What golfer wouldn’t want a hole-in-one to be immortalized on film – and to win money for it?
A tech startup named Swing King is trying to make that more of a reality at golf courses around the country, providing technology for everyday hole-in-one contests that have paid off almost $500,000 in prize money the past few years.
The business is the brainchild of former Redbox senior vice president of technology Eric Hoersten, who teamed up former Redbox CEO and founder, Gregg Kaplan, to start Swing King. A $2 billion business, Redbox made a splash with those conveniently-located kiosks that dispense millions of movie and video game discs. Kaplan and Hoersten envisioned similar fully-automated systems on the golf course and enlisted the expertise of sports technology expert Mike Jakob, who was hired as CEO after serving as President for Sportvision -- a company best known for inventing the yellow first down line viewers see on football telecasts.
Swing King is now in about 30 states and has been installed at almost 300 courses, approximately 90% of which are public and resort properties.
So, how does it work? Swing King installs HD cameras that are constantly filming, capturing footage of each and every golfer on a par-3 hole at a participating course. A golfer paying an additional $5 in the pro shop at the start of the round could win $10,000 for a hole-in-one, for example, while a $10 entry could earn $20,000 for an ace. Some facilities also offer the opportunity to enter on the course.
“It’s the combination of having the right technology and the right team with experience in sports and tech and golf,” said Jakob, who has spent 20 years in the sports technology field capturing data and figuring out how to monetize it across platforms. “Then its putting together the right model where we generate income right out of the gate and have such a high touch-rate.”
Facilities will usually pick one par-3 hole per course and Swing King will install three cameras in inconspicuous locations, whether that’s a building, tree or pole that’s set up specifically for the system. The cameras, designed to last up to five years, tie in to the course’s electricity, typically into the irrigation system.
“We’ll try to install in a spot that blends into the background,” Jakob said of the cameras, which can provide a lifelong memory along with the official documentation of a hole-in-one without a witness being present.
Some courses don’t even pay for the system, which involves a revenue-sharing program. Courses will often sign a multiyear contract – some of which have no upfront fee for installation – and can generate an average annual revenue of $20,000 per course. A portion of that revenue, anywhere between 15% and 50% depending on the contract, goes to the golf course.
Only golfers who opt into a contest are eligible to win prizes, which range from $1,000 to $100,000, with the possibility of even a $1 million payout for special events. Courses with the Swing King technology report participation rates anywhere between 7% and 50% for the program. Some properties are looking to differentiate themselves by bundling the added cost into the standard playing fee and automatically qualifying every golfer for the chance at a $1,000 or $2,500 hole-in-one. Other golfers might be entered as part of a company or charity outing.
Wade Keats of Winnetka, Illinois, was one of those. The par-3 13th hole at Chevy Chase Country Club outside Chicago was a lucky one for Keats, who made an ace and later learned he won $10,000 because event organizers had purchased an entry for every participant.
“I was already in total shock, but that floored me,” Keats told the Chicago Tribune.
Chicago-based Swing King has installations at more than 40% of public courses in the Chicago Metro area, including all four courses at Cog Hill.
Swing King is also expanding the platform beyond holes-in-one. Certain venues offer payouts such as five times the entry fee for a tee shot “within the flagstick” or money back for hitting the green off the tee. The increase in sports betting in certain states could lead to other opportunities, such as a rolling pot for a hole-in-one.
Ultimately, what Swing King is hoping to do is give golfers a chance to celebrate a memorable moment a little bit more – with video and some extra money. It’s a win-win for golfers and facilities, increasing revenue while potentially boosting interest in golf and incremental rounds.
“It’s a combination of sensing opportunity in the marketplace and then ultimately bringing fun and entertainment to the sport of golf -- giving golfers more of a Topgolf experience on the course and bringing gamification to the game,” Jakob said. “It fits within what the market wants. For the golf clubs themselves, it’s two-fold: adding programming and a layer of fun and entertainment for the golfer.”