The Rugglion Blog

All it took was bringing food, technology and games onto the driving range to help Topgolf convince even golf-averse visitors to pick up a club.

Now, Topgolf alums Ken May and Erik Anderson each want to bring the concept to other sports.

May, the former president of Krispy Kreme and CEO of FedEx, joined Topgolf in 2013 as its COO and was appointed chief executive in 2014. On his watch, Topgolf opened 24 new venues and quadrupled its workforce. 

May now sits on the advisory board of Swing Racquet + Paddle, a 45-acre sports and entertainment facility in Raleigh, N.C. featuring tennis, beach tennis, pickleball and the European racquet sport padel.

“We caught lightning in a bottle and created a new space,” May told Adweek. “We positioned ourselves from being in the golf practice business to being in the entertainment business, which changed the model completely. But ‘sportstainment’ is the next evolution of that particular model, where we’re trying to lead with sports.”

Anderson understands that nuance. 

Anderson was one of Topgolf’s first and largest U.S. investors back in 2005 and helped establish its presence stateside. He took over briefly as CEO after May retired in 2017, and served in various roles with the company, including co-chairman and executive chairman, until 2021. 

He’s currently vice chairman of golf company Callaway, which underwent at $2 billion merger with Topgolf during the pandemic. Now, Anderson is trying to bring some of that Topgolf magic to soccer. 

He’s doing so as co-chairman of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based soccer training and entertainment company Toca Football, which consists largely of tech-enabled training facilities.

“It was [Anderson’s] vision to say, ‘In a sport that is even bigger than golf, can we create an incredible immersive entertainment experience around soccer that would be enjoyed by players and non-players alike?’” said Yoshi Maruyama, CEO of Toca Football.

Respectively, both May and Anderson witnessed firsthand how Topgolf retooled golf for casual audiences. They each helped increase participation in the “sportstainment” franchise before and during the pandemic. 

As Topgolf inspires a host of likeminded golf-and-grub competitors, and participation in golf growing, both Swing and Toca see enormous potential for applying a similar model to other sports.

“If you’re a pickleball player, you may be playing twice a day, and if you’re a tennis player like me, I’m going to play at least twice a week, if not three or four times,” said Rob Autry, founder and CEO of Swing Racquet + Paddle. “If a Topgolf, which we love and respect, gets four of us to come twice a year, they’ve done their job.” 

The Topgolf effect

By the end of 2022, Topgolf will have nearly 80 locations in the U.S. and roughly 90 worldwide. 

Now a wholly owned subsidiary of Callaway, Topgolf’s portfolio includes bar- and restaurant-laden driving range venues. The brand’s umbrella also encompasses Toptracer shot-tracking technology, Swing Suite simulators, lounges, and the Topgolf Media shown at its facilities and on its app. Its facilities host Callaway’s Odyssey, Ogio, TravisMathew and Jack Wolfskin brands.

It’s also spawned a number of competitors. Among the brands vying for a slice of the sports entertainment franchise model are Drive Shack, Golfsuites (formerly Flying Tee), 4ORE! Golf, Big Shots, the Tiger Woods-owned PopStroke putting green and restaurant chain, and a similar concept from Rory McIlroy called The Puttery.

Last year, according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), overall U.S. golf participation increased by 600,000 players to 37.5 million. Of that, roughly 200,000 came solely from “off-course” golf facilities like Topgolf. Roughly 12.4 million golf participants are off-course only (up from 12.2 million in 2021), compared to 12.5 million who only play on the greens and 12.4 million who do both. 

The average customer at Topgolf and similar facilities is roughly 30 years old. In comparison, the average age of golfers in the U.S. is 45, while those players who split time between both are around 42. 

The off-course player is also more likely to be a woman (42%) and non-white (40%) than their counterparts: 30% and 20% on the greens, and 22% female and nonwhite for hybrid players.

Swing Racquet + Paddle is slated to open its two-story clubhouse of food, games and sports technology sometime in 2024.Swing Racquet + Paddle

Facilities like Swing have taken note of those numbers. A Swing spokesman pointed to NGF data showing that 23% of new golfers said they were inspired by a Topgolf experience. Noting golf’s increased participation, he asked, “What would a similar infusion do for racquet and paddle sports?”

“A lot of these entertainment concepts—which again, wonderful concepts on the consumer end—you’re looking at more than 80% of your business is derived from food and beverage,” Swing’s Autry said. “With our model, it’s 30%; it’s getting people in the door to play sports first. [The general feeling of customers is] ‘Wow, while I’m here, you’ve got this elevated food and beverage and fun for the kids and ping pong rooms.’”

A shotgun start

Racquet sports haven’t needed a whole lot of help during the Covid-19 era. Roughly 22.9 million people ages 6 and over played tennis in 2021, according to the Physical Activities Council. That’s a nearly 29% increase from pre-pandemic 2019 and includes 4.9 million people who played the sport for the first time between 2019 and 2021.

