January 27, 2009

It's Showtime!

Once a product showcase with all the fireworks you could ask for, The PGA Merchandise Show now focuses on innovation and the exchange of ideas

Mike Johnson says it's time for the PGA to open the show to the public.

Mike Johnson says it's time for the PGA to open the show to the public.

• VIDEOS: Golf World and Golf Digest present their annual product awards

• Golf Digest's teaching pros Harmon, Haney & Leadbetter at the show

• Experience the show's demo days, tour the exhibition floor - Part 1 | Part 2

• Mr. Style interviews Morgan Pressel | The lastest innovations in golf apparel

The annual PGA Merchandise Show is one of the great mysteries of the golf industry in that for everyone connected to the business of golf it is their Super Bowl. For those who merely play the game, however, most have never heard of it -- and if they have, the majority doesn't have a clue as to why it's a big deal.

Make no mistake -- the PGA Merchandise Show is a big deal, at least in terms of numbers. The show floor boasts more than 1,000 exhibitors and covers more than 10 miles of aisles. All told there is 1 million square feet of exhibit, demonstration and presentation space for the more than 45,000 expected attendees who will roam the aisles over three days.

Still, the show has changed mightily over the years. Having gone to my first show in 1986 and not having missed one since, I have witnessed first-hand the amazing growth and, unfortunately, the fizzling out of much of the excitement. Twenty-plus years ago the show was THE place where company's debuted new product -- bats and balls that were shrouded in secrecy so the company could unleash them to their sales reps just days before the show doors swung open, then watched the feeding frenzy as golf pros and retailers placed orders for the new stuff. Lavish presentations often were made to media, too, giving us all plenty to write about for that week -- and for the weeks that followed.

Now the product cycles, especially for equipment, have changed. And so has the show. Instead of drooling over the latest and greatest, it has become increasingly difficult to answer the question everyone asks each other: What have you seen that's new and exciting? Unfortunately, I've pretty much seen it all before I get here. And so has everyone else in the industry. A show that used to produce some fireworks is now pretty much just an industry group hug.

For this year, that might change to group therapy. With the economic downturn the most interesting thing this year might simply be the overall mood on the show floor. Normally a bastion of optimism, even in lean times, this year may prove different. Despite the fact the show is at least eight times larger than when I first attended, and despite the return of many big companies such as Titleist and Ping, there's no escaping the fact this show will be different. I got to Orlando today and ran into a few folks in the hotel lobby. Each essentially asked the same question: Well, what do you think?

They needn't go any further. We all knew what was being asked. So here's what I think. The show certainly has some negatives, namely its size and cost to exhibitors. But I have always felt it was a vital industry gathering that goes far beyond the casual meet-and-greet and boozing that goes on at many conventions (although I would be lying if I said there wasn't a healthy dose of both here). The education seminars alone make it worthwhile. And for smart professionals such as the ones on Golf World's 100 Best Golf Shops list that will be feted Wednesday night at the show, it is an opportunity to seek out the equipment, apparel and accessories from companies to small to send a sales rep to their door. In short, if you're not at the show you're out of the golf business for the week.

That said, it is time for the PGA of America and Reed Exhibitions (which manages the show) to swing their doors open a little wider. Now an industry only gathering, it's time to let the kids in the candy store and allow the public in. It's not only the right thing to do, but it would put some pizzazz back into it. We may have seen everything, but the public hasn't. It might even make the show a big deal again.