By DAN MIROCHA
Bill Bales admits he was a skeptic at first. A self-proclaimed “stuck-up golf traditionalist,” he once dismissed indoor golf simulators as nothing more than an expensive novelty, an oversized video game at best.
But that was seven years ago, and Bales has turned 180 degrees. He became so consumed by simulators, he made them his livelihood. His company, AboutGolf, is a leading manufacturer of the devices and this year ranked No. 72 in Inc. magazine’s “Top 100 Consumer Products Companies.”
Now, AboutGolf hopes to fuel success with its latest model, the SimSurround, which advances the notion of a virtual environment to new heights. And with state-of-the-art ball-tracking technology, it provides golfers with data about their swing much like a launch monitor.
Bales, however, won’t be content just selling more units. What he really wants is respect. Not just for himself or for AboutGolf – for the entire golf simulator category. At a time when participation is stagnant, he says, golf can benefit from indoor simulators, which Bales describes as multi-purpose tools that can introduce newcomers to the sport, help players improve their swings and increase demand to play the real game.
But for the most part, Bales complains he’s a lone voice, receiving little support from the industry establishment, which he says isn’t creatively tackling age-old obstacles that keep people away from golf.
“The business of golf more than any business I’ve seen doesn’t understand the concept of the customer,” Bales says. Indoor golf, he argues, resolves troubling issues such as lack of time, poor weather and pace of play.
“You can play year round, play at night and play in the rain,” Bales says. “You can play 36 holes in two hours or one hole in two hours, and there’s nobody ever behind you or in front of you.”
Simulators also can provide a friendlier setting for newcomers, many of whom feel intimidated stepping up to the first tee on a real course or overwhelmed by the game’s many rules and protocols. Most important, rather than steal consumers from golf courses, simulators will spur play for all, Bales says.
Industry leaders don’t necessarily disagree with Bales, but few, if any, have endorsed simulators as grow-the-game tools or incorporated them into participation or instruction programs.
“Anything we can do to get a club in someone’s hands, if it’s in a simulator, it’s a little cliché, but it’s better than nothing,” says Bob Baldassari, a PGA of America teaching professional and general manager of PGA Village in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Without widespread industry and consumer acceptance of simulators, AboutGolf’s long-term growth prospect is uncertain. But, thus far, lacking grass-roots support hasn’t hindered the Maumee, Ohio-based company.
AboutGolf – which launched in 2002 and was spawned from Bales’ software company that produced the computer game Microsoft Golf in the ’90s – has increased revenue from $2.8 million in 2004 to $10.7 million in 2007, earning its “Top 100” recognition from Inc.
Bales says new technology has been a key factor in selling to retail stores that use the product for club fitting. AboutGolf simulators recently upgraded from a radar-based system and now incorporate a three-dimensional, high-speed photography technology called 3Trak that provides a greater level of accuracy in tracking trajectory, velocity and spin.
“It’s more accurate than anything I’ve seen,” says Bill Baraban, director of instruction and club fitting for PGA Tour Superstore, which purchased 70 AboutGolf simulators for 10 of its retail stores. “It just makes our job easier to convince the customer that they’re on the right track. We don’t have a large number of returns because they go outside and the clubs work like they do inside.”
AboutGolf simulators also have been sold to about 60 Golf Galaxy locations that have opened since January 2003, according to Ron Hornbaker, the retail chain’s senior vice president of sales and operations. Bales says sales distribution in North America breaks down to 40 percent retailers, 40 percent indoor golf centers, 15 percent residential, and the balance to pro shops and other commercial enterprises.
At this year’s PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., AboutGolf debuted the SimSurround, a 25-foot-long-by-10-foot-high model that uses three screens to give players an enhanced viewing experience. In March, the company began shipping the SimSurround, which sells for $60,000. Bales says it has accounted for 30 percent of unit sales so far this year. (The company’s simulators start at $45,000.)
To reach the next growth plateau, Bales is considering creating his own retail business to showcase AboutGolf simulators. His “indoor golf facility of tomorrow,” he promises, will be unlike anything available today. His vision: Think part shooting range, part practice range, part video game. Perhaps, even an environment recreated from a movie scene.
“By traditional golf standards, you might consider it radical,” he says.
Bales acknowledges that traditionalists may frown upon his approach. But he insists simulators can “sell” the game in an exciting new way.
“The whole world of indoor golf reaches people that would never otherwise get out to the course,” Bales says. “If you’re executing a golf swing, you’re growing the game of golf.”