some time periods (Tovar, 2020). Additionally, also non-profit amateur sport clubs had to close immediately, in many cases mid-season, to comply with physical distancing and shelter-in-place restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Doherty et al., 2020). In Germany, as in other countries or regions, due to the risk of infection, the sports world stood still for several weeks, starting on March 13. The aim of this procedure was social distancing to protect society and lower the infection rate by delaying the spread of an outbreak until a drug or vaccine became available (Ebrahim et al., 2020; Pandey et al., 2014).

However, the first lockdown had dramatic (economic) consequences for sports stakeholders. All physical sports in clubs or leagues were stopped, such that the sports clubs could no longer generate any income. While some professional sports leagues stopped their competition for the season completely (e.g., German handball and ice hockey league, French football league), the German Football League (DFL) organized a restart of the Bundesliga without spectators given the amount of income derived from sponsorship and television rights (Huth & Kraus, 2021; Webb, 2020). However, this measure was the best way to implement the strategy of social distancing (Duarte Muñoz & Meyer, 2020). However, economic despair also spread significantly in grassroots sports. In just Bavaria, a state in southern Germany, the COVID-19-related deficit of sports clubs is over 200 million euros (BLSV, 2020; Huth, 2020). Sports clubs that have to bear high fixed costs are particularly affected. These include golf courses, for example.

However, despite the negative (economic) impact of COVID-19 on sports, initial trends show that sports can also benefit from the current restrictions, at least in the medium to long term (Weed, 2020). Many people have an increasing desire to be “outside” and to be active there beyond their everyday movements, which have been far more curtailed than usual. Second, Weed (2020) adds that there is also a growing understanding on the part of politics about the importance of sports – active sports with physical activity and passive sports through watching sports – for human wellbeing.

One sport that could benefit from these trends, especially from the first, is golf. Golf is played outdoors in areas that – for 18 holes courses – measure the size of 65 to 100 soccer fields. It is also contactless, and a maximum of four people play together on a golf hole that measures several hundred meters. On an 18-hole golf course, which often exceeds a total length of 10 km (with paths between the golf holes), a maximum of 72 people play at full capacity at the same time. This shows that a sport such as golf is perfect in times like these when distance between players is to be maintained as far as possible.

In the context of the second argument, golf can deliver a moderate level of physical activity and therefore, regardless of age, have a positive health effect. Proponents of health-related initiatives in golf point to the many benefits that golf can generate for health and well-being (Huth & Breitbarth, 2020). Therefore, golf can be seen as a multimodal recreational activity that can be played across the lifespan (O’Donovan et al., 2010; Stenner et al., 2016). Golf allows individuals with a wider degree of mobility and fitness to be able to access and participate in the sport (Murray et al., 2017). Playing and simultaneously walking a golf course is considered moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise, and a round of golf can satisfy the guidelines for weekly cardiovascular exercise (Broman et al., 2004; Stauch et al., 1999). Similarly, Driver (1996) shows that the personal golf-related health benefits include physiological health and preservation, increased self-confidence and enriched cognitive performance. Finally, golf requires social engagement – both on course and off course (the “19th hole”) – which has been reported to help golfers make friends, develop support systems, facilitate communication and simply have fun (Berlin & Klenosky, 2014; Stenner et al., 2016; Wood & Danylchuk, 2011). In this context, Sorbie et al. (2020) show that golfers scored significantly higher on social trust and personal wellbeing compared to nongolfers. However, it should be noted that the positive golf-related effects are only known to golfers and less to nongolfers (Huth & Breitbarth, 2020).

Despite providing safe (i.e., outdoor and social distanced) environment, German golf courses also had to close for several weeks – depending on the respective federal state – during the first lockdown in spring 2020. This is likely to have made the economic situation of many golf courses even worse. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 50% of commercially run golf courses were making losses (Billion, 2020b). According to initial estimates by Billion (2020a), the lockdown should have resulted in economic damage of around € 1,000 per day. Golf courses are among the most expensive facilities for mass sports participation, with high fixed costs for maintenance, so it is necessary to rely on continuous income flows when operating a course (Huth & Kurscheidt, 2019). The maintenance of a golf course (golf course maintenance, building maintenance) typically amounts to more than 50% of the total costs (Billion, 2019). In addition, there are replacements and new investments for the maintenance and improvement of the golf course. Additionally, personnel costs and energy costs, which are increasing from year to year, as well as land lease costs, must be considered.

