By Scott Kirsner, Editor
Arjun Chowdri had a pretty decent handicap when he took on the role of Chief Innovation Officer at the Professional Golfers’ Association of America earlier this year: he’d already spent seven years at the Florida-based trade association, in a series of marketing and strategy roles.“As a not-for-profit trade association, we want to be sure we’re part of, rather than a victim of, inevitable disruption” in the golf industry, says Chowdri. Already, he has overseen the acquisition of Nextgengolf, a Boston-based startup that focuses on attracting young people to the game.
Chowdri says that a big part of his mission can be summed up by the question, “How can we be a catalyst to bring innovation into the golf industry?” Much of that innovation will relate to the digital realm, he adds.
The PGA, founded in 1916, represents 29,000 golf industry professionals and also runs some of the top golf championships, like the Ryder Cup and the PGA Championship, happening this week in Farmingdale, New York.
We spoke with Chowdri in April 2019; an edited transcript is below.
My previous role was global and corporate strategy. It was really long-term strategic planning — any projects that sat outside of anybody’s current role. A good example of that was [the search for a new headquarters]. Our existing headquarters in Palm Beach gardens, Fla. is less than ideal. It’s an older building, and we leased a building across the street – but it’s not collaborative, and it’s not in line with our brand or creating a culture of collaboration.
We looked at 190-odd cities, and…ultimately decided to move our headquarters to Frisco, Texas, just north of Dallas. [We believe it will create] greater connectivity among our staff, and between our staff and the PGA’s membership, as well as between ourselves and the community that wants to come into the game. We’re building two 18-hole courses, a nine-hole executive course, and other golf experiences, and a 500 key hotel and resort, with a retail destination and state of the art training academy. All that is slated for June 2022.
My new role is about putting more of a stake in the ground that we are going to be focused on fostering a culture of innovation and idea generation, not only amongst our staff, but the 29,000 professionals in our membership, and the industry as a whole.
Research has been under me already, but we think there are great opportunities in aggregating data, and utilizing that data to drive decision-making and strategy.
We’ll be continuing our international expansion efforts, and identifying new market spaces and directing PGA investments which can benefit the mission: to elevate the membership and drive the growth of the game.
We’ve been very good at hitting on traditional opportunities, but there are a lot of growth opportunities that we’re not focused on. As a not-for-profit trade association, we want to be sure we’re part of, rather than a victim of, inevitable disruption. So we ask, how can we be a catalyst to bring innovation into the golf industry? Some of that will be investments, but some will be encouragement and promotion [of other initiatives].
Water, for example, is a threat to the golf industry. There are companies doing some incredible work in science that can extend the life of fruits and vegetables in grocery stores, and we’ve been talking to them. Can that science be applied to sod and grass? Can it reduce dependency on water? Will it solve everything? No, but those are the things that we’re certainly seeking.
What we’ve been noticing is that there’s tremendous innovation that’s happening outside of golf that could be readily applicable for the betterment of the industry. There may be a student at MIT, Howard University, or Georgia Tech working on robotics to automate farming, but she may not be thinking, “Can this technology be adjusted to create autonomous maintenance of golf courses?” What’s the impact on labor costs and profit margins. Could it free up money to invest in different places?
From a digital perspective, we have an incredible opportunity ahead of us. We are thinking about how do we evolve and utilize PGA.com as a tool to connect PGA professionals with consumers. We started the process with a site called PGA.coach, to provide coaches tools and resources for them to connect better with consumers.
Step two is [creating a] more consumer-facing platform. How do we make it easier for a consumer to engage [with the game of golf]? It really can change the industry. Some consumers don’t feel that they’re invited, or don’t know how to get involved.
The barriers really aren’t that high. I had a cousin write a note to me, saying, “Hey, I took my kid out to the driving range the other day. He really seems to enjoy it, and he has a pretty natural swing. How do I get him more engaged?” I said, “We have PGA Junior League golf. Here’s the web site. Put in your zip code, you’ll find a coach.” But my cousin shouldn’t have to text me. It should be easier to understand, and be seamless, and more available to people.
I took on the role in January, so it would be presumptive to start hiring right now. There was not a Day One full-time staffing assumption or determination — though we do have nine new full-time staff members in Boston, as a result of the Nextgen acquisition.
When colleagues ask me, “How are you going to do this, Arjun?” I say, “With all of you.” We have a great team in the PGA, and we haven’t fully tapped into everybody’s capabilities. Part of my job is going to be, how do I create deal teams, or evaluation teams, or thought teams? A lot of it is going to be borrowing from different staff members in the organization, and in certain cases, partnering with outside experts. The organization as a whole has about 250 people, and I report to our COO — the same as in my previous role.
We also have 41 sections, which are independent entities with their own staff. I think great ideas come from everywhere, and so my hope long-term is to figure out ways to tap into ideas from all those different networks.
We look inside and outside of sports, because we are different from the typical not-for-profit organization. We run two of golf’s biggest events — the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup. So a significant piece of the PGA is an events and sports marketing organization. But the core of our mission is as a trade association.
We look at an AARP as a role model. They created an innovation group, and started investing in various companies that could help their overall mission. The Girl Scouts of America does some of this, and the [pro sports] leagues do it as well. We definitely look at other organizations, too, like Anheuser-Busch’s ZX Ventures, and even state governments, like Colorado, that are investing in startups and ventures in different ways…trying to incubate growth.
Acquiring Nextgengolf in Boston provided a tremendous opportunity for us. It fills a critical gap, in conducting teen golf tournaments, and [attracting] high school students and college students in urban markets. If [more of those acquisition opportunities] exist, certainly we’re looking at them. In terms of investing, if we can help encourage a company to think about the applicability of their technology to the industry and it can better the industry, we’re certainly going to look at everything we can do, whether it is helping promote and market it, or a direct investment —though we haven’t done any so far. Step one is to set the groundwork to do it.
By creating my role, and with the acquisition of Nextgengolf, we’re a signal to the industry that we are here, and we’re ready to be part of this inevitable disruption. We’re not going to sit back and let it happen. What’s still TBD is, how do we be part of it?
We’re in a heathy space, but like any industry, consumer and lifestyle habits change, preferences change, and we need to make sure we’re part of those changes and creating experiences that engage people the way they want to be engaged. Digital is the first part of that.