A Demographic Portrait of Disc Golf Land

Results from the 2017 Parked Facebook Study – Part 1.

By Josh Woods, PhD ~Cover art

In early 2017, we collected the first large-scale random sample of disc golfers and estimated the size and characteristics of the organized disc golfer population in the United States. The results discussed in this post will appear in the International Journal of Sport Communication early next year.

If you haven’t read my last two posts, consider taking a look at the theory behind this study and the method we used to explore it before plunging into the findings below.

The Quick-And-Dirty

  • In 2017, the U.S. disc golfer population stood at roughly 530,000.
  • The number of women (15 percent) and racial minorities (9 percent) exceeded previous estimates, but these groups were clearly underrepresented.
  • The mean age of disc golfers was 33.
  • The percentage of disc golfers with some college education (36 percent) was surprisingly low.
  • Disc golf was more popular in the Midwest than in the Northeast, South and West.

A Deeper Dive

Our sample is based on social media profiles. The sample was drawn in two stages. First, we carried out an electronic search for disc golf groups on Facebook, which returned a population of 3,213 groups. These groups varied greatly in size and organizational structure. The population includes everything from large, well-established disc golf clubs to small “meet-up” groups and friendship circles. From this population, we took a random sample of 123 groups.

In the second stage of sampling, we randomly selected 2,551 individual profiles from the 123 groups (for more details, read about our methodology here).

The number of members in disc golf groups on Facebook ranged from 1 to 2,582, with a mean of 134 and a median of 26. The lifetime of Facebook groups had a range of 8 years, a mean of 2.4 years and a median of 1.7 years.

The earliest groups formed in 2007. The number of active groups in the sample increased uniformly between 2008 and 2015 but decreased slightly in 2016.

Among the 2,551 disc golfers in the sample, 380 (14.9 percent) were active members of the PDGA in 2017. In this year, the total U.S. active PDGA membership stood at 32,744. Using PDGA membership data as an anchor, the study’s 2017 estimate of the organized disc golfer population is 252,502. This estimate does not account for the sample’s known limitations, which are described below. The actual population size likely exceeded 500,000.

The subjects’ place of residence differed across the four U.S. Census regions: 684 were from the South (0.56 per 100,000 residents based on 2016 Census data), 643 from the Midwest (0.95 per 100,000 residents), 460 from the West (0.60 per 100,000 residents), and 256 from the Northeast (0.46 per 100,000 residents). Five-hundred eight subjects did not include their state of residence.

85 percent men

Based on visual assessment, the sample was comprised of 85 percent men (N = 2551). Roughly 91 percent of subjects (N = 2497) appeared to be white. About 36 percent of the sample reported at least some college education (N = 2551). Mean and median age for those reporting it (N = 650) was 33 and 30, respectively. Roughly one third of the subjects were 15 to 26 years old, one third were 27 to 35, and one third were 36 to 63.

The Takeaways

This study makes three contributions to disc golf research. First, it provides a road map for studying not only disc golfers, but other emerging sports communities. Employing multistage cluster sampling of Facebook profiles, we collected a random sample of 2,551 subjects from a large, geographically diverse population at a low cost. The sample includes individuals from every state in the nation, except Hawaii.

Second, as discussed in the theory section, this study also identifies the factors that may encourage or constrain people’s play. Specifically, we investigated five sociological variables, including sex, race, geography, education and age.

Why do these demographic categories matter? Let’s take a closer look at each one.

The Gender Gap

Constraints to playing appear to be greater for women than men. Although this study’s estimate of women disc golfers (15 percent) is higher than that of previous studies, and two times greater than the percentage of women among PDGA members, a clear majority (85 percent) of disc golfers are men.

Gender
The goal of the PDGA Women’s Committee is to “attract, encourage, and retain female participation in organized disc golf events.”

Looking to the future, the growth of the sport and its benefit to society will depend in part on whether the stakeholders of the community can close the gender gap in participation. Some groups, such as the PDGA Women’s Committee, are working hard to introduce more women to disc golf, but more large-scale institutional support is needed to advance these efforts.

We also need more research to identify the social and psychological mechanisms that limit women’s participation.

Race, Ethnicity and Disc Golf

Few studies have examined the racial composition of the disc golfer population. Offering the first large-scale estimate, this study found that 91 percent of disc golfers appear to be white. This estimate is lower than that of other studies, but blacks, Latinos and other racial/ethnic minorities are clearly underrepresented in the disc golfer population.

As in the case of women, there may be normative constraints that limit the participation of minority groups. Whites may also, on average, live closer to disc golf courses than people of color and therefore perceive the sport as a more viable option.

Race
Philo Brathwaite is among a small number of top-rated professional black disc golfers in the world. Photo Lasse Pyre.

Working to reverse the racial inequality in participation is essential to the sport’s continued growth and to its potential for strengthening community ties. Given that the sport relies heavily on public funding—roughly 90 percent of courses are in public parks—it is important for disc golf to have a positive impact on the lives of diverse populations.

Providing more institutional support for course development in racially diverse areas is one possibility for ensuring that the sport really is “for everyone.”

Geography

In line with previous studies, the Midwest has the largest per capita disc golfer population. It exceeds the populations in the Northeast, South and West by 50 to 100 percent.

