Play, Party, Plan: Pittsburgh’s Formula for Growing the Sport

By Josh Woods ~

Covert art

Why do some disc golf communities grow, while others stagnate or decline?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. But reasonable speculation on this question might begin with the case study approach: Find a model of success and try to learn what works.

Over the last four decades, Pittsburgh’s disc golf community has worked. Like grandma’s pension, it developed gradually over time and now its efforts are paying off in top-notch disc golf courses, well-organized events and a good bit of fun.

The Band that Never Broke Up

Much of this success can be traced to a single source: Pittsburgh Flying Disc (PFD).

Predating the births of most touring pros, PFD began as an informal group of Frisbee lovers in 1981 and has served as the bedrock for organized disc golf in Western Pennsylvania ever since. The history of PFD, captured in surprising detail here and in the video below, reads like a greatest hits album that deserves a listen from anyone interested in growing the sport.

PFD has helped establish nine disc golf courses, including Schenley Park (Pennsylvania’s most popular course) and two courses, Moraine State Park and Deer Lakes Park, that have received more applause than Michael Jordan after his final NBA game. As hosts and organizers of countless events, from weekly leagues to the 2015 Pro Disc Golf World Championships, PFD is an incubator of TD talent and event planning.

Wading through the murky waters and legal tedium of obtaining non-profit status, PFD incorporated as a 501c3 in 2017. If you’re interested in moving your club in this direction, get started now by checking out PFD’s excellent bylaws here.

Time Line
Approximate establishment dates of nine disc golf courses supported by PFD.

Although these accomplishments are striking, I’m most impressed by PFD’s staying power.

Unless you’ve been living in Spielberg’s OASIS and playing your tournaments in virtual reality, you probably know that organizing disc golf is hard, that recruiting volunteers to donate their blood to mosquitoes while building tee pads in the wilderness is no cakewalk, that surviving Game-of-Thrones-style onslaughts from disgruntled neighborhood groups can be tricky.

But here they are, still together, after thirty-eight years.

Flash back
From left: J. Gary Dropcho, Steve Kohman (founding treasurer, first TD of PFD), Red Whittington (3-time PDGA World Champion) and Keith Clark (founding member, TD, promoter) at the Schenley Park 30th Anniversary tournament in November 2018. Photo PFD.

Front Man J. Gary Dropcho

To learn more about the organization, I caught up with J. Gary Dropcho, a pro player from Pittsburgh who has occupied a leadership role at PFD from the beginning and currently serves as course superintendent. During our conversation, I learned more about one of PFD’s most unique projects. Going by the folksy, if appropriate, name “Throwdown Hoedown,” this event may also hold the secret of PFD’s success.

“The ‘Throwdown’ is the tournament part of the event, and the ‘Hoedown’ is the party,” J. Gary explained.

“The first one we did – it was back in 2013 – we used it as a vehicle to announce our successful bid for the 2015 Pro Disc Golf World Championships. We played a tournament, did a press conference, and then got together for a celebration afterward.”

The next two Throwdown Hoedowns took place in 2014 and 2015. Both were aimed at preparing for Worlds. One year they ran an event to calibrate the tournament course at Slippery Rock, and the next year they held a planning session for volunteers and staff and discussed topics such as media strategy and sponsorships.

“In 2017, we incorporated the idea of a symposium,” J. Gary said. “Instead of using the time to plan one major event, we started bringing in other clubs and sharing best practices for running tournaments. We also talked about developing bylaws for non-profit incorporation.”

Now dubbed the Throwdown Hoedown Disc Golf Symposium (THDGS), one of the highlights of the 2017 event included a key note speech by Leonard Johnson, a college professor and adviser to the disc golf team at Ferris State University.

“It was cool to hear about how this college program had been implemented with a disc golf scholarship and other support from the university,” J. Gary commented.

That year Ferris State became the 2017 National Collegiate Disc Golf Champions.

Are You on the Bus?

The next event is right around the corner. Scheduled for March 23-24 at Camp Kon-O-Kwee in Fombell, Pennsylvania, the Throwdown features a 48-hole team tournament on Saturday, followed by a Hoedown that includes an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner and pie, keynote presentations, a putting contest, a flymart, fireside entertainment, and Nite Flite disc golf. Key note speakers include Cristina Carlstrom and Michael Correnti from the Disc Golf Foundation, Carol Quinn, director of the Virginian Women’s Series and a member of the PDGA Women’s Committee, and me.

Camp K
Camp Kon-O-Kwee, site of the 2019 Throwdown Hoedown Disc Golf Symposium (Photo PFD).

On Sunday, the Symposium will offer sessions on topics such as women and youth disc golf programs, sponsorship and fundraising, and team building for the 2019 PDGA Amateur World Championships.

“The vision for this year’s event,” J. Gary said, “is to promote equity in the disc golf community.”

Although Saturday’s Throwdown tournament has already filled, you can still sign up for the Hoedown Overnight Symposium package (dinner, festivities, breakfast, Sunday sessions, $30), Sunday sessions ($10) or a disc golf clinic ($10). To occupy your Saturday, there’s plenty of great disc golf in the area. Spend the day at Moraine, located just twelve miles north of Camp Kon-O-Kwee, and then head for the hoedown, a reasonably priced overnight stay, and symposium. Register on Disc Golf Scene here. March 21 is the deadline to register for any of the weekend events.

The THDGS is a tournament charity partner with Educational Disc Golf Experience, and is sponsored by Innova Disc Golf, Nite Ize, Pure Edge Performance Training and Pure Athletex Sportsplex.

PFD’s dedication to running tournaments and organizing fun is shared by disc golf clubs across the country. But its growing focus on long-term planning and its interest in strategizing ways to encourage under-served groups to play disc golf are unique.

I’m not exactly sure where this bus is headed, but I’m getting on. You should too.

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J Gary Head Shot

Thanks go to J. Gary Dropcho for guiding this story. Dropcho is a professional disc golf course designer, promoter and player. He was a founding board member of the Disc Golf Foundation, and currently serves as PFD’s course superintendent, as an Innova Ambassador and is the founder of Grip it and Rip it Disc Golf. Dropcho was inducted into the Disc Golf Hall of Fame in 2015.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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