As I argued in my previous post, a publicly available, scientific estimate of the number of disc golfers in the United States does not exist. This lack of information may be hampering efforts to grow the sport.
And, frankly, it just doesn’t make sense.
There are more than 90 disc golf manufacturers of PDGA approved equipment. There are probably hundreds of other small, disc-golf-related businesses that must be interested in the potential size of their customer base.
How could so many people invest their fortunes and devote their lives to building companies that serve an unknown number of people?
One possible answer is that disc golf entrepreneurs love the sport and readily choose to work in the industry regardless of the risks and uncertainty.
Another possibility is that some disc golf companies actually know a lot about the disc golf population, but do not wish to share their data with other manufactures. Having exhausted my search for publicly available data, I decided to explore this hypothesis by contacting an unscientific sample of companies, including Innova, Discraft, Prodigy, Vibram, Dynamic Discs, Westside Discs, Gateway Discs, and the online disc golf store, Infinite Discs.
I emailed each company and asked if they could help me find data on the total number of active disc golfers in the United States or other countries.
Here’s what I found:
Disc golf goliaths Innova and Discraft did not respond to my query. Gateway Discs has also remained silent. Janne Penttilä, owner of Westside Discs, replied: “We are not too interested to share this kind of business information.”
Jackie Morris from Dynamic Discs said that they did not have the data, but kindly suggested other possible sources. Esther Benaim of Prodigy gave a similar reply, but also noted that “it is estimated (somewhere) that there are approximately one and half million people playing disc golf in the US.”
Steve Dodge from Vibram was especially generous with his time and offered a provocative clue. He wrote: “In 2003, our online disc golf store and a friendly online store calculated that about 2% of our sales came from PDGA members. Since then, it appears that this number has gone down, perhaps to 1%.”
There is no way to determine what Vibram’s online buyers represent. It is tempting, however, to assume that Vibram’s customers are representative of the general population of disc golfers in the United States. If such an assumption held up, we could compute a valid estimate.
Here’s how the estimate would work:
The PDGA reported that it had 8,304 members in 2003. If, as the Vibram sample suggests, only 2% of active disc golfers had a PDGA membership, we could estimate, using ninth-grade algebra, that 432,503 people were actively playing disc golf in 2003.
Computing the same figures for 2015 (the PDGA reported 30,454 members in 2015, and Vibram estimated the PDGA-membership share at 1%), we could further conclude that the total number of disc golfers today is around 3,075,854.
But here’s the rub … actually, there are two rubs. First, as mentioned, the representativeness of Vibram’s customers is unknown. And second, other sources of data lead to vastly different estimates.
The State of Disc Golf Survey is one of the most extensive studies of the sport. The 2015 edition included the responses of 5,038 disc golfers, which, to my best knowledge, makes it the largest survey to date that includes both PDGA members and non-PDGA members.
The study’s principal investigator, Alan Barker of Infinite Discs, has written several blog posts about the survey’s methodology and results. Barker was also willing to share his entire dataset with me. After examining the raw data, I felt even more confident about its predictive value.
According to the State of Disc Golf survey carried out in 2014, roughly 33% of respondents were PDGA members. One year later, the share of PDGA members rose to 50%. This means that the number of non-PDGA members declined over this period, which leads us to a less than optimistic estimate.
More specifically, the State of Disc Golf survey suggests that the total number of active disc golfers in the U.S. dropped from 98,513 in 2014 to 91,362 in 2015.
In sum, the disc golf community may be huge and increasing, or small and decreasing.
There are two possible explanations for these divergent estimates. The simplest theory is that the respondents in the State of Disc Golf survey data represent a PDGA-centric group. Infinite Discs circulated their survey widely, but also received help from the PDGA, which published the survey on its Facebook page and sent it to people on the PDGA mailing list.
Meanwhile, Vibram is an international company known best for its rubber outsoles for shoes and boots. For this reason, its customers may be more representative of the general population of disc golfers, or perhaps a type of disc golfer who tends to be less involved with the PDGA.
Yet, this theory does not offer a satisfying explanation for the possible drop in the number of disc golfers based on the State of Disc Golf data. Why, if the general population of disc golfers is indeed growing quickly, were there more PDGA members in the 2015 sample than in the 2014 sample?
There is a second theory – the balkanization of disc golf culture – that may explain this finding, as well as the divergence in the two estimates, but I’ll return to this theory in a later post.
For now, the main takeaway is pretty clear. We need a large-scale disc golf survey based on reliable measurements and probability sampling techniques. Educated guesswork, even if well-intentioned, leads to contradiction and confusion.
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*Photo source: PDGA.
10 thoughts on “Three million people play disc golf in the U.S., or it might be ninety thousand”
Parked, how does the statement below make sense? If the PDGA members are on the rise this probably means that the recreation player stats have probably have risen as well? Granted there isn’t a way to make a broad generalization but if I see more people moving to the PDGA that would elude to more exposure to the sport?
“According to the State of Disc Golf survey carried out in 2014, roughly 33% of respondents were PDGA members. One year later, the share of PDGA members rose to 50%.This means that the number of non-PDGA members declined over this period, which leads us to a less than optimistic estimate.”
Thanks for this article! This is an area of disc golf I have never thought about.
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Thanks for the question. I really appreciate it!
And I think you are probably correct. We know, based on solid data from the PDGA, that the number of PDGA members is on the rise, therefore the number of non-members (“recreational players”) is probably also on the rise.
Unfortunately, we don’t know this for sure, because we don’t have any representative survey data from the general population of golfers (PDGA members and non-PDGA members). We do have an interesting, well-constructed survey called the State of Disc Golf (SDG).
The SDG collected a sample of golfers in 2014 and another sample in 2015. The first sample was comprised of 67% non-PDGA members, and the second was comprised of only 50% non-PDGA members. To a demographer, this would be seen as a big decline in a population segment; 17% in one year? That doesn’t happen without famine and drought.
You might say, “hey, the same data says that there was a 17% increase in PDGA members. That’s something.” And it is something. But the increase of 17% in PDGA folks is tiny, in terms of raw numbers, compared to the decrease of 17% in recreational folks.
There were only 24,443 PDGA members in 2014. There may have been 3,000,000 non-PDGA recreational players in 2014. If the disc golf gen-pop lost 17%, we would have 510,000 fewer people playing disc golf.
Again, I don’t think this is happening. But the SDG data should be seen as a red flag. The big organizations in disc golf need to come together and fund rigorous research so we can find out what’s happening in the general population.
The movers and shakers of disc golf need to strike a healthy balance between building the sport from the top down (pro tours, TV coverage, institutional membership, competitive atmosphere) and from the bottom up (clubs, leagues, non-sanctioned events, local advocacy, course construction, communal atmosphere). Supporting an effort to learn about the whole disc golf community, from bottom to top, would be a step in the right direction.
At some point, I’ll write a post on what has happened to ball golf. In sum, I think the PGA failed to strike a balance, and the bottom dropped out. Golf courses are now closing at an alarming rate.