These findings confirm the expected positive correlation between a region’s number of players and its number of disc golf courses, PDGA events and PDGA members.

Geography

Education

The results suggest that disc golfers tend to have a surprisingly low level of education. Only 36 percent of the sample reported at least some college education, whereas 59 percent of American adults have completed some college or more.

This low estimate may be explained in part by the underreporting of college attainment on Facebook profiles. Given that the proportion of underreporting is unknown, the finding that disc golfers have lower educational levels than the average American remains suggestive. Still, the possibility that disc golf, unlike many other sports, attracts a disproportionately large number of people of lower socio-economic status deserves further scholarly attention.

Age

The findings on the age of disc golfers refute the stereotypical notion that youthful college students represent the typical disc golfer. One in three players are 36 years old or above.

These findings contradict previous studies that show a negative correlation between age and participation in sports and recreation.

Age
The top-rated pro JohnE McCray was born in 1972 and started playing in 1995. Photo Stuart Mullenberg.

Limitations of the Population Estimate

Perhaps the most notable contribution of this study is its probabilistic estimate of the disc golfer population in the United States.

Among the 2,551 subjects, roughly 15 percent were active members of the PDGA in 2017, which leads to a population estimate of 252,502. This number certainly underestimates the total population.

There are four types of disc golfers who are not likely to be members of a disc golf Facebook group or the PDGA, and therefore are not included in this estimate.

Missing Age Groups

First, surveys have shown that fewer people in the extreme low and high age groups use Facebook. For multiple reasons, these people are also less likely to pay the fee and become members of the PDGA than people in the middle of the age distribution.

Although the age range of the sample is relatively wide (15 to 63), it excludes many young and old players. The State of Disc Golf Survey found that at least 5 percent of disc golfers fall in the extreme high and low age categories (below 15 or above 63). It can be speculated, therefore, that the population is at least 5 percent larger, or 265,127.

Noobs

Second, the sample may not account for disc golfers who are new to the sport. For many participants, becoming a “disc golfer” involves a gradual socialization process during which they learn more about the sport, improve their skills, increase their rate of play, internalize roles, and then seek out larger, more formal groups for the benefits of competition, enjoyment or social identity. Those who are new to the sport are less likely to join Facebook groups or the competitive ranks of the PDGA than veteran players.

The number of disc golfers in this early stage of development is probably quite large. According to a 2014 State of Disc Golf survey, approximately 50 percent of those surveyed had been playing disc golf for three years or less. A second survey estimated that 50 percent of disc golfers have been playing disc golf for two years or less.

These findings suggest that up to half the population may be playing disc golf regularly without being affiliated with a club, league, association or even a circle of regular disc golf partners.

Such speculation leads to a population estimate that is up to twice that of the age-adjusted estimate, or 530,254.

Lone Wolves and Small Groups Uncounted

Third, this study’s population estimate does not account for non-PDGA members who play regularly in dyads or alone. Solo players and members of very small groups are less likely to benefit from disc golf groups on Facebook, which are primarily used to organize players in larger groups.

This segment of the population is unknown. It represents the key limitation of our estimate.

One-Off Players Not Included (And Shouldn’t Be)

Finally, the number of people who play disc golf on rare or special occasions is also unknown. While there may be millions of one-off participants, they do not occupy the same social category as the players in this study.

There are considerable differences in the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of those who play disc golf on rare occasions and those who are members of disc golf associations, groups, clubs or friendship circles.

We should stress that the 2017 estimate of 530,254 is based on the organized disc golfer population in the United States.

Last Words

Our population estimate should be treated as preliminary evidence that requires confirmation from future studies. Given the novelty of our methodology and the “known unknowns” involving lone wolves and small groups, it is possible that many more than 530,254 Americans play disc golf.

At the same time, the popular claim that millions of Americans play disc golf regularly should be scrutinized in view of the evidence provided here and common sense.

Consider, for instance, what the disc golf industry should look like if two or three million Americans played disc golf. In 2016, per the State of Disc Golf Survey, 33 percent of disc golfers spent between $200 and $499 per year; an additional 33 percent spent between $500 and $2,000. In short, the average disc golfer spends around $400 to $500 per year.

If two or three million Americans played, disc golf would be a billion-dollar industry based only on the expenditures of individual consumers.

Given the sport’s lack of attention from television networks, outside investors and corporate sponsors, the U.S. disc golfer population is likely closer to 500,000 than two million.

While the 2017 estimate of 530,254 may seem low to many observers, it is not extremely low compared to some institutional estimates. For instance, the PDGA estimated that there were 500,000 “regular players” in the world in 2012. While there was tremendous growth over the next five years, a 2017 estimate of 530,254 disc golfers in the U.S. alone is not beyond reason.

To sum up the other findings of this study, the demographic data suggest that there are social constraints to playing disc golf involving the sex, race and geography of disc golfers, but that old age and low socio-economic status do not limit participation and may encourage it.

So far, I’ve only reviewed the demographics of the sample. In the next post, I’ll talk about the “disc golf activity index” and consider how demographic categories predict players’ level of involvement in the sport.

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If you’d like to support disc golf research, like Parked on Facebook or subscribe to our newsletter by entering your email address below. It really helps.

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

 

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