Disc golf’s popularity may be declining

An analysis of social media trends and what they mean for the sport

old-dg-groups-on-fb

A decade ago, ball golf was hot. A young, crowd-pleasing Tiger Woods could beat anyone on the planet, the banks were still small enough to fail, and 30 million Americans called themselves golfers.

But since then, ball golf has hit a rough patch. The game shed roughly six million players over the last decade, and each year more ball-golf courses were closed than opened, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Not great news for ball golfers. But at least they know what’s happening to their sport. In contrast, as I argued previously, there is currently zero data on the total number of disc golfers in the United States. Is disc golf the “fastest growing sport,” or has its heyday come and gone? Like a disc flying through the dark, no one knows where the sport is headed.

Hoping to solve the mystery, I recently contacted several disc golf companies and asked them how many Americans play disc golf. Their estimates, none of which were scientific, ranged from ninety thousand to three million.

Unsatisfied, I turned to a source that seems to know everything (sort of): social media. On October 26, 2016, I posted a question on Reddit, asking disc golfers about the volume of players in their local areas. Fifteen people responded within twenty-four hours. Thirteen of them said that their local disc golf community was growing, and two reported a flat or declining trend.

Although this micro-study suggests that disc golf is making positive strides, the results of a more expansive, scientific study of disc golf groups on Facebook are less optimistic.

There are currently about 2,612 distinct Facebook groups based in the U.S. that have the word “disc golf” somewhere in their titles or group descriptions. From this population, I randomly selected 100 of the groups and attempted to determine when each was created and whether it was still active. I was unable to collect dates for 22 of the closed groups. For this reason, my total sample includes 78 Facebook groups, each of which represents about 33 of the 2,612 groups in the population. (A full description of the methodology can be found here).

 

The Ten Longest Running Active Disc Golf Groups on Facebook*

Group Name Creation Date
San Antonio Disc Golfers September 17, 2008
Tallahassee Disc Golf Association January 17, 2009
Mile High Disc Golf Club February 9, 2009
Devens Disc Golf February 12, 2009
Hood River Disc Golf Club March 9, 2010
Ponca City Disc Golf March 28, 2010
Merced County Disc Golf Club January 23, 2011
Cambridge Disc Golf Course (Ripley park) March 30, 2011
DFW Disc Group February 26, 2011
Franklin Park Disc Golf Course, Purcellville, VA April 27, 2011

*Based on random sample of 78 Facebook disc golf groups with at least one post in 2016.

 

Based on this sample, San Antonio Disc Golfers is the oldest disc golf group on Facebook. With roots going back to the 1980s, the group now connects disc golfers online from the greater San Antonio area, organizes several weekly and annual events, and is probably one of the more active disc golf groups on Facebook with multiple posts per day. Created on September 17, 2008, the group’s 1,334 members recently celebrated their eighth birthday, a notable feat given that Facebook has only been open to people outside universities since late 2006. As seen in the top ten list above, the lifespans of several other groups are also impressive.

Having studied numerous disc golf Facebook groups, I’m convinced that disc golf clubs in some regions of the country are strong and growing fast. Far more than a means of communication, disc golfers are using Facebook to solidify their club’s organization, culture and friendships. As seen in posts from my club, the Morgantown Mountain Goats, disc golfers use Facebook groups to learn about local events, recruit players for casual rounds, report tournament and league results, share artwork and photography, organize workdays, immortalize aces, post videos of miraculous shots, marvel at the extraordinary landscapes and wildlife of disc golf courses, celebrate victories, agonize in defeat, return lost discs, sell and trade equipment, and, of course, goof-off.

single-image-collection-of-mmgdc-facebook-group

Unfortunately, not all disc golf groups on Facebook remain active. Some groups are haphazardly created, experience a few sparks of interest, but quickly go dormant. Other groups build their memberships, gain momentum, but still wither away after a year or two.

The average lifespan of disc golf groups on Facebook is 2.6 years. As illustrated in the figure below, the number of active groups peaked in 2015 and began to decline in 2016.

