Rise of an Unknown Sport (Part 2)

Disc Golf as Modern Achievement Sport

By Josh Woods ~

Cover Art D1 Modern Sport
Photo: Innova Disc Golf (NBC logo added)

Defining disc golf is like describing the taste of water. The task seems at once obviously possible and extremely difficult.

The hard part involves the utter plurality of what disc golf means to those who play it. As I argued in Part 1 of “Rise,” disc golf is not one thing, but many. Like Waldo’s world, its definition depends on where you look.

While the following categories are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive, I argue that most people experience disc golf in one of three ways: (1) as modern achievement sport, (2) as lifestyle, or (3) as general recreation.

In this installment, I’m going to look at the first domain, and investigate the obvious, if contested, claim that disc golf is a sport.

Venn with Modern Sport in Red
The three domains of disc golf.

Scholars generally agree that sports have three defining characteristics: organization, competition and physical exertion (Guttman, 1978; Suits, 2007). Although quarrels on this topic are as common as par-3s on a disc golf course, most activities that involve coordination and planning, that result in winners and losers, and that require physical effort can carry the mantle of “sport,” at least in academic circles.

To move this definition forward a bit, let’s consider what the sport means to an organization that spends a lot of time and effort promoting it as one. As the governing body of the sport, the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) is a large, not-for-profit corporation that creates and enforces standards for its sanctioned tournaments and leagues.

By all accounts, it is growing quickly. PDGA membership in the U.S. increased from 5,403 members in 1999 to 32,744 in 2017, an increase of 506 percent. Over the same period, the number of PDGA events in the U.S. jumped from 329 to 2,694, a 719 percent gain. PDGA memberships and events are thriving in other countries well. In fact, in the 2010s, the PDGA grew faster in some northern European countries than in the United States.

McMahon 719 is a lot
Photo: Eino Ansio, Disc Golf World Tour

The numerous functions of the PDGA can be summarized by what Guttman (1978, 16) calls the “seven characteristics of modern sports.” In his noted book, From Ritual to Record, Guttman argues that sports, as we know them today, are a relatively new phenomenon. It is not until the nineteenth century that sports appear in their modern form.

Guttman’s seven aspects of modernity include secularism, equality, specialization, rationalization, bureaucratic organization, quantification, and the quest for records. All these characteristics can be seen in the PDGA’s approach to organizing and promoting disc golf.

It’s about winning, not God

First, unlike the games of the ancient Greeks, Mayans and Aztecs who organized athletic events as parts of sacred festivals or religious observances, PDGA competitions are secular in nature. It goes without saying, perhaps, but the PDGA has no formal affiliation with a religious group, nor does it organize spiritual rituals at events. As Guttman (1978, 26) might put it, most modern disc golfers play to win, or compete for “other ends that are equally secular.”

Pierce for the secular fresh air
Photo: Sue Summers

It’s about achievement, not privilege

Second, the PDGA is devoted to establishing an even playing field. Whereas ascription often governed athletic competitions in ancient societies, everyone, theoretically, has an opportunity to compete in all PDGA events.

Individual achievement governs one’s status in the community. Past performance dictates one’s access to prestigious events. A player need not be born into a privileged family to receive an invitation to the PDGA World Championships. She only needs to score lower than her opponents. The PDGA has also developed a dizzying array of divisions that are intended to match athletes of equal ability in competitive events.

It’s about disc golf, not Frisbee

Guttman’s third characteristic of modern sports is specialization. In a sense, the history of disc golf is the story of specialization. In many flying disc tournaments of the 1970s, for instance, players competed in multiple Frisbee disciplines, such as freestyle, double disc court, guts, ultimate and disc golf. Possessing a special talent in any one event would only take a competitor so far. To be a great champion, a player needed general ability that could be applied in several different competitions (Palmeri and Kennedy, 2015). Over time, however, players began to specialize in one discipline and compete in stand-alone events.

Disc golf equipment also became more specialized. Whereas a single Frisbee might suffice in the past, the modern disc golfer carries a backpack full of discs, each with a specialized purpose. The PDGA, along with major manufactures of disc golf equipment and the organizations representing other Frisbee disciplines, played leading roles in dividing the competitive flying disc community into multiple specialized parts.

Specialization lots of discs
Photo: Dynamic Discs

It’s about one set of rules, not many

The specialization of sports, per Guttman, is usually coupled with a fourth aspect of modern sports: rationalization. Gutman argues that sports have become increasingly regulated and standardized.

In the case of disc golf, the PGDA has pushed this process forward more so than any other group or individual. While disc golf can be played with any set of rules and with any type of discs and targets, all PDGA-sanctioned events are governed by specific standards.

In addition to maintaining the official rules of disc golf, the PDGA determines the discs and baskets that can be used in sanctioned events, provides rules for organizing tournaments, upholds a code of conduct, and enforces courtesy standards. For example, players must wear shirts and cannot use tobacco products at National Tour events.

It’s about bureaucracy, not feelings

According to Guttman, who draws on the work of Weber (Waters and Waters, 2015), bureaucratic organization is required to rationalize the affairs of sports. I will return to this topic with a more nuanced discussion in a later post. For now, it suffices to say that the PDGA, as it existed in the late 2010s, satisfied Guttman’s definition of modern bureaucracy. The organization is led by a board of directors, most of whom are elected by the membership. The rights and responsibilities of the board are formalized in written bylaws. The PDGA hosts monthly teleconferences and two annual PDGA Board of Directors Summits.

Hierarchically structured, the staff consists of an executive director and various officers who carry out specialized tasks, such as coordinating media, technology and marketing. Their work is, for the most part, guided by rules, procedures and standard processes, as opposed to the values, emotions and sympathies that motivated traditional social forms.

