The disc golf community is filled with smart, dedicated people who organize tournaments and leagues, build new courses, volunteer their time and money, develop private businesses and non-profits that advocate for the sport, and connect disc golfers through clubs and social media.
But one thing disc golf does not have is a group of researchers who are willing and able to seek funding and design studies that are both methodologically rigorous and relevant to the sport.
As a result, there’s much we don’t know about disc golf. Although I can think of several important unanswered questions, one stands out: How many disc golfers are there? How many people played at least 18 holes last year?
I overturned every digital rock in the library in search of an answer, but found none.
The PDGA compiles excellent data on its membership, but not on the disc golf community at large. There are only three related academic studies on disc golf: one on the diffusion of disc golf courses across the U.S. (1), one on the physical injuries sustained by Danish disc golfers (2), and one on the amount of money people are willing to pay to play disc golf (3).
None of these studies offer any clues about the total number of active disc golfers.
The folks at Infinite Discs have led an impressive effort to study disc golfers, but again the representativeness of their data is unknown. There’s also a scattering of disc golf surveys and polls on individual websites, blogs, Facebook groups, and other social media, including ones by the Disc Golf Farm and the School of Disc Golf, but these suffer from even greater methodological limitations.
Put simply, no one has attempted to estimate the total number of active disc golfers in the United States. At this point in time – late summer 2016 – we simply do not know how many people play disc golf, or whether the size of this group is increasing, stagnating, or in decline.
Without this information, it’s risky for public agencies and private businesses to make big investments in disc golf. Meanwhile, the number of participants of other sports, many of which compete with disc golf for the same public funds and private investment dollars, is well known.
There are at least three national sports participation surveys carried out annually that produce sound population estimates for no fewer than 150 different sports. For instance, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2016 survey, we know that 3.9 million people went rafting in 2015; 3.2 million tried scuba diving; 6.4 million hopped on a skateboard, and a whopping 37.2 million people went hiking.
That last statistic is hard to swallow, if you ask me. A group of people that is more than a thousand times larger than the total PDGA membership walked around in the woods last year without a bag of discs.
Numerous disc golf enthusiasts have offered their how-to manuals for growing the sport. Many disc golfers believe that the sport will someday break from the fringe and go mainstream.
But if it does, how will we know?
It’s time for the movers and shakers of disc golf to pool their funds and invest in an annual, large-scale disc golf survey based on rigorous measurement and sampling techniques.
(1) Oldakowski, R., and J. W. Mcewen (2013). Diffusion of disc golf courses in the United States. Geographical Review 103(3): 355-371.
(2) Rahbek, Martin Amadeus, and Rasmus Oestergaard Nielsen (2016). Injuries in disc golf – A descriptive cross-sectional study. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy 11(1): 132.
(3) Mohoney, Haley K. (2014). An Economic Study of the Richmond Hill Disc Golf Course. Proceedings of the National Conference On Undergraduate Research, April 3-5, 84-94.