On the income side, memberships and green fees are the key sources of revenue for golf clubs. In the European golf market, membership fees account for 52% of total revenue; together, membership and green fees account for almost 70% of total revenue. Other sources are food and beverage income, driving-range fees and golf lessons (Sport Marketing Surveys, 2013). As golf has traditionally provided strong value to corporate sponsors (Lyberger & McCarthy, 2018), golf clubs can generate sponsorship incomes for club tournaments. Moreover, the revenue from membership dues is most attractive for course suppliers because these fees guarantee a revenue stream to cover costs that is independent of factors such as weather conditions during the golf season.

The aim of this article is to examine the impact of the Spring-2020 shutdown of German golf clubs. The three research questions for the study are:

  1. To what extent did German golf club managers support

    a) the shutdown of German golf club and

    b) The length of the shutdown

  2. To what extent did German golf club managers perceive their clubs should shut down in solidarity with other sport organisations

  3. To what extent did the shutdown impact club revenues and costs?

The study examined, on the one hand, whether commercial and member-run golf clubs differ from one another. Dickson & Koenigsfeld (2018) show that they have different (commercial) goals. On the other hand, it also examined whether the length of the lockdown had an influence on acceptance and the general economic effects. Because of the federal system in Germany, there were differences in the length of time the golf clubs were closed. In some federal states, golf was allowed to be played again in April; in other federal states, it was not permitted until May. For the empirical analysis, golf clubs were invited to take part in an online survey.

The first contributions addressed the topic of sports and COVID-19 from a theoretical-conceptual or commenting perspective and made a first classification of the consequences (e.g., Clarkson et al., 2020; Parnell, Bond, et al., 2020; Parnell, Widdop, et al., 2020). This contribution approaches the topic empirically. Additionally, the first contributions focused exclusively on team sports, especially soccer. We dedicate ourselves to an individual sport in the context of COVID-19 in this article. As already described, golf clubs are an interesting and exciting field of application in grassroots sports due to their cost structure, which cannot be suspended from one point to another point. The results should help classify the economic consequences golf clubs in particular but also sports clubs in general have to bear due to COVID-19.

The article is structured as follows: First, we describe the methodology. Afterwards, the results are presented and discussed. Recommendations for action are also formulated within the discussion and the conclusion. At this point, social mega trends are also considered, which could potentially boost golf despite COVID-19, provided that these are considered by various stakeholders in the golf business. Finally, we raise questions and topics for future research projects.

Methods

The study follows a direct, primary empirical research design that focuses on German golf clubs. A standardized online questionnaire was designed for the primary empirical investigation, and for time and cost reasons, it was placed online via the Qualtrics survey tool (Li et al., 2008; Wright, 2005). The questionnaire can be roughly divided into three parts:

  1. Sports and golf-specific questions about COVID-19

  2. Questions about the short-, medium- and long-term economic impacts of COVID-19

  3. Club-specific questions

In the first part, the golf clubs were first asked how many weeks their golf course had closed due to the official lockdown [WEEKS_CLOSED]. The golf clubs were then asked to evaluate four statements about COVID-19. The first question asked whether the official measure to temporarily close the golf courses was appropriate [TEMP_CLOSE_GC]. Then, it was assessed whether the length of time the government implemented the closure of golf courses was reasonable [LENGTH_CLOSE_GC]. Since some golf clubs were pushing for an exemption for golf as golf is an outdoor sport with lots of space, it was asked whether it was right that golf showed solidarity with other sports [SOLIDARITY_GOLF]. It has also been said on several occasions that golf can benefit from the crisis and generate new members. Therefore, it was asked whether the early opening of golf courses compared to other sports would lead to an increased number of previous nongolfers [INCREASE_NEWGOLFERS]. Finally, the golf clubs assessed to what extent the official closure of the golf course due to the COVID-19 crisis had affected the golf clubs economically [IMPACT_CLOSE].

In the second part of the survey, the golf clubs were asked first to assess the extent to which there were declines in revenues in the following five areas during the lockdown: green fee [DECLINE_GREENFEE], tournament funds [DECLINE_TOURNAMENT], sponsorship [DECINE_SPONS], pro shop [DECLINE_PROSHOP] and food and beverage [DECLINE_GASTRO]. An identical question was then asked with a medium- to long-term – after lockdown – perspective. Membership fees were not included despite their importance for golf clubs, as they are on most courses collected at the beginning of the year, and the lockdown for this was simply too late. Finally, on the expenditure side, the golf clubs were asked to indicate the percentage of normal operating costs the clubs continued to pay during the closure. In line with Billion (2020c), the following costs were considered: Wages and salaries [COSTS_SALARY], leases and rents [COSTS_RENT], room maintenance costs (electricity, water, etc.) [COSTS_ROOM] and golf course maintenance costs [COSTS_GOLFCOURSE].

