JOSH, a mid-30s dad, steps out onto his lawn to talk to PETE and RYAN, who are shooting hoops in the nearby cul-de-sac.
PETE: Hey, man, what’s up? Is Crystal out with the kids?
Josh high fives them both.
JOSH: Yeah, man. She has them with her parents in Houston all weekend, so I am ready to par-tay. We golfin’?
Pete and Ryan exchange looks.
PETE: Dude, you are so behind.
RYAN: Hey, now, he’s got two little kids, he doesn’t know. It’s like being underwater – when Jazz and Kaychel were that age…
PETE: Yes, yes, we know. Josh, buddy, we play croquet now.
Josh stares at the two of them, dumbfounded. Several seconds pass in silence. Suddenly, his face breaks into a smile.
JOSH: Awww, you almost had me. Good one, guys. So I’ll pick up some beers and meet you at the course? When’s our tee time?
RYAN: What? No dude, we’re serious. Why drink beer and play sports when you can dress in all white, drink fruit liqueur and engage in a game of low-stakes strategy? I’ll loan you some whites if you don’t have any.
Josh looks back and forth between them.
JOSH: For real?
Pete’s face cracks first, he doubles over laughing. Ryan starts laughing, too.
PETE: I’m sorry, I can’t keep a straight face anymore.
RYAN: No dude, I was done, too. Josh, man, we’re joshin’ you. Tee time’s at noon.
The Wall Street Journal, among other publications, has reported a growing interest in croquet, particularly among a certain demographic that once gravitated toward golf and tennis:
The sport’s popularity among retirees isn’t just about finding a joint-friendly activity. They say they enjoy the social aspect of the sport and the fact that it’s easy to learn. The result is that properties with croquet courts, especially in Florida and North Carolina, are “very hot,” right now, says Sara Low, president of the U.S. Croquet Association, a trade group with roughly 200 member clubs throughout the country.
However, though it is becoming more popular among this set, the sport itself doesn’t hold a candle to the $84 billion dollar golf industry, and the Telegraph predicts it will not survive until 2037 unless some interest can be drummed up among a younger set of players.
The latest poll of 2,000 Britons found that despite being voted the top quintessential sport in the UK - along with tennis and cricket - 74 per cent had 'no interest' in [croquet] at all.
It revealed that 20 per cent of those quizzed had never even heard of the sport - which involves hitting balls through hoops with a croquet mallet on a grass lawn. In fact, respondents were 16 times more likely to understand the rules of Quidditch - a fictional game invented by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter books.
But how can a sport as traditionally stiff as croquet (as Ryan said, all-white dress code, Pimm’s, strategy over athleticism) resonate with a Millennial audience? How do you get Ryan, Josh and Pete to take up mallets, on occasion, instead of clubs?
The year was 1996. A young, then-barely-known athlete named Tiger Woods teed off at the Greater Milwaukee Open. It was his professional debut. The next year, at only 21 years old, he would win the Masters by 12 shots, changing the game forever. He was everything that golf, traditionally a game for older white men, needed at the time. According to Golf Digest:
Someday Eldrick (Tiger) Woods, a mixed-race kid with a middle-class background who grew up on a municipal course in the sprawl of Los Angeles, may be hailed as the greatest golfer who ever lived, but it is likely that his finest day will always be the overcast Sunday in Augusta when he humiliated the world’s best golfers, shot 18-under-par 70-66-65-69-270 (the lowest score in tournament history) and won the Masters by a preposterous 12 shots. It was the soundest whipping in a major this century and second only to Old Tom Morris’s 13-shot triumph in the 1862 British Open.
When Tiger finally slipped into his green champion’s jacket, his 64-year-old father, Earl, drank in a long look and said, “Green and black go well together, don’t they?”
Also in 1996, two wildly successful golf movies featuring young, underdog players bucking the stuffy tradition of the sport would be released: Happy Gilmore starring Adam Sandler and Tin Cup with Kevin Costner at the height of his career. Most Gen-Xers and older millennials can quote the two movies ad nauseam. Ryan and Pete do every Saturday, with a few Caddyshack nah-nah-nah-nahs thrown in for good measure.
Twenty-two years later, enthusiasm for the sport itself is waning somewhat, but with institutions like Topgolf booming and moments like Tiger’s recent Masters upset still making mainstream news, Pete, Ryan and Josh are in no danger of ruining their reputations as cool suburban dads with a weekly game.
