Disc Golf’s Two Paths Forward

Is Disc Golf a Business or a Social Movement?

Josh Woods ~

Cover art

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).

Decentralized Authority

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.

Leviathan
The cover art of Hobbes’s “Leviathan” features one central authority whose body is comprised, literally and figuratively, of individual citizens. Disc golf land lacks a Leviathan.

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.

Alternative Values

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).

Image by Mike Plansky
Image by Michael Plansky

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 Takeaway

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.

Disc golf social movement 2

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.

If you would like to follow these posts, please like Parked on Facebook and subscribe to our newsletter by entering your email address below.

References

(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.

11 thoughts on “Disc Golf’s Two Paths Forward

  1. Just wanted to say great article keep up the excellent. Sabattus Disc Golf is a pay to play disc golf facility with over ten years of experience, starting in 2020 we will begin sharing what it takes own a pay to play disc golf business with 10 employees that maintain four courses and a new 7000 square foot disc golf pro-shop..

    Best Regards,

    Peter

    *Sabattus Disc Golf, Inc.* 605 Bowdoinham Rd Sabattus, Maine 04280

    Phone: 207-375-4990

    Web-site:www.sabattusdiscgolf.com,

    *Please consider the environment before printing this email*

    *CONFIDENTIALITY NOTE:* The information transmitted, including attachments, is intended only for the person(s) or entity to which it is addressed and may contain confidential and/or privileged material. Any review, retransmission, dissemination or other use of, or taking of any action in reliance upon this information by persons or entities other than the intended recipient is prohibited. If you received this in error, please contact the sender and destroy any copies of this information.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peter, I’d love to learn more if you’d be willing to chat. I’ve recently submitted a proposal to City of Phoenix to install a pay-to-play course in the heart of the City. The City has been very receptive as we’ve already met with the Executive Director of Parks and are scheduled for a field trip to the course at Vista del Camino in Scottsdale next Friday.

      I would be so grateful to get your advice and feedback prior to that meeting. We’ve built a website for the project at http://www.basket-makers.com if you’re interested.

      Like

  2. “By 2019, there were no large outside corporations such as Nike that manufactured disc golf discs, nor a single major broadcaster that televised tournaments.”

    It is interesting to note that Vibram dipped their toes in the water as a disc manufacturer, yet for nearly 10 years they only had a niche group of followers. They did not appear to heavily advertise in the manner in which Innova, or other major manufactures did, even though they still sponsored a pro team of 20ish players each year.

    Would a company like Nike potentially do market research and see someone like Vibram that tried, and failed, to make a dent in the disc golf world be discouraged to participate? or do we eventually see someone like Nike just come in and purchase an existing manufacturer as larger businesses do in other sectors?

    Either way, interesting take on business vs social movement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comments. And great questions. Of course, it’s impossible to know whether there is a big corporation out there with an eye on the dg industry. Surely the failed Vibram experiment won’t be a source of encouragement. Adidas Outdoor seemed to be making a small play with pseudo-sponsorship of some players, but that didn’t turn into much. The abrupt end of the DG World Tour was another sign that big investments in disc golf can be risky.

      And still, disc golf is thriving. It’s interesting puzzle.

      Like

    2. Great thought-provoking article. I can appreciate the line of thinking but I’m not sure that meeting the three elements of a social movement means that the sport can continue to grow without $$$ to support it. I’m certainly not disagreeing that disc golf has a “social movement” aspect to it but I think that is also found in skateboarding and X-games type sports as well. While you may have some examples, I can’t think of any social movements (without big $$) that are provided resources by the local government at no cost.

      While disc golf does not require the restricted and exclusive use of land that ball golf, baseball, or football require but it’s certainly not land that can be used for picnics or many other activities except as a temporary path to somewhere discs aren’t flying 50mph. While offering the benefit of temporary repurposing, a city’s land investment for a course can be substantial…not to say it’s a bad use…nonetheless substantial.

      Personally, I believe that disc golf needs to find some middle ground. While I love disc golf for it’s non-pretentious ways and free-spirited roots, the sport also has to realize that it is this spirit that are now preventing growth. When you show up to a league for the first time hoping to meet like-minded people and you’re instead faced with the rancid smell of B.O., smoke (all kinds), and regret, you have to realize that the smoke has now formed a ceiling that will not be breached until someone comes in with an industrial air cleaner.

      In no way am I suggesting to follow the model of ball golf or other sports that are built to exclude but I am suggesting that disc golfers should be willing to pay for the resources that they consume which would require some type of payment to the land owners (cities in most cases) to play. The bigger and less obvious reason is accountability. If you charge, you can collect information and enforce basic rules of decency and courtesy by revoking privileges when certain behaviors are exhibited. With funds, you can afford to monitor and maintain the course and keep an eye out for those hooligans that have little or no regard for others.

      I wish every course required membership (even if free), a small fee to play, and some basic rules that were enforced. I don’t want disc golf to be Wimbledon but I’m a little tired of having to decide if I’m at a disc golf course or a bum-boxing match. We’ve got to continue to raise the bar without closing the door. It’s a thin line to walk and I hope the sport finds its balance.

      BTW, it certainly seems to be heading in the right direction. It seems to vary by region from what I’ve seen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the comment Jeremy. As noted by timbertopper below, “commercialisation does bring pressure to bear on changing behaviours to meet modern ideals.” Is your league run by a club? Is there any way to address your concerns to the organizers of the league? I’m a board member of a small club and we’re always looking for ways to make disc golf more fun for everyone.

