Monday, March 18, 2024

Article provided by the SCGA

The more things change, the more they stay the same, albeit as the technology improves the same things come in different packages.

With respect to the furor over tee time brokers making it nearly impossible for Los Angeles Basin’s public golfers to secure tee times at almost any time of the day or week, let’s just say that we’ve seen this picture before.

Before golf’s most recent spike in popularity (2020 – present), golf had peaked nationally in 1999 and then declined incrementally but steadily thereafter through 2016 before turning slightly up just before COVID. In Southern California the game peaked in 1991-1992 and declined slightly the rest of the 1990’s before entering the same decline cum flattening in this century, followed in turn by the same incredible burst of growth 2020 through today.

With the stage thus set, we direct you to a May 1991 Los Angeles Times article entitled, “Golf: Tee Times are Tough on L.A. City Courses.” After pointing out that weekday greens fee in Los Angeles in 1970 were $3.50 and the same fee in 1991 had risen to $10.50, the story noted that “increased fees hadn’t muffled the golf explosion . . . The real problem is just reserving a starting tee time at one of the city’s seven 18-hole courses, or even at one of the six nine-hole courses. As for reserving a weekend time, the chances are slim to none.” The same Marty Tregnan whose name adorns the city’s junior golf academy in Griffith Park is quoted as saying, “the solution is obviously more courses.”

Of course, 33 years later Los Angeles has fewer public golf courses, not more. As a result, despite fees roughly 60% higher in real dollars than they were in 1991 ($10.50 in 1991 would be $23.92 in 2024 inflation adjusted dollars), it is even harder to get that tee time – not just in the City of Los Angeles, but Los Angeles County, Long Beach, and Pasadena as well, although due to significant resident preferences and a higher fee structure for non-residents, it is less difficult in Long Beach than the rest. A testament not just to increased demand, but also the fact that these municipal golf courses are just that much better operated and maintained today than they were in 1991, making them more suitable alternatives to private clubs, whose fees and dues have also risen commensurately.

Does this make it any less outrageous that there are tee time brokers who deny equal access to these systems, no matter how slender that access may be? Does it make it any less damaging to have liquidity that could be going to the owners and operators of these facilities and these facilities’ capital reserve funds going to 3rd parties?

Absolutely not! But it does mean it is imperative that before we all get our populist knickers in a twist, we get a firmer grip on the root of the tee broker problem – a problem that like all difficult problems is in part a function of attributes of local municipal golf systems that most reading these words would consider virtues to be cherished and maintained, not jettisoned cavalierly.

The root of the “problem” is twofold:

  1. The National Golf Foundation (NGF) identifies Los Angeles as the most golf starved golf market in the United States – the most golfers chasing the fewest golf holes, and by a very wide margin over the next worst supply to demand ratio in the nation. There are fewer public golf courses today than there were 50 years ago, when the population of the region was much smaller and the percentage of the population that played golf was a smaller percentage thereof. Once dotted with “daily fee” golf courses (privately owned but open for business to the public facilities), Los Angeles is now home only to very pricey private country clubs and municipal golf courses (publicly owned parkland facilities), with one exception – a golf course in the rural northeast corner of the city (Tujunga Wash) that sits literally in a riverbed (Angeles National GC).
  2. The city and county of Los Angeles as well as Long Beach and a few of the region’s smaller municipal systems (e.g., Pasadena, Burbank, and Downey) don’t set their public parkland golf course greens fees per a market mechanism that would literally turn these publicly owned parks into playgrounds for the privileged, but rather set fees that recover costs, create the capital reserve funds necessary to allow for infrastructure replacement through user fees as opposed to tax dollars and bonded indebtedness, and in the cases of the big three in Los Angeles County (LA City, LA County, Long Beach) and Pasadena, provide revenues over and above all that for use by park departments (LA City and County), general funds (Long Beach), and an old college football stadium (Pasadena – Rose Bowl).

Where there is money to be made, persons seem to find a way, and when the “way” is technologically based as in Internet Reservation Systems, those finding that way have both the incentive and the capacity to stay a step ahead of governments, which are notoriously slow in figuring out modern technological platforms. How many billions did California’s EDD “lose” to fraud and theft during COVID? And often the fixes are as expensive as they are transitory, rendering them bad cost versus benefit propositions. That as much as anything explains the slow response to what influencers and others accurately portray as a genuine problem.

These governments and many of these governments’ private sector operators understand the depth of the problem. It’s a problem exacerbated by the reality that none of the standard Internet Reservation Systems commercially available in the United States are built to manage the security that the Los Angeles market practically alone among America’s golf markets would require to stay one step ahead of the re-sellers. And just as in 1991, the problem is one of re-sellers, not bots. Re-selling may violate the policies of these municipal systems, and there are remedies to address policy violations. However, re-selling does not violate any laws.

This doesn’t mean that the handful of Internet Reservation/POS providers that remain after a period of rapid consolidation won’t be able (for a price) to craft technological mitigations unique to the LA market. Our guess is that this is going on right now. But it won’t happen overnight, and costs will have to be borne by someone, and that “someone” is likely to be golfers.

The problem has garnered universal attention. The municipalities and their operators very much want to offer equal access for the limited stock of tee times they offer, and they want to offer them for access fees that keep these facilities in the affordable range for the average working men and women for which they were built in the first place and maintained for decades. They want to maintain as well the very generous junior, school, and senior citizen rates that have come to characterize virtually all of the region’s municipal programs.

Easier said than done, given the fact that more golf is being played today in the United States than at any time in the past. It may well be that some of that price consciousness will need to be sacrificed, not to better manage the facilities themselves, but to pay for the technology necessary to mitigate much of the damage now being done to the integrity of these systems by the brokers. Those solutions do exist, and we expect them to be implemented sooner than later. If there has been resistance to doing this, it has not been due to the indifference suggested by some; it has been due to these municipalities’ strong belief in the affordable/accessible mission at the heart of their municipal golf programs. A slowness to respond that is a function of mission, not callousness.

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There are three (3) glaring takeaways here – so glaring to an audience of golfers that we easily forget that they are not so glaring to non-golfers, among them significantly, office holders and media.

  1. Every word above describes why it was so important to take dead aim at AB 672 and AB 1910 and not be shy about killing them as swiftly and comprehensively as possible – and why the California golf community must remain hyper-vigilant to their reemergence in any form.
  2. Every word above describes why the campaigns to “save” municipal golf courses (e.g., Mission Bay, Bell Gardens, the Links @ Victoria, Sepulveda Basin) are central to the game’s hopes to thrive, let alone grow.
  3. Every word above describes why a game whose public policy issues were on the front pages of the main sections Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union Tribune and the “California Section” of the Los Angeles Times this weekend, cannot continue to pinch its pennies in its spend on all forms of advocacy – local, regional, and state.