Women’s disc golf network takes root in Wisconsin: An interview with Jenny San Filippo

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The work of coordinating a local disc golf league is difficult, time consuming, potentially frustrating, and breathtakingly unprofitable. For this reason, the idea of organizing not one, but several leagues across four states seems bold, forward-thinking and, yes, a little crazy.

Nevertheless, this has been the aim of the Disc On! Ladies League (the DOLLs) since several clubs from across the state of Wisconsin merged in 2013. Leagues from Milwaukee, Madison, Steven’s Point, Wasau, Sheboygan, West Bend and Beaver Dam have joined under the same logo and mission statement, becoming one of the largest women’s disc golf families in the United States. More recently, leagues from Michigan, Illinois and Iowa have also joined the DOLLs movement.

Pursuing the goal of attracting more women to disc golf, the DOLLs welcome participants of all ages and skill levels and charge nothing to play. In addition to weekly league events and various social gatherings, the DOLLS have hosted an annual women’s tournament known as the Wisco Disco for the last three years.doll-logo-2Attendance at DOLLs events has increased steadily. League nights typically draw a healthy rotation of 8 to 10 women in most locations, and the DOLL’s tournaments have shown even stronger growth. Fifty-four competitors showed up for the first Wisco Disco in 2014, and the tournaments in 2015 and 2016 filled completely.

The size of the DOLL’s Facebook group is well above the national average of 51. With 388 members as of late January 2017, the DOLLs are currently in the ninetieth percentile in terms of their Facebook group size.

What’s the secret to the DOLL’s success? What are the similarities and differences between DOLLs events and the typical co-ed or male-dominated league? What factors propel and constrain the participation of men and women in local disc golf leagues?

To answer these questions, I recently contacted Jenny San Filippo, President of the DOLLs and founder of Ladies First Disc Golf, an online retailer dedicated to supplying disc golf equipment and accessories for the female disc golfer. San Filippo also serves on the PDGA women’s committee, and recently gave a presentation on recruiting female disc golfers at the first-ever PDGA Women’s Symposium.

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2014 Wisco Disco, hole 13 at Bird’s Ruins (photo by Carrie Ricketts)

I talked with San Filippo over the phone on January 29, 2017. It’s impossible to dislike a person who loves dogs, the outdoors and cold beer. Add an affinity for disc golf to this mix, and you have something special: her name is Jenny San Filippo (aka, the “Fairy Disc Mother”).

Here are some highlights from our talk.

I know the DOLLs want to reduce the cost barrier to joining a women’s league. But if you don’t collect club fees, how do you fund your basic operations?

Even though league play is free and we do not require a membership, lots of women want to help out, and we do have merchandise and membership drives to raise funds for the club. The funds go toward organizing our annual tournament, the Wisco Disco.

How about bag tags? Do you have them? Do the DOLLs like playing for bag tags?

None of the leagues currently have bag tags with numbers on them. Our course locations are spread out geographically and not everyone can play for tags all the time. In some places, only three or four women show up on a given league night, so playing for tags doesn’t really make sense.

We tried doing tags during the 2015 season, but it received mixed reviews. Some people really liked them. They said that it added to the excitement. But not everyone likes them. It’s hard when you have a terrible day on the course, and then you lose your tag. Everyone likes to play in groups, but some women are more interested in a casual disc golfing experience. We’ve talked about doing tags again, and most people are flexible and willing to consider just about anything.

What percentage of your group favors bag tags? What would you guess?

It’s hard to say. It’s probably somewhere around 50/50.

How do you assign people to cards?

The DOLLs keep it casual and always friendly. We don’t divide people into divisions, or place people on cards based on their skill level. We flip discs or use a deck of cards to assign people to cards randomly. At the league I run, once in a while people get to choose their groups, but I’d like to have people get to know each other. If we have five, we all play together.

Do the DOLLs ever play for money? Cash CTPs, for instance?

No CTPs for cash on league nights. For the weekly league in Milwaukee, there’s a fee to enter the park. But that’s the only cost.