In the first four months of 2016, four groups were created, but 13 went dormant (a net loss of nine groups, which is equivalent to roughly 300 Facebook groups in the population). Over the next four and a half months, one group was created, and six went quiet. Finally, between August 16 and September 16, 2016 – the month prior to data collection – no groups were created and eight groups failed to log a post, for a total net decline in 2016 of 34 percent.

Given that I recorded the latter data point more than a month ago, I went back to check on the eight inactive groups in the latest period. As of October 31, 2016, two of them had new posts, but six were still dormant.

number-of-active-fb-groups

There are at least three interpretations of these findings. First, maybe club life is declining, even while the total number of disc golfers is increasing. You don’t need to join a disc golf club or a Facebook group to be an active disc golfer. Perhaps the world of disc golf is increasingly filling up with lone wolfs and small groups who play round after round, compete in tournaments, perhaps even join the PDGA, but avoid organized leagues and club life.

Although this scenario is possible, it’s doubtful. For one thing, most disc golfers do belong to clubs, according to the State of Disc Golf Survey 2015. The rapid growth of any sport just seems implausible without healthy local clubs, leagues and organizations. This theory also fails to explain why lone wolfs began to flourish and club life started its descent in late 2015.

Another possibility is that disc golf clubs are doing just fine, but their memberships are using other means, besides Facebook, to communicate. This theory seems to make some sense considering recent claims by various media outlets that Facebook is in decline. Yet, as shown in the figure below, such claims do not hold up to empirical scrutiny. Facebook use, across all age groups, is at or near all-time highs.

pew-study

The last and least optimistic interpretation of the data holds that Facebook groups represent a relatively good measure of the disc golf population, and that disc golf, like its sister sport ball golf, is currently experiencing a decline in popularity.

As an indirect measure, the number of disc golf groups on Facebook is an imperfect, suggestive indicator at best, but this study does, at very least, stress the need for further research. To understand what’s happening to our sport, we need a large-scale disc golf survey based on reliable measurements and probability sampling techniques, like the ones funded by the National Golf Foundation. The financial cost of such studies would be considerable, but, as Arthur Nielsen put it, “The price of light is less than the cost of darkness.”

This study also suggests that the ongoing debate over the best way to grow the sport should continue. If the disc golf community is indeed struggling at the grassroots, how will efforts to grow the sport at the top, through all-pro events, greater media exposure and bigger corporate sponsors, remedy these problems? More importantly, what would disc golf look like if such efforts succeeded even as clubs and grassroots organizations stagnated or declined?

One answer to this question may be found in the histories of some big-time sports like basketball that evolved from a disorganized network of amateur and semi-professional organizations, which included numerous athletes from all walks of life, to the well-oiled, corporate machines of the NCAA and NBA, which generate thousands of paying fans and remarkable commercial success, but do little to further the sport at the grassroots.

Rather than discussing the best way to grow the sport, perhaps we should first debate what kind of sport we should grow.

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Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to like and follow us on Facebook

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Comments on “Disc golf’s popularity may be declining” from across the web:

This article was originally published in Ultiworld Disc Golf on November 16, 2016. The response was heavy, and it came in three types. First, I received a few nice notes (thanks Mom). Second, I discovered a number of interesting and helpful comments. And third, I received several personal attacks, which, frankly, surprised the hell out of me.

But let’s start with the constructive criticism. I listed a few of these comments below and did my best to respond to each.

Comments from the Ultiworld Disc Golf forum:

“Thanks for the article. I wanted to add that the San Francisco Disc Golf Club has been around since 1997. Our Facebook group was created on February 29, 2008 and currently has over 1600 members. Our club has reached 300+ active (paid) memberships for at least the past 3 years. Our Sunday weekly averages over 80 players. The San Francisco Safari tournament has been held every year except 1 since 1998. From our perspective, disc golf is growing. Especially the competitive side.

