Disc golf is trending in U.S. newspapers: Supporting evidence for disc golf’s “fast-growing sport” claim

Newspaper Logos
Disc golf is the fourth-fastest growing sport in newspaper coverage

As a kid, I loved NFL football. The walls of my childhood room were plastered with Sports Illustrated photos of New York Giants. Before falling asleep each night, I gazed at the shadowy outlines of Phil Simms, Joe Morris and Lawrence Taylor. On Sundays, I attached myself to the TV set, full of awe and expectation, waiting for the next touchdown or sack.

Yet, sadly, I never actually saw the Giants play. I never witnessed firsthand the hulking, mythical characters of my youth. If you took away the televised games and magazine articles, my memories of the Giants would cease to exist. In fact, to claim that I loved NFL football is inaccurate. I should say, rather, that I loved a television network’s filtered rendition of NFL football.

Big-time sports have always been a mass-mediated affair. From the first live radio broadcast of baseball in 1921 to Super Bowl LI, which pulled 111.3 million television viewers, media have served as the bones and muscle of pro sports.

Even in ancient Greece, the development of sports depended on media, or its early equivalents, such as the epic poems of Homer and sports-related art and architecture. Plato was not exactly the Zach Lowe of ancient Athens, but he was an outstanding athlete himself—the “A show” in wrestling—and his famous writings celebrated several sports.[1]

Discus thrower
A copy of Myron’s Discobolus (“discus thrower”), photo by Mary Harrsch

The oldest athletic events in history owe their standing, in part, to media. Boxing, wrestling, equestrian events, javelin and discus (my favorite) stood the test of time because writers, sculptors and other artists told their stories (well and often).

As for sports that did not receive much media attention … well, have you ever heard of bull leaping? Included in the X Games of 1450 BC, the event involved springing toward a bull, grabbing it by the horns and allowing it to catapult you over its back. Although bull leaping sounds like fun (to watch), it was relatively short lived. As Scanlon argues, “the lack of monumental civic media publicizing the sport suggests that these events never sought or obtained the popularity that Greek and Roman sports did in later centuries.”[2]

Bull leaping
Bull-Leaping Fresco from the palace at Knossos, Crete, Greece (photo by National Geographic)

Considering the importance of media to sports, I recently began researching disc golf’s position in today’s media landscape. Although niche outlets and social media are now packed with tournament coverage and other stories about disc golf, how well, I wondered, does the sport do in the mainstream news? The answer, I found, is not spectacular. If, as the saying goes, “popularity is for mediocre people,” then disc golfers are outstanding.

I began the study with my childhood love, Sport Illustrated. Using multiple electronic archives, I found only one significant article on disc golf (or Frisbee golf). There were a few other articles with small references to the sport, but nothing substantial. (“Love bites, love bleeds”).

I also used the large, electronic archive Lexis Nexis to look for mentions of disc golf (or Frisbee golf) in television news broadcasts. Going back more than 20 years in some cases, I searched ABC News, American Public Media, CBS News, CNBC News, CNN, CTV Television, Fox News Network, MSNBC and NBC News, and found a combined total of 40 transcripts with disc golf references. All but a few of these offered only brief, incidental mentions of the sport.

A search of National Public Radio transcripts (1992-current) turned up seven items, but only one item included a serious discussion of disc golf and offered quotes from disc golfers. The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal—the opinion-leading press—were also disc golf deserts.

The flying disc did better in major-metro and small-town newspapers. To include as much of the press as possible in my search, I used the massive, proprietary archive America’s News, which houses full-length articles from more than one thousand U.S. newspapers. My search, using the terms disc golf and Frisbee golf, returned 49,227 newspaper articles published over the last 20 years (4/18/1997 – 4/19/2017).

That sounds like a lot of coverage, right? Unfortunately, given the expansive period and large number of sources, it’s difficult to interpret what a lot is. To put this estimate in context, I ran the same search using 99 other sports and recreational activities. I also split the search period into two parts to examine changes in the volume of coverage over time.

A full, alphabetically ordered list of results appears at the end of this article. If I missed your favorite sport, please don’t fry me up for dinner; instead, drop me a note in the comment box below and I’ll add your sport soon.

As shown in Table 1, disc golf’s nearly 50K in news items is a drop in the basket compared to the ocean of media devoted to traditional sports. Football, for instance, was covered in 273 times more newspaper articles than disc golf over the last two decades. Disc golf came in 65th place out of 100 hundred sports.

Table 1. Ten Sports with Highest Number of Mentions in U.S. Newspapers (1997-2017)

Sport Published Articles (4/18/1997-4/18/2007) Published Articles (4/19/2007-4/19/2017) Total Percentage Change
Football 5,321,404 8,141,363 13,462,767 +53
Basketball 5,033,329 7,342,892 12,376,221 +46
Baseball 4,297,495 6,426,091 10,723,586 +50
Golf 2,795,211 3,748,833 6,544,044 +34
Soccer 1,811,164 2,782,103 4,593,267 +54
Hockey 1,446,680 2,377,403 3,824,083 +64
Fishing 1,370,274 2,032,535 3,402,809 +48
Tennis 1,371,659 2,013,989 3,385,648 +47
Softball 1,079,726 1,653,200 2,732,926 +53
Swimming 1,030,211 1,345,351 2,375,562 +31

Now for the good news. Disc golf is not an institutionalized media goliath yet, but it’s quickly improving its standing. As illustrated in Table 2, the number of newspaper articles with mentions of disc golf has increased by roughly 200 percent over the last two decades, placing its growth rate in eighth place out of 100 sports.