Croquet needs to get where golf got in 1996, but despite the comparison among retiree pastimes and regarding the “older white men” stigma, croquet is a very different game than golf. It needs a different hero. And its differences from golf are its greatest advantage.
In many ways, croquet’s disconnect with younger players doesn’t make sense. Croquet is more forgiving of Josh’s dad bod than golf. And while Ryan still looks like a jock since he installed the home gym in his garage, he really likes to strategize more than anything. And Pete. Pete just wants a few beers with his buddies. Pete can’t hit a solid drive to save his life after he’s had a few, but he can whack a big ball through a hoop all day long.
Not to mention the fact that all three could easily bring their wives and kids to play, if they wanted to.
According to an interview with former world number one Lee Westwood for Golf Monthly, younger players aren’t signing on for golf because:
- It’s too hard to learn.
- It takes too long to play.
- It’s very expensive.
- Women and girls are not encouraged to play.
The problem stems from the fact that we are not doing a very good job of introducing the game to people. The way we do it now is to welcome new players to the golf course, show them how to purchase range balls for practicing and how to book a tee time. Then we show them what clubs they should be using for the different shots and give them some tips on the basic fundamentals. Then they are basically on their own.
And yet with all those issues, golf has more or less stabilized at 24 million on-course golfers and over 107 million enthusiasts. The reason is obvious: it’s still a sport. There are still athletes, some of them awe-inspiring, that enthusiasts admire or wish to emulate.
Croquet, on the other hand, is super easy to learn, takes much less time to play, costs much less both in overhead and for players, and is inclusive: almost anyone able to stand upright can be competitive. And yet Josh, Pete and Ryan wouldn’t be caught dead doing it, because as sports go, the players look more like accountants and less like Tiger Woods.
That considered, however, croquet has some major advantages that should be appealing to Millennials. According to this article from Croquet Network:
- A round of singles golf croquet can be played out in about 20-25 minutes, compared with 3-4 hours of golf.
- Croquet only has one mallet to golf’s bag of clubs.
- Croquet features strategy that mirrors business strategy and might be a much more intuitive setting for “golf course business” than a golf course.
- Croquet intrudes on much less green space than golf.
- And it’s impossible to lose your (much bigger) balls in croquet.
But aside from a couple of niche hipster venues and events, virtually unknown professional players across the pond, and the occasional PR stunt, croquet isn’t resonating when it should be.
The biggest problem croquet has from a marketing standpoint is its constant comparison to golf; that, and the all-white dress code and fruit drinks that simply will never appeal to Ryan, Pete and Josh like it will to sweet old ladies from Baton Rouge. As Happy Gilmore said, “If I saw myself in those clothes, I’d kick my own a##.”
Not to say that the tradition needs to be bucked entirely, but maybe a nod here and there would suffice – Pimm’s always available among other fare, white shirts, but otherwise an open dress code – or keep the all-white code and encourage more creativity among the all-white uniforms.
The sport needs to play to its strengths – inclusive, less expensive, less time-consuming, etc. – and play up the outdoor, social opportunity it provides. And while there is no Tiger Woods in sight to make it look sexy, there are probably plenty of Ryans, Petes and Joshes who would post Instagram pics of themselves playing if the lawns look as cool as the Crazy Croquet course that was on Heathrow Airport’s terminal two in 2015.
Especially if the course were, say, at a brewery or distillery instead of an airport where the guys (and maybe their wives) could be sipping while they play.
As for whether croquet has any sex appeal, according to Cherwell:
The traditional perception of croquet as a genteel, chess-like game is very much at odds with the game’s true nature – at least at an amateur level. Nothing satisfies more than, with the other players baying for blood, stepping up and pummelling your arch-enemy’s ball deep into the thickest possible hedge to raucous jeers of approval.
The Elysian setting of many croquet lawns (particularly in Oxford), with immaculate grass, a spreading beech tree, and a jug of Pimm’s on the table, can serve to mask the casual malice of the game.
Participants may look like they are getting along, with the game often proceeding very slowly. But in their grasp they have blunt wooden instruments capable of denting even the most resilient of skulls. Despite the game often being played on vicarage-like lawns, it can often have such an incendiary effect on those taking part.
Does that sound like something Josh, Ryan and Pete might get into? Definitely.
With just a few moves, croquet has all the potential to be a Cinderella story... outta nowhere. It just needs to step up the game with Millennials the same way it has with the older set: as an accessible and attractive alternative to time and money the audience is already spending.