In the last part of the questionnaire, the golf clubs were asked what legal form they have [LEGAL], whether they have a club manager [MANAGER], how many members they have [NUMBER_MEMBERS] and how many members are full-paying [FULL_MEMBER].

Regarding the evaluation of the selected items, the participating golf clubs mostly answered questions on a 5-point Likert scale (e.g., from 1 = do not agree to 5 = agree). Such scales have been widely used because they best reflect the preferences of participants (Dawes, 2008; Li et al., 2008; Revilla et al., 2014).

In the data analysis, we deliver descriptive data as well as bivariate results. The legal form of the golf clubs is considered because of the different goals between commercial golf courses and member-owned nonprofit clubs. We expect that the consequences of the lockdown are higher for commercial golf courses than for member-owned clubs, as the former have profit-making intentions (Dickson & Koenigsfeld, 2018). Therefore, in addition to the general descriptive results, the results of the mean value comparison and the mean values of both considered groups are listed in each table. Second, we also examine the extent to which the length of the lockdown affects golf club responses by pairwise correlation.

Representatives of German golf clubs are surveyed. The German golf market contains a total of 722 golf clubs (Billion, 2020c). All golf courses in Germany for which the author obtained a functioning electronic address were contacted by e-mail (n=580) with a request to forward the message either to the manager or to a responsible person. The clubs were asked to select the person best versed in this subject. At the club level, only golf clubs with a golf course with at least nine holes were contacted. This criterion excluded golf facilities with, for example, only exercise facilities, such as a driving range or a short course. Approximately one and a half week after the first e-mail, the clubs were sent a reminder about the survey. The questionnaire was available for nearly three weeks after the lockdown ended in all federal states (May 10th to 28th 2020). Participants from 87 golf courses completed it (a participation rate of 15% of the contacted clubs). Of the participating golf clubs, nearly two-thirds had the legal form “e.V”. (registered association), and 72% of the participating clubs employed a club manager (63% of member-owned nonprofit clubs and 88% of nonmember-owned for-profit clubs). On average, the participating clubs had approximately 770 members – typically with more members in commercial clubs. Furthermore, 66.7% of the club members were full members – with slightly more full members in member-owned nonprofit golf clubs.

Results and discussion

The descriptive and bivariate results of the study are presented below. The sequence roughly follows the course of the survey described in the previous section.

Table 1 shows that German golf clubs had to close approximately seven weeks during the first lockdown. The temporary closure of the golf clubs met with moderate approval from the clubs themselves. The length of the closure, however, met with clear disapproval, especially at the commercial golf courses. However, it must be said that in the present sample, these clubs were also closed longer, on average, than the member-owned golf clubs. Overall, the golf clubs support that there was a certain solidarity between the different sports. A closer look at the data shows that solidarity is independent of the clubs’ specific characteristics (e.g. legal form, manager, number of members). However, solidarity correlates significantly positive with LENGTH_CLOSE_GC as well as TEMP_CLOSE_GC and significantly negative with WEEKS_CLOSED. Solidarity between golf and other sports is essential in Germany, as golf is still often viewed from nongolfers as an elitist and a sport for the rich and the elderly (Huth & Breitbarth, 2020). If golf had broken out of solidarity (too early), the already bad image would have been further damaged. Therefore, it was good and reasonable, at least for strategic reasons, that golf showed solidarity at the beginning of the pandemic. However, the golf clubs did not expect any positive effects on the members. In conclusion, it turns out that the lockdown had a (negative) influence on most golf clubs.

Table 1: Golf clubs’ attitudes towards COVID-19
Mean Std. Dev. Min Max Two-sample Wilcoxon rank-sum Mean member-owned Mean nonmember-owned
WEEKS_CLOSED 7.30 1.13 4 9 0.0499 7.11 7.68
TEMP_CLOSE_GC 3.46 1.40 1 5 0.5541 3.40 3.53
LENGHT_CLOSE_GC 2.10 1.29 1 5 0.0513 2.23 1.81
SOLIDARITY_GOLF 3.83 1.31 1 5 0.2277 3.94 3.59
INCREASE_NEWGOLFERS 2.23 0.96 1 4 0.7451 2.27 2.19
IMPACT_CLOSED 3.61 0.83 2 5 0.0439 3.48 3.84

For this reason, it is understandable that the German Golf Association in particular campaigned with various initiatives to allow golf courses to reopen as quickly as possible (Golf1.de, 2020). As already mentioned, according to Weed (2020), people’s will to engage in activities in nature became apparent during the COVID-19 lockdown. Golf, which takes place in the middle of nature - often far away from populated areas - would actually be a very good environment in this way. However, the understanding of this differed across states, such that, as the results show, there were significant differences in terms of the length of the lockdown.

