FIFG

Hitting the fairway: Footgolf aims to take over the United States

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What do you have when you take the complexities of golf and match them up with the physical demands of kicking a soccer ball?

It’s called Footgolf.

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The sport dates back to the late 1920s — when it was still a concept and was known as codeball — but is now finally gaining traction on a global scale as one of the hottest up-and-coming sports, and rivaling both soccer and golf.

AFGL
AFGL

The beauty of Footgolf is that it only takes a soccer ball and a player in order to participate. The objective is straightforward. In as few kicks as possible the player must attempt to get the soccer ball into a cup with a 21-inch diameter.

Just as it is when playing golf, the lengths on most traditional Footgolf courses range from par 3 (the shortest length) to par 5 (the longest).

In the U.S., soccer has made great strides over the years at both the club and international levels, while golf has seen its share of peaks as well during the height of the Tiger Woods-Era, but American Footgolf League (AFGL) founder Roberto Balestrini believes that it is footgolf that has the potential to captivate the country moving forward.

Pro Soccer Talk recently caught up with Balestrini following the release of the Federation for International Footgolf (FIFG) international calendar which features a full-year schedule for the 2017 World Tour, similar to that of the PGA Tour.

“Soccer players retire early in life due to injuries or just because it is difficult for many of them to perform at the highest level when they’re in their late 20’s, early 30’s,” Balestrini told PST. “The AFGL has created a structure where former soccer players can get back into the spotlight playing FootGolf. In a few more years, we will see many of them taking up this sport on the professional level to continue to use their athletic skill in a new way.”

Expectations for Footgolf in the U.S. are very high despite the AFGL’s brief existence. The organization was founded in 2011 but has quickly grown to house over 500 courses throughout the U.S. in 49 states as well as Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

For the time being, North Dakota is the lone state that doesn’t feature a Footgolf course.

While the AFGL’s steady growth is encouraging for Balestrini and those of the Footgolf community, the league president has his sights set on bigger goals in the future.

“The golf industry has welcomed AFGL because we’re introducing a new demographic to the industry,” Balestrini said. “Participation in golf is declining in an average of 1.3 percent per year for the past decade while soccer is increasing by over eight percent. Now golf is doing better and perhaps FootGolf have something to do with it, even in a very small percentage. We’re working on our relationship with the soccer industry now because we had to start on the golf side to initiate relationships with the golf courses to create the necessary structure for the FootGolf to be played around the country.

“There’s a lot of potential for us to work with both sides in order to get where we want to be in the future. We just have to keep working hard and over the next five years I believe we’ll be in the position we want to be at.”

In an effort to help gain more interest from traditional soccer players and supporters, the AFGL recently announced a partnership with the American Outlaws (the U.S. Men’s National Team’s biggest supporter group). The deal includes an American Outlaws-only Footgolf tournament which will be held in March in San Jose, California.

In 2016, the AFGL reported nearly 1,300 members participated in the U.S. Footgolf National Championship., however, that number is expected to double or possibly triple for the coming 12 months.

Images of the American Foot Golf, final day, at the Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, Ca., on Sunday, November 6, 2016. Photo by Rodrigo Pena
Images of the American Foot Golf, final day, at the Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, Ca., on Sunday, November 6, 2016. (Photo by Rodrigo Pena)

The current format for the AFGL is very similar to that of golf, with tournaments typically played on weekends over the course of one to sometimes three rounds, depending on the difficulty of the competition.

The country is divided into four regions — the Northeast, Midwest, South and West — with regional tournaments sporadically played throughout the calendar year in the lead up to the National Championship at Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, California.

While the prize money doesn’t rival that of golf or other major sports in the U.S., several of the sport’s elite expect Footgolf to become just as profitable over the next few years.

Jordan Godfrey, one of the faces of the AFGL, believes its only a matter of time until the sport really hits its strides because of the different avenues that attract players.

“I don’t think we know how far down the line that is but with the right connections between the players and the leadership of the sport I know that we can get it there,” Godfrey told PST. “There’s huge potential that you can take from both sides, with the PGA and MLS and all of European soccer as well.

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AFGL

“You can use formats that soccer players understand as well as formats that fans of golf understand and combine the two in order to capture two large audiences. I think spectators could really enjoy watching the sport too and obviously we’d love to be living the life of the PGA Tour guys.”

Godfrey is one of many footgolfers to join the AFGL after having had a background in soccer earlier in life.

Julian Nash, a former MLS forward for the San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo, has also made the leap to Footgolf and seen early success during his time on the course. On the international scene, Roberto Fabian Ayala has also completed a similar route to Footgolf after having previous played for top European clubs like AC Milan and Valencia while also representing the Argentina national team.

In 2016, Sharif Khatib finished the year as the number one-ranked player on the AFGL Tour. It was his previously experience around the beautiful game that made him seek a competitive alternative once his playing days were over.

Like many others that have tried out Footgolf, Khatib became enamored with the sport immediately and has surrounded himself with it ever since.

“I grew up playing soccer my whole life and played Division I soccer in college at Loyola Marymount University,” Khatib told PST. “After I got out of college I wasn’t really playing competitive soccer anymore so I was looking for another sport to give me that adrenaline rush and something to compete in. My buddy told me about Footgolf and I was kind of intrigued by it when I first heard about it because of my soccer background and I figured it was a sport I could do well in.

“I went and played and ever since day one I’ve been in love with the sport. I felt like I had the skills to compete at the highest level so I’ve just been pursuing it over the years and been hoping to continue to get better each time I go out on the course.”

Sports are one of many channels that connect people throughout the world, and Footgolf is no different. With 35 official Footgolf federations spread across the globe, the opportunity for travel and to build relationships with players is what makes the sport’s future so attractive.

Angel Reyes — the 2016 U.S. National Championship winner — says that while his experiences domestically with Footgolf have been amazing that the sport’s opportunities to take him abroad have been not only eye-opening but a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“It’s definitely a great experience with playing club back in the day,” Reyes said. “Now I play with my Footgolf club [Canyon City] and we have five or six guys that usually travel together and carpool for tournaments. Sharing hotels as well.

“It’s not just the brotherhood of the club either because you get to meet other people from Europe, South America, Asia, Oceania, Africa and many other places. You keep in touch with all these people from everywhere around the world and experience these places that I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to go to. I’m very thankful for that”