Meanwhile, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association named Wiffle Ball/ping-pong hybrid pickleball the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. earlier this year. According to USA Pickleball, the group saw its membership increase by 43.5% since early 2021 after participation increased 14.8% in 2021 and 21.3% during the first year of the pandemic in 2020.

“Instead of saving a sport, we’re gonna ride it and enhance it,” May said. “There’s just not enough pickleball. I had people, because of my background with Topgolf and the success we had, that approached me all the time saying, ‘Why is nobody doing this in pickleball?’”

TOCA Football’s 28 locations in North America use technology and analytics to help athletes train.

Toca Football enjoys a similar advantage. Founded as a training facility in 2016 by former two-time U.S. World Cup player and former MLS and English Premier League midfielder Eddie Lewis, Toca Football is making a push with the World Cup days away a Women’s World Cup slated for 2023. 

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, soccer participation in the U.S. grew 32% between 2002 and 2019. During the last school year, only track and field (1.15 million), football (977,000) and basketball (892,000) had more participants than soccer (811,000).

While soccer still trails football, baseball, basketball and hockey among U.S. fans, Morning Consult data said the 54% of soccer fans under age 45 gives it the youngest fanbase among all U.S. sports. With more than 40% fans of color, the diversity of professional soccer’s U.S. fan base is rivaled only by that of the National Basketball Association. 

“We also will be hosting the World Cup here in North America [in 2026], so the momentum and interest and investments going into the sport—and growing participation and fandom here in North America— isn’t going to ease up,” Toca’s Maruyama said. “We do have a fairly unique lane here and an opportunity when the world will be focusing on soccer in North America, and we’re excited to be really the only player focused squarely on soccer experiences in this particular market.”

Entertain us

Toca Football has 28 soccer centers in the U.S. and Canada. The company has plans to buy 20 more facilities by the end of 2023. While those centers use data and analytics to help soccer players train, a location at The O2 entertainment complex in London—dubbed Toca Social—puts a more playful spin on the business.

In bays that take their cue from Topgolf’s playing areas, Toca Social customers have a ball rolled out to them by an automated trainer and kick it at targets during one of multiple games projected on the screens. With restaurants, bars and soccer matches on big screens, Toca Social adds the entertainment aspects that the training centers lack and that casual fans—and potential business partners—love.

The player bays at TOCA Social in London resemble those at Topgolf locations. That isn’t a coincidence.

“We’ve spent the last four years in research and development to make sure that we stay true to the authenticity of soccer, but also understand the direction in which guests and consumers and their experiences and their desires are trending,” Maruyama said. “Many kids today think of soccer through video game experiences, or through fandom watching their favorite soccer player on TV. While we’re authentic to the sport and the history, we also understand that the soccer of tomorrow is going to evolve.”

Toca Social is slated to make its U.S. debut next year in Dallas. 

Democratizing the racquet

Ahead of that opening, Toca Football has added soccer luminaries to its board including National Women’s Soccer League CMO Julie Haddon, English national team captain Harry Kane and U.S. Women’s World Cup champion and former national team captain Abby Wambach. 

Last month, Toca signed a 10-year partnership with Major League Soccer (MLS) to use its analytics to help train players and to bring MLS branding and games to future Toca Social locations.

“​​We look forward to being in every MLS market with our growing footprint of Toca Soccer training centers and Toca Social entertainment venues that offer fun, authentic soccer experiences regardless of skill level,” Toca’s Anderson said.

Swing Racquet + Paddle, meanwhile, isn’t slated to open its 45-acre campus until 2024, but it’ll be weighted heavily toward sports when it debuts. ​​

Swing Racquet + Paddle will have hard-surface and clay tennis courts, as well as pickleball, beach tennis and paddle facilities.

The complex will have 29 clay- and hard-surface tennis courts, 24 pickleball courts, 16 padel courts, 12 ping-pong courts and four areas for beach tennis/volleyball. There’ll be technology to track players’ progress and post their best shots to social media, but there will also be leagues that treat racquet sports “like a triathlon,” with players switching sports and courts on a weekly basis.

“We’re looking to democratize racquet sports, break down these different barriers, mash up these different cultures and bring them under one roof and become the United Nations of racquet sports,” Swing’s Autry said. 

It’ll also include a 24,000-square-foot, two-story entertainment space with food and beverage areas, bars, video game areas and virtual-reality racquet games that allow players to swing as Carlos Alcaraz, Rafael Nadal and other tennis pros. It’s being built as a partnership with the city of Raleigh, and if it sounds like an updated racquet club without an annual fee, that’s kind of the point.

“It’s almost like a country club on wheels: It’s very attainable,” May said. “A lot of people can’t afford to be part of a country club. But you can afford to come to a sports-type event location. It provides that competitive thing that a lot of these places don’t have. At Topgolf, I could play against my child when I was working there and she was 8 years old, but at a sportstainment location, I can also play competitively.”