Some sports were mentioned in very few articles during the early period, making it far easier for them to demonstrate a percentage increase in the late period. For this reason, it may be reasonable to exclude CrossFit, stand up paddling, wingsuit and eSports from the ranking. Doing so would put disc golf in fourth place overall. (Still, I should note that CrossFit and eSports are growing extremely quickly, per multiple measures; they are, without doubt, major players in the world of emerging sports).

Table 2. Ten Sports with Highest Percentage Increases in U.S. Press Coverage (1997-2017)

Sport Published Articles (4/18/1997-4/18/2007) Published Articles (4/19/2007-4/19/2017) Total Percentage Change
CrossFit 47 21,368 21,415 +45,363
Stand up paddling 7 1,621 1,628 +23,057
Wingsuit 14 1,212 1,226 +8,557
eSports or comp. gaming 193 3,714 3,907 +1,824
Mixed martial arts 4,016 75,679 79,695 +1,784
Roller derby 5,376 30,519 35,895 +467
Free running or parkour 1,707 8,221 9,928 +381
Disc golf or Frisbee golf 12,565 36,662 49,227 +191
Yoga 177,304 472,177 649,481 +166
Cliff diving 866 2,185 3,051 +152

This research comes with two important implications. First, to my best knowledge, this is the first empirical study that justifies the common claim that disc golf is “one of the fast-growing sports” in the United States. Although player participation is a better measure of the sport’s popularity, any suggestion that disc golf is growing at a higher rate than other sports requires comparable data from all the other sports, which is, to put it plainly, really, really difficult to produce. The comparable data provided here are groundbreaking. The results show that disc golf is indeed expanding much faster than the great majority of athletic endeavors in the public discussion of sports.

Disc golf is not the fastest-growing sport in the United States. But it’s fourth-fastest, and that’s impressive.

Second, given the sport’s stronger standing in the press than in national television news, maybe it’s time for the movers and shakers of disc golf to work harder at publicizing low-tier tournaments via the local press. The PDGA and other groups seem to be doing well at encouraging ESPN to include coverage of disc golf aces and other extraordinary shots, such as Philo Brathwaite’s legendary albatross at the Beaver State Fling in 2016.

But more should be done to promote the sport at the local level. An automated system could be put in place that collects information from tournament directors and distributes it via press releases to local newspapers. The PDGA’s status as a well-recognized, international governing body would likely aid the success of such an effort, leading to more media coverage of low-tier events, not to mention the recruitment and sponsorship opportunities that come with it. The development of a news dissemination system would also facilitate stronger institutional linkages between the PDGA, media outlets and local communities.

When a high school sophomore takes first place in long jump at a track and field meet, school officials report her victory to local news groups and it goes on record. Her dazzling photo and a snappy caption spreads across social media, and a clipping certainly finds its way to her proud grandma’s refrigerator.

When the same sophomore takes home a first-place finish at a C-tier disc golf event, the chances for mainstream recognition are low. And when she tells grandma about it, she might face the infamous question: “What’s disc golf?”

The increasing number of miraculous disc golf throws appearing on ESPN’s “Top 10 Plays” may help the sport become more commercially viable, but grassroots growth of the sport requires a home-grown culture and a community that cares about disc golf, or at least knows about it. Local newspaper coverage of events can help disc golf become “a thing” that even grandma recognizes. And so much depends on grandma, and her refrigerator.

~~~

If you’d like to see more free articles like this one, please show your support and follow us by entering your email address below (as a non-profit, educational blog, we will never sell your email address). You can also like us on Facebook or Twitter.

~~~

Appendix: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of 100 Sports (1997-2017)