Cheers,
Shawn Mercy
SFDGC Vice President”

Thanks for the comment Shawn. I appreciate it. I should mention again that the findings discussed in the article are based on a simple random sample of 78 disc-golf groups on Facebook (FB) drawn from a population of 2,612 FB groups. Given that each group in the population had an equal opportunity of being selected in the sample, these data are representative of the population of FB groups (notwithstanding the standard error/margin of error). However, a sample is merely a subset of the population and certainly does not represent the population perfectly. In my sample, “San Antonio Disc Golfers” was the oldest group. It was created September 17, 2008. Your group, “San Francisco Disc Golf Club,” did not end up in the sample. Created February 29, 2008, SFDGC, as you mentioned, is older than SADG by about seven months. I’d like to know if there are any other, even older groups. Given that your group is in the 99th percentile for age, there may be one or two older groups, but it’s unlikely. Anyone know of an older DG group on FB?

“Thanks for the thought provoking article. I’d like to point out that as you mentioned in the beginning there is currently ZERO data on the number of disc golfer in the united states. From that you did a lot of work to conclude, based on Facebook data primarily, that disc golf is in decline. I think you conclusion is simply too large, Facebook disc golf groups appear to be in decline based on your work but since we have no data on how many disc golfers exist and use clubs / FB that by itself says nothing more. To help generalize the result we are pointed to a survey by Infinite discs that concluded that a very large percentage of disc golfers are in clubs. That survey was distributed almost entirely on social media so how could it really reach any other result? I think you can see the problem with this. It’s been along time since university or stats but I really do take issue with calling this an “expansive, scientific study of disc golf groups.” This is a well written and thought provoking piece that clearly had a lot of work going into it. You should be proud of that but you should also dial back a bit on the claims.

~Justin”

Thanks for your comments Justin. You’ve made a fair and tough critique. As Infinite Discs acknowledges, the data from their survey is not based on a random sample of disc golfers from the general population. For this reason, their data is not, in a statistical sense, representative of a population (that is, we cannot infer findings from the sample to the population). I have written about this issue in a previous article, but I probably should have noted it here as well, and softened this point. Thanks again for your critique.

I might add, however, that the Infinite Discs survey, from a measurement standpoint, is solid. Frankly, I was surprised by its methodological rigor. Compared to other available surveys, Infinite Disc’s State of Disc Golf survey has been thoughtfully constructed and carried out. It stands, in my mind, as one of the sport’s best sources of (publicly available) survey data on disc golfers. It is the only source of longitudinal survey data that I know of. (I have no affiliation with Infinite, but I like what they’re doing).

But, let’s get back to your point. Let’s assume that the State of Disc Golf survey inflates the number of disc golfers who are club members, and that the fastest growing segment of the dg population is unaffiliated, which would explain the findings. Attributing the decline of DG on FB to the rise of lone wolves and small, unaffiliated groups is indeed an interesting, plausible theory. But I’m still unsure about what would be driving this trend? What do you think? Do we see increasing frustration with institutional forms of disc golf starting in 2015? Is it possible that two, divergent trends are happening at the same time: a very large group of disc golfers are increasingly avoiding organized groups (leagues, clubs, PDGA tourney’s and so forth), ergo the decrease in DG-FB activity, while a smaller group is increasingly adopting the norms (and membership) of organized groups, as seen in the significant increase in PDGA membership? Are we seeing a divide in dg culture: anarchists versus institutionalists? I’m generally fascinated by the cultural differences between disc golfers. Perhaps we will see cultural balkanization in the next years, especially considering what seems like a recent emphasis on “growing the sport” through all-pro events, greater media exposure and bigger corporate sponsors. But I don’t know of any evidence to support such a theory.

Comments from the Ultiworld Disc Golf Facebook page:

Alan Gregory Comeau: “While this is a sincere attempt at collecting data, the sample is so small and the collection so haphazard, any conclusions derived from it are not much better than pure speculation, and doesn’t warrant the title of the article. I think a more robust look at diverse factors, such as viewership of disc golf tournament videos on YouTube, disc sales (major companies’ profit trends), attendance at pro events, coverage of disc golf on traditional sports channels (ESPN, etc.), PDGA memberships, etc. would provide a better picture.”

