Is Disc Golf a Business or a Social Movement?
Josh Woods ~
How do small sports become big ones?
When answering this question, most commentators point to the economics of sports and media. Sports grow when major media outlets pay attention to them. Increased media coverage attracts more participants and consumers, which entice even bigger media companies and corporate sponsors, which then foster stronger sport institutions.
This theory explains the recent popularization of some lifestyle sports such as skateboarding, snowboarding and BMX. Pickleball and cornhole are also growing quickly and receiving a level of attention from elite media that was thought to be impossible in the recent past.
Although this theory may (someday) successfully predict the future of disc golf, it does not explain its past. Disc golf has grown consistently for more than forty years, yet much of this growth cannot be explained by the strategies of private business.
Disc golf is a uniquely public endeavor. Roughly 90 percent of disc golf courses are on public property (1). One of the sport’s biggest institutional players, the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), is a nonprofit organization that relies heavily on volunteer labor. Most of the world’s tournament directors, league managers and disc golf clubs are not motivated by profit, nor do they use profit as a key measure of success.
Put simply, some things that are profitable have little social value (reality TV anyone?), just as some things of high social value are not profitable (let’s play some disc golf!). If alternative motivating factors, such as friendship, community, camaraderie, nature and the love of the game, suddenly vanished, so too would disc golf.
But if disc golf is not a business, what is it? In the sections below, I argue that disc golf is a social movement, and therefore theories of social movements may better predict the sport’s future than business-oriented models.
The New Movement
In the late twentieth century, new types of social movements emerged and solidified around issues like anti-nuclear energy, gay rights, alternative medicine, New Age and ecology. Until then, social researchers had focused almost entirely on labor movements—people coming together in pursuit of better jobs and higher wages.
These new collectivities led scholars to rethink the nature of social movements. Among others, Johnston, Laraña and Gusfield identified three defining characteristics of “new social movements” (2).
The disc golf movement shares all three of them.
Identity and Practical Concerns
First, while many social movements of the past involved class-based struggles, the individual and collective actors of the disc golf movement are united by a shared identity and practical concerns like building disc golf courses, running tournaments and growing clubs.
Pragmatic orientations and the mobilizing forces of identity are crucial components of new social movements (2).
Second, like new social movements, the disc golf community is “segmented, diffuse, and decentralized” (2). There is no powerful corporation that organizes disc golf from the top down, as in the case of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) dictatorial power over mixed martial arts.
The disc golf industry consists of more than forty companies that produce PDGA-sanctioned equipment and countless other small businesses. By 2019, there were no large outside corporations such as Nike that manufactured disc golf discs, nor a single major broadcaster that televised tournaments.
As the governing body of the sport, the PDGA is a large, not-for-profit corporation that creates and enforces standards for its sanctioned tournaments and leagues. However, the organization of these events lacks central authority. While the scheduling of upper-tier PDGA tournaments are controlled from above, fifty state coordinators—all unpaid volunteers elected by popular vote—have the responsibility and authority to schedule lower-tier events in the United States.
Furthermore, roughly half of disc golf tournaments are not sanctioned by the PDGA; and the non-PDGA side of disc golf is even more fragmented. Numerous volunteers and more than 2,000 local clubs are pushing the movement forward, though often in different directions.
A willingness to embrace alternative cultural and organizational values is a third characteristic of new social movements (2). In many respects, disc golf is an alternative sport that challenges the culture of traditional, performance sports. Like other lifestyle sports, disc golf is more communal and non-aggressive than most modern achievement sports.
In contrast to well-organized, competitive sports, spectatorship is limited, and the level of commercialization is low. Although the organized, competitive side of disc golf is growing, disc golf remains primarily a participation sport that emphasizes enjoyment, friendships and connections to the natural environment (3).
To use Wheaton’s characterization of lifestyle athletes, many disc golfers are guided by a “participatory ideology that promotes fun, hedonism, involvement, self-actualization, ‘flow,’ living for the moment, ‘adrenalin rushes’ and other intrinsic rewards” (4).
Vestiges of disc golf’s countercultural past are still alive in the community. In contrast to the largely privatized arenas of traditional sports, disc golf communities promote collectivistic forms of social interaction that benefit the common good.
As the key example of this, most disc golf courses have been built on public land (1). Many of these courses were funded and constructed by volunteer groups (5). According to a survey of 158 experienced disc golf course designers, 65 percent of them had never been paid for their design work, and 74 percent had not been paid for their installation and construction jobs.
The disc golf infrastructure is, essentially, a fifty-year-old community development project headed by philanthropists and voluntary sports clubs.
The disc golf movement has struggled to promote gender and racial diversity. However, given the wide public access to courses, the low cost of equipment and the proliferation of grassroots groups, the culture of disc golf is more inclusive and less oriented by class distinction than traditional golf culture (6).
The sport’s distinctiveness is also seen in the “spirit of the game,” an ethos that prioritizes fairness, friendship, self-governance and participant officiating. Spirit is promoted by disc golf organizations and some promoters.
The disc golf movement is an expansive, complicated social animal. Surely economic forces are guiding much of its growth. But given the importance of identity, decentralization and alternative values in the disc golf community, the sport does not function like a business.
Rethinking disc golf as a social movement may help us understand why some sports have blown up and disc golf has not.
For instance, the sport of mixed martial arts has recently exploded in popularity due in large part to a single promotion company, the UFC. This powerful and highly centralized corporation promotes the values of modern achievement (win at all costs) and grows the sport with aggressive business tactics.
There is no UFC in disc golf land. The PDGA and the UFC are so far removed that Magellan couldn’t find a way between them. For this reason, the concepts learned in a college business course do not shine much light on the remarkable growth of disc golf.
Offering an alternative perspective, I will soon be posting a series of articles that examine disc golf as a social movement and illustrate how sociological theories and research are the best lens for predicting the future of the sport.
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(1) Oldakowski and Mcewen 2013; (2) Johnston, Laraña and Gusfield 1994; (3) Coakley 2001; (4) Wheaton 2004; (5) Palmeri and Kennedy 2015; (6) Ceron-Anaya 2010. Contact Parked for full reference.
Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.