Playing for Kicks! Footgolf popularity sweeps U.S.
Several versions of footgolf, a sport that combines soccer and golf, had been kicked around in various European countries for about 20 years—Switzerland in the late ’80s, Scandinavia in the ’90s—before being introduced in the United States through the American FootGolf League (AFGL).
It was a simple search by AFGL founder Roberto Balestrini that led to a lucky strike for the now up-and-coming sport. “I discovered this European sport searching for international soccer games in TV in early 2011,” he said. “A TV station from Argentina presented a footgolf show on DirecTV and I saw it and immediately fell in love with the concept!”
Balestrini and his wife, Laura, launched the AFGL later that year and it has grown officially from there. “After that, with the help of some colleagues, we did the same in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Canada,” he said. “Today, footgolf is played under the Federation for International FootGolf (FIFG) in the entire North American continent.” Balestrini serves as FIFG president.
Since 2012, the FIFG has been recognized as the world’s governing body for the sport and the AFGL is the governing body for the sport in U.S. In 2015, Balestrini was named one of the “10 Most Innovative People in Golf” by Golf Inc. magazine for his efforts that, according to the Professional Golf Association (PGA), may ultimately revive the game of golf—or at least utilize its courses in a different way.
Today, under the direction of the FIFG, footgolf is played in 32 countries. At the national level, it’s expanded into all 50 states (North Dakota was No. 50), the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories in the Caribbean, according to the FIFG and Balestrini.
Playing For Kicks
Perhaps more like golf than soccer, footgolf can be played on a golf course or a course specifically designed for the sport. It can be played alone or as a team. Feet and a regulation soccer ball take the place of clubs and the much smaller golf ball.
Starting from a tee box, players kick the ball toward a 21-inch cup, avoiding various bunkers, trees, water and hills, just as in golf, and whomever finishes with the fewest number of kicks wins.
Unlike golf, footgolf moves at a faster pace and doesn’t require pricey equipment, making it more accessible. Like golf, it’s a non-contact sport so it’s a “very safe game,” according to Balestrini.
Among soccer players particularly, the sport is gaining traction, said Balastrini. “Soccer players and their families are discovering the sport,” he said, “and our phone is ringing off the hook with questions and requests for information, mostly tournaments, events and competitions.”
But, he said, the sport is not just for “soccer people.” “People of all ages can kick a soccer ball and walk towards a 21-inch cup located yards away from golf greens,” Balastrini said. “But millennials and kids are by far” the most engaged players.
Enticing millennials to golf courses, even to play a variation on the traditional game, holds promise. As reported in a 2017 January SportsEvents article, that demographic is losing interest in traditional golf and an overall exodus from the sport has led to the closure of more than 160 golf courses since 2013, according to the World Golf Association.
Par for the Course
Though international interest in soccer is greater, the U.S. is well equipped to expand the reach of the sport, according to Balestrini.
“Europe, South America and Asia have more soccer fans than us but we have thousands of golf courses in America and every day new people discover footgolf, he said. “Recreationally, we estimate around 10,000 players book footgolf tee times every month at AFGL-affiliated courses.”
Because footgolf can be played on existing golf courses, Balestrini took the game there first. But he said the focus now is on expanding the sport’s reach beyond the greens.
“We started with golf courses and we are now working with park districts, schools, soccer complex, churches, municipalities, private companies,” he said. “Everybody wants their own footgolf course affiliated with the AFGL to promote or enjoy what Ballestrini calls the best game ever invented!”
For now, Balestrini said he is focused on making sure all AFGL courses are up to the sport’s standard but he’s set his sights on developing a professional footgolf league in the long term.
The AFGL calendar is packed with promotional events to competitions that range from the AFGL Tour, the U.S. FootGolf Open (a pro-am tournament), the U.S. National Championship and the FIFG World Cup. In general, competition is open to men and women (18 years and older), seniors (men 46 and older) and juniors (12- to 17-year-old boys and girls).
Balestrini said growth has happened on both the recreational and competitive sides of footgolf, noting that this year, nearly 2,000 players competed in qualifiers for the U.S. FootGolf National Championship, a 60 percent increase.
The Host City Scores
Those numbers translate into dollars for cities that host footgolf qualifiers, tournaments and championships. Because of the international appeal of the sport, Balestrini opts for cities that are easily accessible for players traveling from other countries and locations that make nice vacation spots for families.
“It has to be a location where there are players who are interested in the sport and easy to get to for the players who want to travel,” he said. “We really want a host city that wants to be involved in the event and see the community get involved besides being a tournament.”
Los Angeles, Orlando and Las Vegas were among the cities that Balestrini mentioned that feature international airports and lots of entertainment options.
“Players love to travel with their young families and spend the tournament week visiting all the attractions in the area,” he said. “Kissimmee Sports Commission and Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau are our major partners. They offer great local support in many ways!”
Going for the Goal
Footgolf isn’t just for golfers or soccer players, though the more soccer players discover the sport, the more it is growing, according to Balestrini. Even athletes who may have been injured while playing other sports are finding that footgolf is a new outlet for them to compete in, he said.
Since the last FIFG FootGolf World Cup in 2016, the sport has made significant gains and will hold its third World Cup in Marrakesh, Morocco, in December 2018. There, more than 400 players from nearly 40 countries will compete, compared to 230 players and 26 countries who participated in Argentina.
While he is enjoying the sport’s continued growth, Balestrini said he is especially looking ahead to that global competition. “We, the United States, are the current world champion in the team category,” he said, “and I can’t be more proud about it!”