Originally appeared in Sports Business Journal by Ken May
These days, eatertainment is ubiquitous, it almost defies categorizing. How else would we combine axe-throwing venues serving local craft beers, movie theaters with in-show food service, and celebrity chefs giving their take on ballpark food? This is the result of a symbiotic relationship between food and entertainment that has led restaurants to integrate entertainment and entertainment venues to add high quality food and beverage services.
Many concepts are focused on experiences that draw in consumers for one-time, unique opportunities and the chance to try something they’ve never done. While eatertainment continues to grow, it’s important to highlight opportunities within the sports industry to elevate this trend by creating community-driven, sports-forward experiences. I like to think of this as something distinct from eatertainment — it’s sportstainment.
Let’s start by differentiating sportstainment itself. Sportstainment is a sports-first experience that appeals to the avid player while also providing opportunities to people who want to try something new. These facilities offer a place for all skill levels to enjoy sports, not just the enthusiasts, creating environments that foster growth by building larger player communities. For many people, these are sports that are played multiple times a week, compared with an experience in the eatertainment space, which may be only a few times a year. Sportstainment offers a platform to socialize via active programming such as clinics, leagues and events — all while getting people moving and active. Just like Topgolf’s impact on the golf industry, sportstainment will attract new people to these sports by making it more approachable, through elevated food and beverage, new technology-laced experiences and the opportunity to try something new while socializing with friends. Providing the equipment to give a new sport a shot only helps to remove a major financial hurdle.
Golf is a great example of this phenomenon. Over the more than 20 years since Topgolf was founded, much ink has been spilled discussing what Topgolf means for “the game.” Sitting on the other side of those years and conversations, I think it’s clear that it did change the game — for the better. I could list many indicators that Topgolf, Drive Shack and other off-course experiences have been instrumental in taking what was a shrinking pool of players and expanding it beyond anyone’s expectations. For example, 23% of new golfers say they were inspired by a Topgolf experience, according to a National Golf Foundation survey; and one-third of the nearly 40 million golf experiences in 2021 took place off-course, and a record 3.2 million people played their first on-course golf in 2021.
But, again, the trend I’m seeing is much bigger than Topgolf — it’s bigger than what we’re seeing in the golf industry as a whole. If you zoom out, you can see that many sports would benefit from these kinds of spaces. Consider the racquet sports industry where you have pickleball, the fastest growing sport in the country, a resurgence in tennis and Padel, the fastest-growing sport in the world. Growth, combined with lacking supply and high demand, is driving the development of Swing Racquet + Paddle in Raleigh, N.C., one of the top markets for these sports. The demand is overwhelming existing facilities and is creating a need to make these sports accessible outside of private clubs and outdated public facilities. Very few options exist in the space between private country clubs and neighborhood parks. In many cases, private facilities that are available have high costs, are less than approachable to people who want to try a new sport, or lack the programming to engage groups in a consistent way. Ventures like Swing Racquet + Paddle create a home for the avid practitioner and the curious newbie looking for low barriers to entry. And who wins when these games grow further? Everyone.
Finally, the piece these venues cannot forget, absolutely cannot consider an afterthought, is food and beverage. Creating space for sports that is accessible is a noble goal in and of itself, but what drives those new members? What keeps folks hanging around to socialize? Snacks. A few local brews. Craft cocktails. We are in an era in which celebrity chef David Chang is doing concessions at Barclays Center! The bar has been raised in a serious way. Food and beverage aren’t add-ons, they are part of the experience, part of the product that must be considered carefully. Customers are thoughtful about their food, these venues need to be thoughtful about it as well.
Almost every sporting federation is tasked with “growing the game,” a somewhat nebulous phrase that can be acted upon in a variety of ways, but maybe it’s time to consider new avenues for attracting new and diverse groups of people to their sport. Traditional sports cannot be afraid of this trend, rather they need to embrace the idea of breaking tradition and finding ways to make things more fun and appealing for younger generations. On the heels of a pandemic that showed us how much value there is in time with friends and family, the demand is there. It’s time for eatertainment 2.0 and sportstainment is it!
Ken May is the former CEO of Topgolf. In his four-year tenure, Topgolf added 35 new venues and increased revenue tenfold. Prior to Topgolf, his three-decade career included roles as CEO of FedEx Kinko’s, president of Krispy Kreme and chairman of the March of Dimes national board of trustees. In May, he joined the advisory board of Swing Racquet + Paddle, a sportstainment concept with a flagship location under development in Raleigh, N.C.