Many people believe that a sample must reach a certain size to be classified as a good sample. This is an inaccurate interpretation of the importance of sample size to statistical reasoning. Researchers usually draw large samples because doing so reduces the standard error (SE) and therefore makes it easier to establish statistical significance. For instance, you calculate the SE of a mean by dividing the sample standard deviation by the square root of the sample size (N). Given that N in the denominator of the formula, the SE decreases as N increases. With my relatively small sample, the SE of my estimate was relatively large, but there was still a statistically significant decline in the number of active disc golf groups on Facebook.

More important than sample size is the way a sample is selected. My collection procedure was not at all “haphazard.” I spent hours carefully listing and labeling all 2,612 units in the sampling frame and using a random numbers generator to select the sampling units. Only data selected randomly are representative of the population from which they are drawn. My study is unique in this respect. In fact, I think it’s the first of its kind. Alan C., if you can find another disc golf study based on a random sample of units from a large sampling frame, please send it to me; in return, I’ll send you ten dollars.

Your suggestions about observing YouTube views is interesting. I’ll consider this. I tried to get figures on disc golf sales (no one is willing to share this key company info); PDGA memberships tell us very little about the total dg population.

Jenkins Alhent: “This is another stupid article from a sensationalist disc golf media outlet. This makes absolutely no sense when all other metrics are soaring. I also know many club facebook groups that were started before these 10 and are very active.”

There have been several cases in history when the highly organized, professional side of a sport has grown much faster than the unpaid, volunteer-based grassroots side. Check out the history of amateur basketball. It’s possible that the PDGA-centric side of disc golf is growing quickly, while the overall population is lagging. PDGA members probably only represent a tiny fraction of the total population, but they may represent the focus of the disc golf establishment (from the PDGA and Pro Tour to some disc golf manufacturers). I don’t find it surprising that the institutional side of disc golf is growing faster than the grassroots side. The history of grassroots movements illustrates, in case after case, that bringing people together, without the social tools of hierarchy and authority, is an extremely difficult endeavor. This is only one of the challenges facing disc golf at the level of leagues and clubs and casual dg.

Also, you wrote: “I know many club facebook groups that were started before these 10 and are very active.” As mentioned above, my study was based on a random sample, not the entire population. The study was not intended, as discussed in the article, to identify the oldest disc golf group on FB. Still, what does “many” mean? I know about the SF group, but I’m guessing that you’re exaggerating here. If Alhent can find 15 (“many”) disc-golf groups on Facebook that are older than San Antonio Disc Golfers, I’ll send him 10 dollars.

Comments from personal email (names omitted):

“I read with interest your article speculating about whether disc golf may by in decline, and I really appreciate your attempts to bring some evidence, however thin, to the conversation. I want to offer another possible explanation for the decline of disc golf groups on facebook. I have run a number of small community groups since 2007 including a casual Ultimate club focused mostly on organising regular pick up games and a page and group for our new disc golf course and club in the last couple of years.

Facebook has always been one of our primary tools for interacting and organising. But, over the last couple of years, Facebook has gotten MUCH WORSE for this purpose. I think this is because the way people use facebook has changed, and because facebook itself has made changes that are damaging to small community groups run by volunteers.

Consider: in 2010, if you posted an event to a group, everyone one in the group saw the event, and the cultural norm was that you chose to say if you were coming or not by clicking a button. That has changed, in the last few years… now there is no longer any certainty that all the group members even got an invitation unless you are also individually friends with them and invited them, and the list of people attending no longer bears much resemblance to the people who are actually planning to turn up. I think there have been other changes along similar lines. Facebook made a big push to separate groups and pages a few years ago as part of an effort to make spammy groups less annoying and also coincidentally monitize the business users of facebook. Small community organisations were caught in the middle, and no longer had a great option… groups were for small groups of friends, or if they got bigger much of their functionality stopped working. Pages were for businesses who were willing to pay to make sure their customer base saw their posts.

