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Orlando Follies: A history of the PGAM Show

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First, a disclaimer. After my previous story a comment appeared under the name Barney Adams that essentially said cut the crap with the Mickey Mouse criticism. While I appreciate the person’s support it wasn’t posted by me; I have plenty of scars from being a visible person over the years. I’ve been praised and ripped — it’s the norm. If my wife even considered the thought that there were two of me, the shock would be overwhelming.

For those of you who have never attended the PGA Merchandise Show, think of it as golfer nirvana. The Orlando Convention Center, which is more than 2 million square feet, displays everything you could think of that is associated with the game — clubs to clothes and in this era, electronics and computer-aided analysis.

For all the passionate golfers out there, it doesn’t get any better and that doesn’t count the dozens of seminars available to PGA professionals. Today, the Show starts off with Demo Day, which is outdoors and open to the public, and it is followed by three days of industry-only attendance inside the convention center that is truly a golf spectacle.

The Show started in 1954 (where were you 61 years ago?) and parallels can be drawn between it and the golf industry. Back in 1954, it was some reps showing their products on the putting green at Dunedin Golf Club in Florida where the Senior PGA championship was being held. It “expanded” to the parking lot, car trunks, display tables and the game was on.

In those days you could accurately describe the industry as an “old boys club” — basically friends getting together. The equipment world was one of forged blades and persimmon with a little maple thrown in. Pioneers like Ernie Sabayrac and Dick Tarlow were introducing the radical idea of carrying golf shoes and eventually clothing in golf shops. For the better part of the next 20 years, the Show had multiple locations and as late as 1977 exhibitors used the ballroom at the Disney Contemporary Hotel with smaller companies in small adjoining rooms.

What happened that the Show went from hotel rooms to the gigantic Orlando Convention Center? By far the single largest impetus occurred in a courtroom. In 1970, it was ruled that the practice of restricting “pro-line” clubs to PGA onsite golf shops was a restraint of trade. A store called Golf City in New Orleans made this claim and while contested by all the major manufacturers and the PGA itself the ruling was made. Hello retail!

Prior, there was pro-line equipment and store-line equipment and the former was considered superior and could only be purchased from your local PGA pro. It didn’t happen overnight, but with that ruling the equipment-selling game changed. The best golf equipment could be purchased directly by retailers, sold at whatever prices they chose and the industry would never be the same.

There were some holdouts who did their best to keep retail pricing in line with what the manufacturer suggested (Ping to this day), and some others who positioned themselves as selling to pro shop only. But on the whole the pro shops ceased to be a major factor (about 10 percent of sales), retail took over and there was a huge emphasis for manufacturers to supply technical improvement. 

IN A PHRASE, MORE DISTANCE!  

This so alarmed the USGA that it instituted the coefficient of restitution (COR) or spring-like limit of 0.860 in 2003 amended it to 0.830, defining max ball speed in the center of the face where it stands today. All of this coincided with the boom in amateur golf, a 50 percent increase from 1985 to 2005.

I was there during the boom years and it’s almost hard to describe, surreal in a way. For example, Callaway and Cobra were Carlsbad rivals and the Show became a case of booth one-upmanship. I promise their booths were bigger than the original outing in Florida, and they were close to each other. If one had music, the other had more… celebrities, golf pros, etc.. They were a show in themselves and very successful companies I might add.

The Show had “Main Street,” which is where the prominent companies were located, and attendees were not the golfing public but buyers. Translation: You wanted to be on or just off Main Street to get the traffic flow.

I can remember as a growing company having very mixed feelings about the Show. I started in a small booth in the back near the restrooms and we ended up on Main Street. It sounds like success and in a way it was, but it was very conflicting. The giant booths, celebrity guests, cocktail parties, did not withstand a ROI analysis. Fortunately our large booth had been purchased used and refurbished for our needs. Knowing this abated some of the cost anxiety.

ON THE ONE HAND, YOU FELT LIKE YOU HAD TO BE PART OF THE PARTY. ON THE OTHER YOU WERE THINKING, “WHY AM I SPENDING THIS MONEY? IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE?”

I used the title Orlando Follies for this article, and when you look up the definition of the word follies “lack of good sense” leads the definitions.

To wit, the Show is an international show. When you buy space you are essentially saying you are ready to compete in that environment, otherwise why attend? I realize there are some small displays with neat ideas looking for a partner, someone to help them in the marketplace, but let’s talk about companies making golf clubs because their time is at hand to compete with the big boys.