Table 2 shows that for all of the sources of income considered, there were – in some cases massive – decreases in income during the COVID-19 lockdown. The declines were particularly serious in green fee income, the second most important source of revenue. With the exception of sponsorship income, there were no significant differences between the member-owned nonprofit golf clubs and commercial golf courses. In the medium to long term, the golf clubs expected that the income situation would remain tense. Significant differences between the golf clubs in the expectations of future revenue development could not be determined.

Table 2: Impact of COVID-19 on revenues and expenses
Mean Std. Dev. Min Max Two-sample Wilcoxon rank-sum Mean member-owned Mean nonmember-owned
DECLINE_GREENFEE 4.91 0.29 4 5 0.1000 4.88 5.00
DECLINE_TOURNAMENT 4.61 0.89 1 5 0.4109 4.56 4.78
DECLINE_SPONS 3.40 1.48 1 5 0.0480 3.19 3.84
DECLINE_PROSHOP 3.72 1.60 1 5 0.9577 3.73 3.75
DECLINE_GASTRO 4.08 1.43 1 5 0.2626 3.98 4.31
DECLINE_GREENFEE_LT 4.06 1.28 1 5 0.6806 4.10 4.00
DECLINE_TOURNAMENT_LT 4.24 1.22 1 5 0.7312 4.19 4.38
DECLINE_SPONS_LT 3.65 1.33 1 5 0.1964 3.52 3.94
DECLINE_PROSHOP_LT 3.29 1.51 1 5 0.2641 3.15 3.53
DECLINE_GASTRO_LT 3.60 1.50 1 5 0.5390 3.54 3.72
COSTS_SALARY 82.55 18.21 35 100 0.3245 83.94 80.13
COSTS_RENT 94.59 16.62 0 100 0.2962 95.45 94.37
COSTS_ROOM 87.98 17.77 29 100 0.1083 91.46 82.43
COSTS_GOLFCOURSE 95.11 8.70 60 100 0.4692 95.75 94.38

Focusing on the expenses of golf clubs, the costs for golf course maintenance and rents were more or less on the same level. Best of all, the salary costs could be reduced. An average reduction of approximately 18% can be observed here. There were no significant differences between the analyzed golf club types, although the commercial golf courses were able to save at least room maintenance costs.

As the results impressively show, the golf clubs were caught between, on the one hand, dramatically falling revenues and, on the other hand, almost rigid expenses. A well-maintained golf course requires permanent maintenance. If this is stopped overnight, it will be a feat of strength to bring the golf course back to a similar level afterwards. These course maintenance measures must be carried out steadily, regardless of whether many, few or no golfers – as there were during lockdown – play on the golf course. Even if not always significant, it is interesting to see that the commercial golf courses rate the overall situation worse than the member-owned nonprofit clubs across all revenues. This could be because member-owned golf clubs are mostly not as vulnerable as commercial golf courses, and they simply have other aims (e.g., nonprofit vs. for-profit).

Finally, a pairwise correlation analysis is used to show the influence of the length of the lockdown on the clubs’ attitudes towards COVID-19 and on short-term income. The results in Table 3 show that with increasing length of the lockdown, the approval values for various measures decreased significantly. A similar trend can be seen in most sources of revenues. The longer the lockdown lasted, the more golf clubs reported that their income was falling.

Table 3: Pairwise correlation
  correlation coefficient significance (p-value)
TEMP_CLOSE_GC -0.1762 0.1025
LENGHT_CLOSE_GC -0.2991 0.0049
SOLIDARITY_GOLF -0.2464 0.0214
IMPACT_CLOSED 0.2506 0.0192
DECLINE_GREENFEE 0.2258 0.0354
DECLINE_TOURNAMENT 0.1857 0.0851
DECLINE_SPONS 0.2740 0.0102
DECLINE_PROSHOP 0.0715 0.5104
DECLINE_GASTRO 0.0782 0.4715

Additionally, due to the economic situation, it can be clearly seen that the length of the lockdown had a considerable influence on the acceptance of the lockdown. As already mentioned, resistance to the COVID-19 policy arose with the ongoing closure of golf clubs. This went so far that a Bavarian golf club invited people to take a “walk with golf clubs” to circumvent the ban.