Sport Published Articles (4/18/1997-4/18/2007) Published Articles (4/19/2007-4/19/2017) Total Percentage Change
Aikido 8,794 10,943 19,737 +24
Archery 90,266 170,848 261,114 +89
Arm wrestling 6,767 8,022 14,789 +19
Auto racing 252,258 269,791 522,049 +7
Backpacking 29,595 38,386 67,981 +30
Badminton 28,827 45,254 74,081 +57
Base Jumping 1,380 2,603 3,983 +89
Baseball 4,297,495 6,426,091 10,723,586 +50
Basketball 5,033,329 7,342,892 12,376,221 +46
Biathlon 18,394 17,335 35,729 -6
Bicycling or cycling 217,614 408,837 626,451 +88
Billiards 48,051 59,825 107,876 +25
Bird watching or birdwatching 48,757 73,912 122,669 +52
BMX 30,841 46,240 77,081 +50
Bobsledding or bobsleigh 5,447 5,976 11,423 +10
Bowling 843,079 1,359,642 2,202,721 +61
Boxing 377,279 443,477 820,756 +18
Bungee Jumping 6,929 6,240 13,169 -10
Camping 376,426 705,877 1,082,303 +88
Canoeing 54,589 69,510 124,099 +27
Cliff diving 866 2,185 3,051 +152
Croquet 16,990 23,686 40,676 +39
Crossfit 47 21,368 21,415 +45,364
Darts 53,256 63,675 116,931 +20
Disc golf or Frisbee golf 12,565 36,662 49,227 +192
Discus throw 7,551 16,672 24,223 +121
Dog sled 7,469 8,156 15,625 +9
eSports or competitive gaming 193 3,714 3,907 +1,824
Figure skating or ice skating 159,413 157,517 316,930 -1
Fishing 1,370,274 2,032,535 3,402,809 +48
Footbagging or hacky sack 2,190 2,515 4,705 +15
Football 5,321,404 8,141,363 13,462,767 +53
Free climbing 445 915 1,360 +106
Free running or parkour 1,707 8,221 9,928 +382
Golf 2,795,211 3,748,833 6,544,044 +34
Gymnastics 219,053 266,532 485,585 +22
Handball 19,616 29,029 48,645 +48
Hang gliding 5,206 4,695 9,901 -10
High jump 167,788 242,010 409,798 +44
Hiking 299,919 506,900 806,819 +69
Hockey 1,446,680 2,377,403 3,824,083 +64
Horse racing 180,032 208,603 388,635 +16
Hunting 919,249 1,365,735 2,284,984 +49
Ice climbing 3,109 3,323 6,432 +7
Jai alai 8,896 6,290 15,186 -29
Javelin throw 73,237 103,255 176,492 +41
Jogging or trail running 103,684 121,425 225,109 +17
Judo 23,246 35,189 58,435 +51
Karate 95,037 112,948 207,985 +19
Kayaking 56,947 102,553 159,500 +80
Kiting 3,837 3,034 6,871 -21
Knitting 114,756 251,077 365,833 +119
Lacrosse 247,946 504,303 752,249 +103
Long jump 192,246 261,899 454,145 +36
Miniature golf 32,744 32,205 64,949 -2
Mixed martial arts 4,016 75,679 79,695 +1,784
Motocross 28,013 42,272 70,285 +51
Mountain biking 36,006 48,750 84,756 +35
NASCAR 556,802 783,502 1,340,304 +41
Paragliding 2,047 3,520 5,567 +72
Parasailing 4,057 5,774 9,831 +42
Pole vault 133,220 191,320 324,540 +44
Quidditch 5,526 7,253 12,779 +31
Rafting 42,165 50,361 92,526 +19
Raquetball 34,247 26,918 61,165 -21
Rock climbing 50,620 62,598 113,218 +24
Roller derby 5,376 30,519 35,895 +468
Rowing 62,076 88,283 150,359 +42
Rugby 62,497 126,480 188,977 +102
Sailing 234,422 293,692 528,114 +25
Scuba diving 33,452 38,991 72,443 +17
Shot put 175,624 251,219 426,843 +43
Skateboarding 52,490 55,595 108,085 +6
Ski jumping 14,200 12,453 26,653 -12
Skiing 288,719 344,229 632,948 +19
Skydiving 18,148 30,033 48,181 +65
Snorkeling 22,577 27,727 50,304 +23
Snowboarding 58,634 67,449 126,083 +15
Snowshoeing 15,750 28,581 44,331 +81
Soccer 1,811,164 2,782,103 4,593,267 +54
Softball 1,079,726 1,653,200 2,732,926 +53
Speed skating 14,778 14,543 29,321 -2
Stand up paddling 7 1,621 1,628 +23,057
Street luge 1,492 254 1,746 -83
Surfing 140,840 160,913 301,753 +14
Swimming 1,030,211 1,345,351 2,375,562 +31
Synchronised swimming 11,682 11,676 23,358 ~0
Table tennis or ping pong 57,986 103,003 160,989 +78
Taekwondo 12,231 24,888 37,119 +103
Tennis 1,371,659 2,013,989 3,385,648 +47
Track and field 366,293 570,809 937,102 +56
Triathlon 58,764 105,052 163,816 +79
Ultimate Frisbee or sport of ultimate 7,210 12,180 19,390 +69
Volleyball 871,797 1,350,297 2,222,094 +55
Wake boarding 1,281 1,988 3,269 +55
Water polo 70,700 112,570 183,270 +59
Weightlifting 52,363 55,779 108,142 +7
Wingsuit 14 1,212 1,226 +8,557
Wrestling 686,571 967,099 1,653,670 +41
Yoga 177,304 472,177 649,481 +166

~~~

[1] Raney, Arthur A., and Jennings Bryant (2006). Handbook of Sports and Media. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates; Hayes, Bill (2012). Plato’s Body, and Mine, New York Times, April 21, 2012.

[2] Raney, Arthur A., and Jennings Bryant (2006). Handbook of Sports and Media. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates (p. 2).

 

2 thoughts on “Disc golf is trending in U.S. newspapers: Supporting evidence for disc golf’s “fast-growing sport” claim

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s