Never a friendly wager?

Well, during the very first year—and I think I was the only league coordinator who did this—I offered a competitive division, but there were only two or three women who liked the competitive cash option. I think it was a three-dollar entry. Overall, I felt that playing for money took away from what we were trying to do. It took away from the casual league feeling that we wanted to establish. We’re trying to bring new women into the world of organized disc golf. I don’t think that putting money on the line is the best way to do it.

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At the end of your league rounds, do you come together as a group and announce the winner?

I always wait for all the groups to return their cards. Some people ask about their own scores, or someone else’s. But we don’t make a big deal of it. People are starting to use the scorecard apps on their cellphones. Some women like to keep score for the sake of personal knowledge, and to track their individual performance over time.

How do you think having only women or girls at an event changes the way participants experience disc golf?

I think the excitement level goes up 100 percent. In some cases, I think part of it is because people are meeting new people or running into old friends they haven’t seen for a long time. Everyone is just bursting with excitement. I don’t know if it’s being around new friends or old friends, but there’s always this crazy, weird positive energy. And everyone is supportive of each other.

We have guys help out with spotting discs during tournaments, and all these guys are like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the best thing ever. I wish it was like this at our events.’ It’s hard to explain. Women are a little more reserved at co-ed tournaments, but things change when the ladies come together.

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DOLLs winter travel league, Milwaukee, WI 2015; appearing behind Jenny San Filippo are Barrett White, Lindsey Westberg and Becky Olkowski.

There may be a large pool of interested non-disc golfers out there, as in, women who don’t play, but may be interested in disc golf. How do you tap into that pool to grow the sport for women?

Women need to lead the way, but they also need to work with men. The guys who already play should bring their wives and girlfriends and daughters out to play. A casual event, like a mixed doubles night, can be a great way to get things started on the women’s side.

Working with your local parks department is also important. They may help with advertising your league or free clinic. When a public official says, ‘come out and try disc golf,’ a broader range of women might listen.

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Any other tips for recruiting women?

I run into a lot of women who want to get outside and get into nature, but they say, ‘I’m not competitive,’ or they say, ‘I’m not coordinated.’ You need to break through that barrier by being supportive and encouraging. You also must be willing to spend a lot of time on grassroots efforts to grow the sport.

I played in a tournament only a year after I started playing. I signed up with my husband and we didn’t have much gear back then. In fact, we were carrying fanny packs for our discs. I know the feeling some people get when they see other golfers with all the gear—you know, the bags, the multiple discs. It can be intimidating. It’s best to start people out with a friendly clinic where you can ease people into disc golf.

We all face constraints when it comes to playing disc golf. We have to find the time and money, for instance. But are these constraints the same for men and women?

I think they are different. When women have children, it’s harder for them to get out of the house. Some women may prefer to stay at home with the kids. But then, everyone is different. I’m not making a blanket statement here, but I think it’s easier for men to get out. It’s more common for men to have a hobby that gets them out of the house. For women who carry more of the childcare responsibility, another barrier to playing disc golf is paying for a baby sitter. It can be expensive to play in a weekly league when you’re always paying for a sitter.

Okay, one silly question. This is a spin on the last meal question. Imagine playing your last round of disc golf. What would that look like for you? Who would you play with, where, and what would happen?

I would be with my husband and my dogs. I have two dogs. And we’d probably play Rollin Ridge because we can have our dogs there. It’s not my home course, but it’s a good one. It would have to be with my husband, because he got me into the sport, and he’s my favorite person to play with.

If you are interested in learning more about the DOLLs, or how to get involved in women’s disc golf, contact the DOLLs via email at wiscodolls@gmail.com or visit the DOLLs Facebook Group. Also be sure to check out San Filippo’s online disc and apparel store, Ladies First Disc Golf. As a rule, Parked does not endorse disc golf products or services, but we do endorse people, and San Filippo is certainly worthy of applause and support.  

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

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A big thanks to Jenny San Filippo for taking the time to talk with Parked.

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