Golf’s return to the Olympics for the first time in more than a century was expected to introduce the sport to a new generation of fans around the world and provide a boost to a struggling industry. Instead, the withdrawal of several key golfers due to various concerns has depleted the field with less than two weeks to go until the Games begin in Brazil, generating widespread criticism in the process.
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At least 17 of the world’s top golfers are opting to skip the tournament at the 2016 Olympics. That tally includes most of the sport’s biggest attractions, including Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott. Explanations for the withdrawals have ranged from worries about the Zika virus, which causes birth defects, to scheduling conflicts with the PGA Tour. Others have cited the poor conditions of Olympic venues in Rio de Janeiro and the lack of any financial incentive.
But the golf industry’s struggles began well before the 2016 Olympics, and even a strong showing by the sport at this year’s games is unlikely to reverse the trends. Millennials have been slow to embrace golf, a slow-paced, complex game that’s difficult to play and requires equipment that can be prohibitively expensive.
“From golf industry statistics, we know that rounds are down,” NPD Group analyst Matt Powell said in a video this month. “We know that millennials are not picking up the game. As boomers are aging out, the game is in decline.”
Experts are divided regarding the long-term vitality of the $70 billion golf industry. Overall participation has stayed flat at about 25 million Americans annually over the last five years, down from a peak of about 30 million players during Tiger Woods’ heyday. But golf participation among younger generations has fallen by up to 30% of the last 20 years, according to the Financial Times.
The U.S. golf equipment industry totaled $2.55 billion in sales in 2015, down from $2.62 billion in 2012, according to research firm Golf Datatech. Wholesale revenue in Nike Inc.’s (NKE) golf segment fell 8% to $706 million in its most recent fiscal quarter, down from $769 million for the same period one year earlier. In Europe, Adidas-owned TaylorMade became a major drag on the German sports apparel giant’s business amid declining sales and consumer interest.
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Golf’s inclusion at the Rio games and beyond was seen as a possible salve for the industry’s struggles. But Day, McIlroy and Johnson each cited Zika as the primary reason behind their decision not to travel. Spieth, who is extremely popular in the United States, attributed his choice to personal reasons.
Scott was more critical, taking aim at the structure of Rio’s golf tournament. The 72-round event is identical to any other tournament, with little to distinguish it from the average PGA Tour event.
Earlier this month, legendary Australian golfer Greg “The Great White Shark” Norman called the hesitation of top golfers in to play in Rio a “black eye” for the sport of golf. At the same time, he acknowledged that Rio’s poorly-constructed golf venues and the threat of Zika were major roadblacks.
“The golf course is located on a polluted swamp, so it is a mosquito heaven, and probably of all sports outside of sailing, [golfers are] probably more susceptible to getting a mosquito bite than anybody else,” Norman told the FOX Business Network’s Stuart Varney.
The lack of any cash incentive also presents an obvious deterrent, according to Carlos Nuzman, president of the Rio Olympic organizing committee.
"They tried to blame Zika, but the media have shown that they are not coming because there's no prize money," Nuzman told reporters earlier this month, according to the Associated Press.
Despite the criticism, supporters within the golf industry say the game’s return to the Olympics will allow the sport to grow on the global stage and introduce its participants’ names to mainstream audiences.
“The IGF understands the challenges players face in terms of scheduling this summer and it is regrettable to see a few leading players withdraw from this year’s Games,” International Golf Federation President Peter Dawson said in a statement in April. “The Olympics is the world’s greatest celebration of sport and it is exciting and appropriate that golf features in its program again. Real history will be made at this year’s Olympic competitions and it is our belief that the unique experience of competing will live forever with athletes that take part.”
With so many of the world’s top-earning golfers unwilling or unable to make the trek to Rio, others have presented a shift from professional to amateur golfers as a way to reinvigorate Olympic competition.
“We all worked hard to get golf in the Olympics. I think professional golf should be kicked out of the Olympics…They should replace us with amateurs who would hold it at high esteem to represent this country with great joy,” golf legend Gary Player told the FOX Business Network earlier this month.