Is disc golf headed for the mainstream?
Last year, Steve Dodge, Director of the Disc Golf Pro Tour, predicted that disc golf would be bigger than ball golf by 2026.
Many observers share Dodge’s optimism, and there’s some evidence to support it. We know, for instance, that the number of new disc golf courses built in the U.S. has been increasing exponentially in recent years, and that membership in the Professional Disc Golf Association has grown rapidly for much of the twenty-first century. News coverage of disc golf is also increasing faster than coverage of many other sports.
If Dodge is right, the 2020s will mark a historical shift in U.S. sports and recreation. If the disc golfer population surpasses ball golf’s 35 million players, America will be a very different place in fewer than ten years.
But will it be a better place?
If you own a disc golf business or manage an underutilized public park, the answer is “heck yeah.” The emergence of disc golf as a mainstream sport would radically expand the disc golf manufacturing, merchandising and tourism industries, and lead to an explosion in public park use, where roughly 90 percent of disc golf courses are located.
A rapid increase in the disc golfer population would be a boon for community health. Countless studies have shown that participation in outdoor recreation is positively associated with physical, social, economic and psychological well-being.
A disc golf boom would benefit the poor by lifting the economic constraints of participating in costly outdoor activities such as ball golf. An estimated 87 percent of disc golf courses are free to play, and the cost of equipment is low.
If disc golf supplanted ball golf, the natural environment would also benefit. Compared to ball golf courses, which utilize hazardous fertilizers and require fourteen times more land area, disc golf courses are environmentally friendly.
These sound like positive changes, and I suppose they are, but they aren’t remarkable ones. Just about any marginal outdoor activity, if expanded to the mainstream, would produce the same effects on the population.
Going mainstream also has potential downsides, including problems related to privatization, commercialization, sensationalism, the emphasis placed on winning, the loss of local control of disc golf communities, and the chipping away of disc golf’s spirit of volunteerism and collectivism.
As I watch disc golf’s evolution, I wonder if its rise could take a different path. To me, the most exciting thing about the sport is its potential to become at once popular and culturally distinct from mainstream sports. The only thing more inspiring to me than watching disc golf grow is imagining its positive influence on the broader community.
But if this sounds like hippie dippie baloney to you, I have good news. There are at least three strategic (no hippie, no dippie) reasons for growing the sport of disc golf as a social movement.
First, by adopting a short list of social causes, the human appeal of disc golf would grow. Right now, disc golf’s main selling point is disc golf itself. The most common messages used for promoting the sport are focused on playing it. For instance, you can find thousands of local news articles suggesting that disc golf is fun to play, good for your health, challenging, affordable, and a great way to get outdoors and meet friends.
To be sure, there is a pool of consumers who are looking for this kind of activity, and strategic efforts to promote the sport by simply informing people about it are important. But this approach has limits. The number of people who are looking for a new hobby is relatively small, and the number of hobbies to choose from is humongous.
A social-movement approach reverses these problems. Many more people would try disc golf if they believed in what it stands for. When disc golf groups embrace a social cause, disc golf’s human appeal expands, and the number of alternatives shrinks.
Second, a social-movement approach to growing the sport would lead to strategic alliances between disc golf groups and other community organizations and institutional players. For a sport that lacks an institutional footing in schools, popular culture and large businesses, building partnerships with non-disc golf organizations is a key to its growth.
Third, growing disc golf like a social movement is aligned with the sport’s history and ideological center. Disc golf developed in the 1960s during the counterculture revolution in the United States. This was a period of experimentation, anti-establishment leanings, protest and progressive thinking on civil rights, peace, poverty and the environment.
Although much has changed since the 1960s, vestiges of this culture are still alive in disc golf land. As one example, the great majority of disc golf courses in the U.S. have been built on public land by members of local communities who came together and donated their time, money and labor to the public good.
A disc golf course built by everyday disc golfers on public land is not exactly a 1960s commune. But still, in the current era of modern capitalism, the cooperative spirit of disc golf communities and their willingness to give so generously are revolutionary.
Some groups have already adopted the social-movement approach to growing the sport. From efforts to combat hunger, defeat childhood cancer and encourage more women to play disc golf to campaigns to prevent suicide and raise awareness about the heroin epidemic, many disc golfers have shown a willingness to help solve society’s toughest problems.
Promoting more of these efforts and developing disc golf as a social movement—with hippie and dippie, or without it—would lead to faster growth while making the world a better place.
 See, for example: Maller, C., Townsend, M., St. Leger, L., Henderson-Wilson, C., Pryor, A., Prosser, L., et al. (2008). Healthy parks, healthy people: The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context, a review of relevant literature. Burlwood, Melbourne: Deakin University and Parks Victoria. Maroko, A., Maantay, J., Sohler, N., Grady, K., & Arno, P. (2009). The complexities of measuring access to parks and physical activity sites in New York City: A quantitative and qualitative approach. International Journal of Health Geographics, 8(1), 34. Crompton, John L. (2000). The Impact of Parks and Open Space on Property Values and the Property Tax Base. Ashburn, Va.: National Recreation and Park Association. Kahn, Emily B. et al. (2002). The Effectiveness of Interventions to Increase Physical Activity. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 22(4S): 73-107. Center for Disease Control (2001). Increasing Physical Activity: A Report on Recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, October 26, 2001.
 Plansky, Michael G. (2013). Disc Golf Course Design: Inscribing Lifestyle into Underutilized Landscapes, Quality Landscape Architectural Press.
Photo source: U.S. History Scene; in the original photo, the words “Free Speech” appeared on the sign (not “play disc golf”).