Written By: Tony Covey

The Future of Cleveland Golf

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but big changes are underway at Cleveland Golf. For those who haven’t been paying attention, Cleveland and its parent company SRI Sports (Srixon) have been dropping breadcrumbs for the better of the season. We touched upon the trail briefly in our lead-in to the Tour Rack Wedge giveaway, but for the sake of clarity, let me briefly walk you down the path of recent history.

  • Cleveland kicks off the MY CUSTOM WEDGE Program
  • Cleveland release super game-improvement Smart Sole wedges
  • Cleveland develops a video series with short game tips from Dave Pelz
  • Cleveland hosts short game clinics all over the country
  • Cleveland launches Limited Edition Tour Rack Wedge program
  • Srixon makes its most aggressive US launch ever with Z F 545 and 745 Irons and metalwoods

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What does this all mean?

Do you notice a trend?

Let me spell it out for you. There’s a new plan underway at SRI Sports. While Cleveland isn’t completely going away, the brand’s role in the larger company will be significantly diminished. The Srixon brand will seek to make inroads into the US Market with its own metalwood and iron offerings, while the Cleveland brand will be used for short game clubs, as well as ultralight and game-improvement models (the Altitude series) most specifically designed for seniors. As it was explained to us, Cleveland’s new target market for all things not wedge is The Villages.

Outside of Florida’s friendliest hometown, Cleveland, it appears, is all but exiting the larger iron and metalwoods markets.

Allow me to reiterate. If what closely connected sources are telling us is accurate (and we think it it is) Cleveland Golf will no longer produce drivers, fairway woods, hybrids, or irons for the full market. Instead, it will focus its efforts on wedges, and a niche segments of the metalwoods and irons market.

No doubt some of you are saddened by that news.

Rumors Swirling for Years

Over the last several years, there isn’t another golf company on the planet that’s been the subject of more rumors than Cleveland Golf. Here’s just a quick sample of what’s come up this year alone:

  • Under Armour wants into the club market. It’s buying Cleveland.
  • Go Daddy founder, Bob Parsons, he’s buying Cleveland too.
  • Nobody is buying Cleveland because the company is going out of business.
  • Callaway Golf is buying Cleveland just so Roger Cleveland can put his name on a wedge again.

I totally made-up that last one, but those first ones, and a few others continue to circulate.

The reality as we understand it today is that Cleveland Golf isn’t going away. It’s not even being sold. Sources I’ve spoken with tell me that Cleveland’s parent company – Japan’s Sumitomo Rubber Industries (the SRI in SRI Sports and SRIxon) actually likes being in the golf business. SRI wants to stay in the golf business.

Srixon Matters

On this side of the world Srixon is certainly better known for its golf balls than its clubs, but elsewhere in the world, Japan to be totally specific, Srixon is the #1 selling hard goods company in the market. Basically Srixon kills it over there, which is pretty damn impressive considering that Japan has the second largest golf market on the planet. The US and Japanese markets combined (according to Golf Datatech) make up 70% of the total worldwide market for golf.

Basically, Japan matters…a lot. Srixon is big in Japan. Therefore Srixon matters.

I just got 5 points on a 4th grade logic test.

Why Is This Happening?

Like just about everything else in the golf business, change is necessitated by the bottom line. Whatever you may think about Cleveland, the brand and its products, the fact is that the company’s market share in the iron and metalwoods categories has steadily declined over the last several seasons. We know there are plenty of you out there who love your Cleveland clubs (the Launcher driver comes up quite a bit), but one could make a reasonably compelling argument that Cleveland has failed to generate any real excitement since the Hi-Bore came out.

In that lies the problem.

irons-market-share

metals-market-share

wedges-market-share

According to the most recent Golf Datatech reports, Cleveland’s share of the metalwoods market has dropped to 1%. That means that 99 of every 100 dollars spent on woods goes to someone else. The iron business isn’t doing much better. That same report shows Cleveland with a 1.67% share of the market.

Obviously, that’s not where Cleveland once was, and it’s certainly not where it wants to be.

Wedges? Well, as you might imagine given the company’s position as one of the iconic wedge makers in the game, Cleveland does significantly better there. The recent report has them at 21% of the market (trailing only Vokey at ~40%).

 

The bottom line is that wedges are the last true bright spot in the Cleveland club lineup (and even there, Cleveland is down 7% from last season), so it makes sense for SRI to do whatever it can to focus the Cleveland brand on what’s still working.

The upside for Cleveland fans is that the company apparently has plans to substantially expand its wedge lineup. In addition to the multiple loft and bounce options currently available, Cleveland will finally offer multiple different grinds as well.

Can Srixon Make It In the USA?

Once upon a time Srixon golf balls were little more than a curiosity with a funny name. Over time the brand has grown to a point of respectability within the US Market, although (in the interest of painting a complete picture), the brand currently ranks only #6 on Datatech’s golf ball market share report. The point is that while many US-based golfers might be familiar with the name, it would be a stretch to say that we’ve completely embraced it.

That said, Srixon’s percentage of the ball market is higher than Cleveland’s in both the the iron and metalwoods market (combined), and the brand does have a strong overseas presence, which, if leveraged correctly could have some impact on our market.

The bigger issue is distribution. As it stands now, other than the ball shelf, it’s difficult to find Srixon products anywhere. As big box shops like Dick’s downsize the golf business while other seek to eliminate outstanding inventory, getting shop managers to buy into a largely unknown brand that doesn’t currently even register in Datatech’s numbers won’t be easy. Srixon is currently included in other.

Srixon makes clubs? That will be asked, and asked often.

It’s more difficult for a new brand to make inroads into golf, and while Srixon isn’t exactly new, its less of a known commodity than Bridgestone, who will also be making a big push in 2015. Quite frankly, I don’t

But Wait, There’s More

As you might imagine, the realignment will have some implications on tour as well. While we fully expect current Cleveland staffers to keep their Cleveland gear in their bag as long as they so desire, as soon as each is ready, the Tour guys will bag Srixon woods and irons. Srixon name will eventually be the primary branding for all things tour related (other than wedges). We also expect SRI Sports will launch a marketing campaign designed to raise awareness of the brand’s usage on tour.

You’re likely going to hear a lot more about Srixon.

As an interesting aside to all of this, SRI Sports will look to expand the footprint of the lesser known XXIO brand (SRI’s premium offering). Although US distribution is currently limited to less than 2 dozen accounts nationwide, the brand has generated roughly one million in sales this year. This, despite wholesale pricing for irons and woods that’s roughly double the street price for the average club.

And So It Continues

We’ve talked several times about the ongoing consolidation of the golf industry, and so here’s your latest example. Once one of the most iconic brands in the golf business, Cleveland’s days as a full line manufacturer appear to be over. Srixon will step in to fill the void while attempting a serious run at the US Market.

Given the changes, it’s not unrealistic to think that we’re on the verge of losing another of golf’s formerly great brands. The pink elephant in the room, however, is the slow demise of Adam’s Golf. The shifting of operations to TaylorMade’s Carlsbad headquarters has many predicting that it won’t be long before Adams simply ceases to exist. If those doom and gloom predictions become reality it could conceivably open the door for Cleveland to gain a foothold in those areas where the Adams brand performs well (seniors and game-improvement).

You could make a serious argument that the demise of Adams represents Cleveland’s best chance for survival.

The impending changes are perhaps sad. They’re perhaps frustrating, and some will argue that the modern business of golf made it impossible for Cleveland to compete. Ultimately, like everything else, it is what it is.

Stay Tuned

Unfortunately, we don’t believe the industry is done realigning and downsizing. There’s almost certainly more yet to come.

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