        Like

  3. Thanks for another great article.
    From my perspective as a very casual/recreational player far from the centre of the DG universe (literally and metaphorically), much of what you write strikes a chord. I thought I would add some rambling observations that might add colour and support for what you have written from my experiences of working, studying and practicing within sport.
    At the venue I play in Manchester in the UK, the development of the course and culture has very much been driven by a sport-centred social movement (initially by keen expats and local Ultimate communities) that has been nimble enough to co-align with other groups around environment and community concerns to access and activate support and resources. In practice, this has meant that a disused local authority pitch and putt course has been re-purposed, with support by the local Friends of the Park, to permit free access to the new DG course. Simple ideas such as hole naming has tapped into local roots, and extensive volunteering through outreach activities and regular communal environmental maintenance and development have quickly embedded the game into the local scene. Anyone who wishes to play can cheaply hire discs through the local café, and the resident club encourages and accommodates new members with a nominal membership fee. It is a very good example of your identification that “disc golf communities promote collectivistic forms of social interaction that benefit the common good.”
    I noted your comparison of DG with lifestyle sports (as described by Wheaton). Perhaps it is not surprising then that DG should have inclusion issues, as that is frequently also a property of lifestyle sports as they develop. So whilst DG may seem better than other forms of golf, it still has a long way to go in addressing this issue.
    The issue of growth will be a challenging one for DG, as it has been for most sports. There are different forms of growth, and those purposed by managers of sport (increased access and active participation numbers) and of business (often through passive consumption and economic revenues) do not always align. The growth through commercialisation of many sports (as recent examples see skateboarding, (sport) climbing, paddle-boarding etc.) certainly leads to an immediate distancing of the higher echelons from its roots, often diluting much of their distinctiveness to take on more recognisable corporate sport forms, and even to high-level business wrangling over who actually ‘controls’ the sport. In these transitions the culture of sports will often mutate: witness the spirit of the game in Ultimate and increase reliance on ‘external’ officials in high level competition has gradually been eroded, echoing much as happened with soccer over a century ago. In the last decade the core philosophy underpinning Parkour of personal challenge has been fundamentally challenged through similar processes of developing a marketable competitive format. Systematic (rather than incidental) ‘sharp practice’, whilst not necessarily becoming endemic, can easily lead to toleration of something that will happen in pursuit of the prizes available (figurative and financial).
    That is not to say a sport has to be fossilised, and that there may not be benefits. It can also be argued that such commercialisation does bring pressure to bear on changing behaviours to meet modern ideals. Consider the decisions by the organisers of the stick golf British Open to no longer use male-only golf clubs as host venues, and the subsequent membership ballots in those clubs to accept women.
    So whilst change is certain, it is not certain what that change will be, and so I look forward to reading your next articles!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Really interesting stuff, timbertopper! Before I offer a meandering response, I wanted to invite you to write about the disc golf scene in Manchester for Parked. You have already composed a brilliant piece above; please consider adding more details and sending us something. Here’s our call for contributors: https://parkeddiscgolf.org/call-for-contributors/

    I don’t think you mentioned it by name, but were you referring to the course at Longford Park? I’m especially interested how the group/movement behind this course development was “nimble enough to co-align with other groups around environment and community concerns to access and activate support and resources.”

    One thing I suspect that some disc golf observers overlook is the importance of “institutional fitness” — that is, the way a sport is valued, perceived and portrayed by key institutional actors, like parks departments, media orgs, and a variety of local groups. Grow-the-sport theories seem to be a bit more focused on the economic fitness and business side of disc golf. But, as the Longford Park case seems to show, a willingness to seek cultural and ideological alignment (and probably savvy networking) with other groups proved to be more valuable than a profit orientation and the various strategies to sell disc golf to consumers.

    Like

  5. “The disc golf movement has struggled to promote gender and racial diversity.”
    So, why does this matter, unless it’s to increase the market? What truly matters is not to promote exclusivity, and not have bias in regards to gender and race, and disc golf already is pretty good at that. That makes may enjoy a sport more than females is not exclusivity, nor is it that the nature of DG is to need more outdoor space than is available in some areas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Paul. I agree with you about putting an emphasis on avoiding exclusivity. But I also think promoting diversity is important for at least four reasons:

      1) Disc golf is commonly played in public parks and supported by taxpayers. For this and other reasons, public parks have a mandate to provide services to everyone. If disc golf emerges as a one-demographic sport, parks departments may be less interested in supporting it with land and resources.

      2) Plenty of research has shown that demographically diverse groups and organizations perform better than less diverse groups and organizations. It boils down to this: if your group has people from different backgrounds it is more likely to have diverse tools and perspectives for solving problems and attracting more members. If you’re a lone wolf disc golfer and don’t care about the success of local clubs, or regional and national associations, then this point probably doesn’t matter to you. But if you like being part of a thriving club, diversity if vital.

      Quick personal note: I’m part of a club that lacks diversity and it has not grown much (actually, it shrunk a little) and now we are hoping to develop another disc golf course. But it is very difficult for a small club to push such an effort forward without an army of volunteers and donations. What if we had a few more women participate in the club, and those women attracted other women, which led to even more men finding their way to the club? If our club doubled in size, we would get our new disc golf course no problem.

      3) As you mentioned, market concerns are real. Small disc golf businesses would be doing a lot better if they could tap into a more diverse and therefore bigger population of customers.

      4) We are a divided nation at the moment. And these increased divisions are harming our ability to function as a cohesive society. If disc golf brought people of different colors and genders and walks of life together, it might not save the world, but it would surely be a step in the right direction.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s