By Josh Woods and Kari Toivonen ~
Government control. State intervention. Collective ownership. To some Americans, these terms sound like nails on a chalkboard.
Free markets. Privatization. Pay-to-play. Now these words sound better to fiscal conservatives. The goal should be less government, lower taxes and a smaller role for the state. People should be free to chase their dreams without government interference.
But could people chase their disc golf dreams without government? If all state-funded programs suddenly vanished, what would disc golf land look like?
A whopping 90 percent of U.S. disc golf courses are in public parks, and 87 percent of them are free to play. Even though local clubs often fund, design and build public disc golf courses, each member of the surrounding community enjoys equal access to and ownership of them. Disc golf, by artless definition, is a government program.
Why does this fact matter, and how might it influence the growth of the sport?
In the democracies of the U.S. and Europe, people’s attitudes toward government are positively correlated with the number and size of government programs. In other words, the size of government depends on people’s willingness to pay for it.
So, if disc golf relies heavily on government funding, it will likely grow faster in places where such funding is available, where collective ownership is valued, and where big government is no big deal. This thesis may explain, in part, why disc golf is growing faster in some European countries than in the United States.
As shown in the Pew Research Center’s info graphic above, Europeans favor an active role for government more so than Americans. The U.S.-Europe differences are even starker when it comes to actual policies and government spending.
As illustrated in Figure 1 below, the friendly Finns are especially fond of social programs. Finland, the world leader in disc golf growth, has one of the most generous social systems in the world. The Finns are outdone only by the spend-thrift French, and both leave the Americans in the dust when it comes to spending on government programs.
More research is needed, but the Finns’ support for government spending appears to be one of the key drivers of Finland’s boom in disc golf course construction. Local clubs usually initiate the idea of building a new course, but the money for construction and equipment often comes from the municipality or other institutional sponsors.
Finnish municipalities are in constant competition over attracting new taxpayers, and therefore see adding a new disc golf course to their service palette as an important strategy. Put differently, the cities and villages of Finland are engaged in a kind of basket race. The city with the best disc golf courses wins.
Now, let’s head back across the pond to the U.S., where there is less public support for government programs, and where the slightest whiff of socialism leads some Americans to permanently seal their piggy banks.
In the U.S., many disc golf courses receive little or no financial backing from the municipalities. As one example, Tulsa, Oklahoma has more public disc golf courses per capita than any other major American city. Yet, its courses were largely funded by local disc golfers, not the city government.
In an interview with Parked about the funding sources in Tulsa, Devan Owens, one of the stars of the Tulsa disc golf scene, said: “This is going to blow your mind. Almost all the disc golf courses in Tulsa were paid for and installed by the Tulsa Disc Sports Association … The courses are in the ground today because disc golfers of the past gave their time, money and sweat.”
A small study of local newspaper articles about new disc golf courses also found that, aside from supplying public land, local governments are not heavily invested in growing the sport.
We should stress that, like the case in Finland, the finances of each course development project in the U.S. are different, and public funding for disc golf courses varies from one city to the next. Still, in the aggregate, the institutional support for disc golf is notably greater in Finland and other European countries than in the U.S.
But it’s not just the funding that explains Finland’s success. When city officials invest in a course, they are motivated to promote and create awareness of the sport. When local governance takes a back seat to local clubs, the goal of creating public awareness of disc golf is secondary to getting a course in the ground (and having fun playing it).
In an email conversation with Parked, Jussi Meresmaa, Head of Innova Europe, CEO of Discmania and founder of the Disc Golf World Tour, pointed to this tendency as one of the reasons why growing disc golf in the U.S. is difficult.
Creating national awareness is “much harder” in the U.S., he wrote. “It would require either millions of dollars or a humongous amount of volunteer work. Also, disc golf is a local activity in the U.S. The people who build courses are 99% players from the area. While it’s great to involve those people in the building process, usually this leads to a situation where the locals make the course for themselves and do not necessarily want others there.”
The availability of government funds may explain why there’s faster disc golf growth in Europe than in the U.S., but it’s the extraordinary institutional support for creating national awareness of the sport that likely explains why disc golf is growing faster in Finland than other European countries.
Here’s the jumping off point for Parked’s next article on Finland. In our continued effort to reveal the secrets of the Nordic Anomaly, we’ll look at the professional leadership of Jussi Meresmaa, the Finnish Frisbee Association, PDGA Europe, and the top-down model of Finnish disc golf organization.
Josh Woods, editor at Parked, is an associate professor of sociology at West Virginia University.
Kari Toivonen is a Turku-based advertising man who has been blogging about disc golf for over 10 years and has co-written the first disc golf guide book in Finland.
 Oldakowski, R., & J. W. Mcewen (2013). Diffusion of disc golf courses in the United States. Geographical Review, 103(3): 355-371; Plansky, Michael G. (2013). Disc Golf Course Design: Inscribing Lifestyle into Underutilized Landscapes, Quality Landscape Architectural Press.
 Wike, Richard (2016). 5 ways Americans and Europeans are different, Pew Research Center, April 19, retrieved online 11/17/2017 at: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/19/5-ways-americans-and-europeans-are-different/
 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2016). Social spending stays at historically high levels in many OECD countries, Social Expenditure Update 2016, retrieved online 11/17/2017 at: http://www.oecd.org/els/soc/OECD2016-Social-Expenditure-Update.pdf
Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.