Maybe everyone still uses facebook, but it doesn’t work as well for this kind of organising, so more groups are failing? Maybe groups are increasingly set to private to overcome these problems, and they didn’t get into your sample?

All of this, of course, doesn’t mean that disc golf is NOT in decline, maybe it is! Like you expressed in your article, I would love to have more data.”

Thanks for the note … I’ll have to look into this more, because I thought that when the member of a Facebook group posts a message/photo/etc. in a group, all members of the group can see it. Are you saying that when I post to my club’s group (e.g., “hey, does anyone want to play a round today?”), only some of the members are able to see my message when they go to the group’s page? This may be a problem, as you said.

One clarification on the public/private group issue. I looked into this. My Facebook search for groups with the word “disc golf” in the title or description returned both public and private groups. Thirty seven of the 100 groups in my random sample were closed/private, which meant, given Facebook’s privacy controls, I was not able to determine when these groups were created, who created them, or whether they were still active. For this reason, in an effort to include the closed-group population as much as possible while staying within the ethical guidelines of my academic discipline, I sent personal messages to the group administrators of each closed group, disclosed the details of my research interest, and asked for permission to join the group.

After about four days, I think about 14-15 of the 37 closed groups allowed me to join their groups and I collected their data. The idea was to get the “response rate” for closed groups up as high as possible and include both types of groups, public and private, in the sample.

I share your view that we “need more data” (my data falls short in many ways). Most frustrating is the fact that the data exists. The big manufacturers probably know how many discs are being purchased, and whether the number is going up or down and so forth. Even small un-scientific surveys could probably help us approximate the average number of discs owned by disc golfers, giving us a pretty good idea about the size of the population and whether it is growing or declining. In fact, one company told me outright that they have the data but did not wish to share it.

Again, thanks for your comments!

Comments from Reddit and Disc Golf Course Review

Not long after being posted by “colucc43,” the article received 70 comments from folks on the disc golf subreddit. Although several of these comments were harsh, I thought the reaction on Reddit was generally fair, thoughtful and interesting, especially compared the discussion on DG Course Review which included personal attacks. In any case, I encourage you to view these comments; if I haven’t already answered a question that appears in these forums, I’d be happy to do so at your request.

Comments from the dark side:

It wasn’t easy reading some comments. Here’s a small sample of responses that seemed more like personal attacks than legitimate criticism:

  • “If I was his boss at WVU I’d fire him instantly for writing this absolute joke of an article.”
  • “I’m guessing the article title was click-bait just to get some page/ad views going for that site.”
  • “His writing reads like a bad high school essay.”
  • “What a terrible article.”
  • “This is garbage.”

I have a theory that the disc golf community tends to be friendlier than most sports collectives. The comments above (and numerous other attacks) didn’t fully change my mind, but they didn’t support my theory either. Posted in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, perhaps the reaction was a reflection of the anger and bitterness of the Trump-Clinton reality-show death match.

There’s not much I can say in response to these comments. But I will make one point. Most of the effort that goes into growing the disc golf community is carried out by volunteers, people who love the sport and wish to devote their talents, whatever they may be, to supporting it.

My boss at WVU won’t fire me, because writing about disc golf is my hobby, not my profession. I do not report my blog posts as research productivity. I receive no money from page views on my blog. Not a penny. Does Ultiworld Disc Golf make huge profits? I have no idea, but I highly doubt it. Google the phrase “disc golf magazines” and you’ll see what usually happens to disc-golf-related publishing enterprises. They often fail. And so do disc golf blogs like this one. I’ve been blogging about disc golf for less than a year; in that short period, three of my favorite blogs have gone inactive or “on hiatus.”

The work of disc golf writers may, at times, deserve strong criticism, but these folks don’t deserve personal affronts or attacks on their good intentions. Trying to generate intelligent discussion of disc golf is a main goal at Parked. Trying to convince you to click a button for profit is not. Like my love of disc golf, my writing on the sport will never, never be driven by profit.

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