I kept records of the companies that attended the PGA Merchandise Show each year, so I got out my old show books and counted in excess of 110 equipment companies that attended the Show between 1990 and 2002 — certainly a sustained period of industry growth. These companies are no longer significant competitors. Some are web sites, some were bought up by retailers for the brand name but they are in “other “ when it comes to market share. Follies influenced their presence, reality surfaced.

It was the people at Ping in 2003 who came up with a solution. They stopped attending! I remember thinking, who better? I wish I had Ping’s courage (and market position) and what it proved was that not attending had zero effect on the company’s business. Others got the message, booth sizes shrunk if not disappeared altogether and the music died.

Further, there was a seismic shift in the retail market. All those buyers from small shops and chains gave way to five major retail operations buying for multiple stores. That meant that most of the upcoming year’s buying decisions were made well before the Show started. It’s now about sell through, not sell in.

Like all major shifts in the pendulum, it seldom stops in the middle. The PGA Merchandise Show went from a bonanza when Reed Exhibitions bought it in 1992 to partial building occupation 15 years later. I don’t go any more — no reason and haven’t been for years. I still have old friends in the business and they tell me the Show is moving back to some of its former luster, especially with the big consumer Demo Day.

I was fortunate to see the Show develop first hand, starting with hotel rooms at the Disney Contemporary to the days of the giant booths. Follies, yes, but remember the word is associated with good times!

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Barney Adams is the founder of Adams Golf and the inventor of the iconic "Tight Lies" fairway wood. He served as Chairman of the Board for Adams until 2012, when the company was purchased by TaylorMade-Adidas. Adams is one of golf's most distinguished entrepreneurs, receiving honors such as Manufacturing Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 1999 and the 2010 Ernie Sabayrac Award for lifetime contribution to the golf industry by the PGA of America. His journey in the golf industry started as as a club fitter, however, and has the epoxy filled shirts as a testimony to his days as an assembler. Have an equipment question? Adams holds seven patents on club design and has conducted research on every club in the bag. He welcomes your equipment questions through email at barneyadams9@gmail.com Adams is now retired from the golf equipment industry, but his passion for the game endures through his writing. He is the author of "The WOW Factor," a book published in 2008 that offers an insider's view of the golf industry and business advice to entrepreneurs, and he continues to contribute articles to outlets like GolfWRX that offer his solutions to grow the game of golf.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Dick

    Feb 3, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    I was there in 2011 as a guest of Adams Golf and got to see Barney receive his award for Outstanding Contributions to the Game of Golf, complete, among other things, with video tributes to him from Arnold Palmer and President Bush. It was a fun exprience. The show is vast. My wife and I got to rub elbows and have conversations with Ryan Moore of the PGA Tour, Brittany Lang and Paula Creamer of the LPGA Tour, Hall-of-Famer Nancy Lopez, and famous instructors Dr. Gary Wiren, Jim Hardy, and Jim McLain, as well as the honoree himself. I recall that nearly every other booth was promoting some sort of elaborate electronic device that would measure/improve your golfing performance. And it seemed as if every third person exiting the show had one of those Tour Striker training clubs tucked under his/her arm. (I should have paid attention to that phenomenon – all we came away with were a couple of ball retrievers!). Items like that sell at a deep discount at the show. If you love the game, it’s easy to get caught-up in the spectacle of all that goes on there each year, despite its apparent downgrade from what it used to be.

  2. Ryan M

    Jan 31, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    Definitely another good article Mr. Adams.

    I really want to go to the show one of these years. Not to see TM, Cally, or Titleist but the smaller companies.

  3. Gordon

    Jan 31, 2015 at 1:58 am

    C.O.R. reduction etc would be an interesting subject for a future article. As a naturally cynical person Mr Adams pieces are a breath of fresh air within the marketing hot air. Thanks

  4. Jason

    Jan 29, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    Great story. As a PGA professional, I often walk the floor of the convention center and wonder, how do all these companies, especially the niche manufacturers make enough money to justify being here. I seldom set foot in a major manufacturer’s booth because they pay reps to come and see me at my facility. For me, the show is about relationship building and catching up with old friends in the industry. Its a hell of a show though, that’s for sure!

  5. Walter

    Jan 28, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Now they need to open it up to the public and charge a nominal entrance fee. This would put a new spin on it and create a new buzz.

  6. Walter

    Jan 28, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    A sign of an ever changing economy and industry.

  7. ABOMB

    Jan 28, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    I absolutely hate this website’s new format

  8. Greg Pickett

    Jan 28, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    It doesn’t sound good,been in the repair , club building for 40 years in Memphis Tennessee , not good here.

  9. Greg V

    Jan 28, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    Thanks for the history lesson!

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