Sunday, August 8, 2010

Golf Decline Continues

U.S. golf courses are closing. This is a trend that goes back to at least 2006, and part of a larger trend in U.S. popular culture away from outdoor sports of all kinds that goes back to 1998. The decline in golf may be accelerating now that the professional sport no longer has any current icons known to the general public.

Locally, I’ve seen the smaller golf courses sold to make room for more office buildings. But elsewhere around the country, former golf courses are going vacant.

Golf course closings are a routine part of the foreclosure process in overbuilt Las Vegas. Lake Las Vegas, a sprawling luxury resort and suburban development, had three golf courses when it fell into bankruptcy in 2008, but emerged from bankruptcy last weekend without any. (After foreclosure, one course closed quickly. The second closed a few months ago, despite efforts by local residents to raise money to pay the water bill. The third, the private club, continues to operate post-foreclosure, but is still not open to the public.) Each of the three courses lost more than $1 million per year after opening.

Another Las Vegas golf course, Stallion Mountain Golf Club, is set to be sold at an FDIC auction a week from now. Investors bought the golf course for $24.5 million in 2006 with a loan from Community Bank of Nevada, but lost so much money on it they turned it over to the bank in 2008. It was closed at that point, and the bank failed a year later. The FDIC has been maintaining the grounds to try to maximize the value of the land at auction, but no one expects the property to sell for more than $5 million now, and it is far from certain that the buyers will operate it as a golf course. This course too was originally part of a set of three golf courses, but the other two were sold off years ago for residential development.

It costs a fortune to operate a grassy golf course in Las Vegas because of the climate, and hot summer weather of Las Vegas has spread across the northern United States this summer, turning the greens brown at most northern golf courses. In normal summer weather, it is a challenge to keep the greens green by watering them every night, but no amount of water would allow the quarter-inch grass of a northern golf course to survive the persistent heat the northern U.S. has seen in the last seven weeks. The brown, parched grass has dimmed the enthusiasm of golfers, cutting into what should be the peak summer revenue at golf courses at the same time that it adds to the expenses. The added stress will surely accelerate the closings of several more golf courses.

It is not just the golf courses that are quiet. The television audience for golf has been declining gradually ever since the phenomenal attention that surrounded Tiger Woods’ first professional season. Recently, the final round at the British Open drew a 2.1 rating, the lowest rating ever for that event and about half of what would previously have been considered a normal television audience for a major golf broadcast. The declining audience, and declining sponsorship money, has meant that some tournaments are no longer on television.

Again, this is part of a larger trend. U.S. TV audiences for auto racing and baseball are also declining fast enough to cause some hand-wringing. Other sports saw this decline sooner: ice hockey and boxing made the transition from major to minor TV sports a decade ago. ESPN, the top U.S. sports channel, has been able to maintain its ratings largely by taking on events, such as the NASCAR series, that have become too small for broadcast television.