Conclusion

As it has had for other sports, COVID-19 has had serious effects on amateur golf. In contrast to professional (team) sports, the issue was not millions of euros. However, the already tense economic situation of many golf courses (Billion, 2020b) is unlikely to have improved as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. In this context, an interesting aspect is that member-run clubs have far fewer financial hardships. This means that such clubs are better positioned, especially in times of crisis, than those particularly profit-oriented. This can be attributed to the fact that these golf clubs can mainly rely on their members’ loyalty. In total, the golf clubs’ assessments of the medium- to long-term income expectation do not bode well. Therefore, based on the results of the first lockdown, it is all the more important that all stakeholders in golf, such as national and international golf associations, golf clubs, golf media or even the golfers themselves, steer golf in a forward-looking direction. Golf has two central mega trends of our time on its side: nature (experience) and health.

As already mentioned at the beginning, golf is a sport that can have a positive influence on personal health. Numerous studies have impressively demonstrated different health benefits of golf (e.g., Berlin & Klenosky, 2014; Broman et al., 2004). On the other hand, it can be seen that – except for small initiatives – too little work is (still) being done in this direction (Breitbarth & Huth, 2019). However, people who practice this sport consistently agree that golf is good for their health (Huth & Breitbarth, 2020) and can even increase their lifespan (Farahmand et al., 2009). However, the positive health benefits are still too little known among nongolfers (Huth & Breitbarth, 2020). At this point, it is extremely important for associations and clubs to focus even more on this forward-looking topic. Due to the current situation concerning COVID-19, it can be assumed that people will pay more attention to their health in the future. Therefore, in line with Fischer & Kaiser-Jovy (2018), the health benefits of golf need to be used as a central argument to attract people to play golf. Health is and will be a central determinant in regard to the demand of sport, reinforced, as mentioned above, by the circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to the mega trend of health, the stakeholders involved in golf sports should position golf even more in the direction of experiencing nature in the future. As an outdoor sport played on natural surfaces, golf is dependent on the environment (Nguyen, 2018). However, the earlier image, according to which golf clubs in particular harm and even destroy nature (e.g., Bunds, 2018; DeChano & Hruska, 2006), is slowly crumbling. The stakeholders involved are now making sure that golf takes better account of nature (Nguyen, 2018). Environmental certificates have even been established to underline the importance of the environment (Huth, 2017b). Golfers, for whom it is generally important to be in nature, feel in good hands with golf and those certificates (Huth, 2017a). In line with Weed (2020), it would be logical to focus more strongly on the topic of nature (experience). This would be an opportunity to take golf out of its current image as a sport for old and rich people and to reposition golf in the direction of a sport that is close to nature and at the same time health promoting.

However, it should be mentioned that after the lockdown, golf in some countries was able to boast significantly higher numbers of rounds played and memberships (Golf Australia, 2020; Golf Business News, 2020; NZ Golf Magazine, 2020). So, the results show that rounds played across Great Britannia have seen an average uplift of 40% compared to 2019 (Sports Marketing Surveys, 2021). Thus, the fears that existed in German golf immediately after the first lockdown do not seem correct. This could, for example, have been due to the will of golfers to move in nature again after the lockdown. A certain longing for movement in nature could have developed here.

The present study was able to provide initial insight into the effects of COVID-19 on golf. However, it should be noted critically that the participation rate of 15% of the golf clubs reached fell short of the authors’ expectations. Nevertheless, the results can provide good (quantitative) insight into the effects of COVID-19, and these effects are overall comparable with previous theoretical-conceptual or commentary studies on the subject of COVID-19 in sports (e.g., Clarkson et al., 2020; Duarte Muñoz & Meyer, 2020; Parnell, Bond, et al., 2020).

Regarding future research projects, golf clubs – but also professional and grassroots clubs in other sports – should be asked at regular intervals about the medium- to long-term positive and negative effects of the pandemic. Based on the results, strategies should be developed that ensure sports clubs’ financial and sporting survival. Moreover, the two mentioned topics of nature (experience) and health should be placed even more at the center of research work in golf. On the demand side, the golfers themselves should also be examined. It would be interesting to see to what extent their golf behavior changes in the short term – during the lockdown – but also in the medium to long term. From such research, golf associations and golf clubs could derive further strategies for the future development of golf.