It’s all about the stats

Finally, modern sports, Guttman tells us, involve a preoccupation with quantification and the quest for records. Prior to the nineteenth century, people were less immersed in the measurable features of sports. Today, we not only quantify every aspect of mainstream sports, but keep track of small emerging sports as well.

Even obscure feats of athleticism, such as the largest game of dodgeball, the longest surf by a dog, and the fastest four-legged 100-meter run by a human, make it into the modern record book (Pumerantz, 2012).

In the case of disc golf, quantification is something new. In the early 1990s, for instance, disc golf statistics were scarce. Event coverage was hard to find. Keeping track of who’s who in disc golf land required considerable effort. The Disc Golf Hall of Fame was not established until 1993—two decades after organized disc golf began. There were a few disc golf magazines and small-scale media that reported on events, but all of them struggled with low circulation and none of them exist today.

News items appeared here and there in local newspapers and television broadcasts, but there was no regular coverage of disc golf in mainstream news. A collective understanding of disc golf’s winners, losers and record-breaking feats hardly existed until the rise of the public internet.

For all sports, large and small, the internet and other advances in technology have ushered in a new era of quantification, record keeping and event coverage. But these changes have been especially important to small emerging sports like disc golf. Innovations in mobile technologies, improvements in cell phone cameras, the availability of digital video and editing software, clever apps, and countless websites, podcasts, blogs and social networking sites are giving disc golf more visibility and allowing players and fans to engage in the culture and access information about the sport like never before.

The analytical side of disc golf grew significantly when the PDGA launched its player rating system. Developed in the early 2000s, the system rates the average performance of PDGA members in sanctioned league events and tournaments. The PDGA uses player ratings to establish the upper and lower bounds of its amateur divisions. As players improve, they are required to move up and compete in higher divisions.

Although the PDGA’s rating formula is unknown (and proprietary), most members regard ratings as valuable performance measures (Hegemann, 2016). Regularly updated and easy to access online, PDGA ratings are an indicator of social status within the disc golf community and an interesting statistic for fans. Like a batting average in baseball, players, fans and sponsors use ratings to draw comparisons between players and keep track of changes in performance over time.

PDGA ratings of top players
PDGA player statistics, 6/25/2018

The PDGA also compiles lifetime statistics on its members, including round scores, earnings, points, and career wins. Both professional and amateur PDGA members are never more than a few clicks away from a remarkably detailed personal database on their past achievements.

Many players have joined the PDGA for these benefits alone. According to the 2016 State of Disc Golf survey, PDGA members identified “lifetime stats” and “PDGA rating” as the two most important benefits of being a member (Hegemann, 2016). Several other websites and apps are making it easy for individual players and clubs to record and store statistics on non-PDGA events as well.

The PDGA’s player rating system is only one of several innovations that are encouraging the quantification of disc golf. While the sport still does not appear on national television broadcasts, almost all the major tournaments are now being filmed and made available on YouTube and other social media outlets thanks to videographers like Jomez Productions, Central Coast Disc Golf and The Disc Golf Guy.

Online scoring platforms, such as UDisc Live, allow fans to track real-time, throw-by-throw statistics on players competing in professional tour events. Internet-based media outlets like Ultiworld Disc Golf are generating hype with statistics and pushing the sport forward with sophisticated analytics. By all accounts, the number of spectators and the consumption of disc golf media are on the rise, even if the fan base has remained, as some suggest, frustratingly small (Kennedy, 2015).

DG media
Big names in disc golf media, such as Jomez Productions, Central Coast Disc Golf, TheDiscGolfGuy, SpinTV, and Ultiworld Disc Golf, have delivered the sport to the modern age.

Limits of modernity

If keeping records, telling stories with numbers, and cataloging achievements are distinctions of modern sports, disc golf is a modern sport indeed. Before finalizing this conclusion, however, I should mention two important caveats.

First, the PDGA is not the only group that organizes disc golf events. The sport is being shaped by several autonomous actors who often conflict over territory, resources, leadership, rules, and scheduling. The Disc Golf Pro Tour, for instance, coordinates several major events and covers them with live filming and statistics.

Other large groups like Southern Nationals and the New England Flying Disc Association play key roles in organizing disc golf competitions at the regional level, while countless small companies and clubs put on events at the state and local level. In fact, only about half of disc golf tournaments (and far fewer league events) are sanctioned by the PDGA.

Given that roughly 90 percent of disc golf courses are in public parks, the sport’s fragmented organizational structure operates within an “open system” (Scott, 2002), where other organizations, such as public park departments, local governments, private companies, real estate developers and neighborhood associations, also exert political and economic influence on the sport. The large number of social actors and the complex environment in which they operate challenge the notions that disc golf, as a whole, is a modern sport, that its culture is unified, that its rules have been standardized, that its organizing structure is bureaucratic in nature, and that the motives for social interaction within and between disc golf groups are rational.

As argued in a previous post, disc golf organization in the U.S. may have more in common with French feudalism in the Middle Ages than Guttman’s vision of modern sports.

But, even with these limitations in mind, Guttman’s paradigm is a useful tool for examining disc golf. This brings me to the second caveat. The point of Guttman’s book was not to show that all aspects of twenty-first century sports are modern, nor that contemporary athletes are uniformly motivated by modern ambitions. As Guttman himself put it, “Let us be strict about our definitions, about our paradigm, even as we acknowledge that the paradigm is a way to understand social reality, not a perfect replica of whatever is” (Guttman, 1978, 4).

The most fascinating aspect of disc golf is that only one part of it is illuminated by Guttman’s definition of modernity. Without insight from other paradigms—namely, the domains of lifestyle and general recreation—much of disc golf land remains dark. To these alternative meanings and motivations, I will turn in future posts.

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Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.

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References for this article are available upon request (please use the contact bar below).

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