By Josh Woods ~
Should we call it “Frisbee golf” or “disc golf”?
Few questions have generated more discussion among disc enthusiasts than this one. Opinions on the topic are as wide-ranging as they are divisive.
And yet, what matters most to the future of competitive disc golf is not what insiders think about these terms, but what outsiders think of them.
Let us assume that roughly 500,000 Americans consider themselves disc golfers (Woods 2019a). That leaves 328,908,984 Americans that may know little to nothing about the organized, competitive sport of disc golf.
Many people are, however, familiar with the Frisbee. In fact, some sources suggest that 90 percent of Americans have played with a Frisbee at least once (WFDF 2019).
The Frisbee has a longer and more conspicuous cultural history than organized disc golf. Prior to the sport’s “Big Bang” moment in 1973, disc golf was an afterthought to the movers and shakers of the Frisbee scene (Palmeri and Kennedy 2015, 94).
There was no PDGA. No burgeoning disc manufacturers. No McBeth. No Jomez. No internet. And no disc golf media bringing the sport together.
There was only one significant organization in the slowly expanding disc golf universe: A profitable toy company called Wham-O that didn’t care much about disc golf (Palmeri and Kennedy 2015). Naturally, Wham-O’s primary goal was to sell Frisbee fun and games to the masses, not slog along in the notably unprofitable pursuit of competitive disc golf development.
Wham-O’s marketing campaigns made the Frisbee famous and popularized Frisbee golf as one of several games—not as a standalone sport. This marketing strategy was even engraved on the underside of Wham-O Frisbees up until 1975 (Palmeri and Kennedy 2015, 94).
As pictured below, the slogan read: “PLAY CATCH – INVENT GAMES.”
But even as a game, disc golf did not receive much attention from Wham-O in the early years. As Palmeri and Kennedy put it (2015, 93), “The lack of promotion of Frisbee golf by Wham-O and the lack of critical density worked together to delay the advent of the organized sport of disc golf.”
Given that the Frisbee was first promoted as a whimsical toy, it’s not surprising that when many people hear the term “Frisbee golf” today, they think of backyard BBQs, children playing catch on the beach and old men entertaining golden retrievers.
To some Americans, the Frisbee may also evoke stereotypes of hippie subculture and intoxication. In part, these perceptions may reflect the styles and motives of the community itself. Many disc enthusiasts of the past and present have played disc golf just for fun. As Palmeri explains, “to some Frisbee enthusiasts, disc golf was a refreshing alternative to rule-oriented, traditional sports like ball golf.”
Throughout flying disc history, the alternative values and lifestyles of some disc golfers overlapped with greater acceptance of marijuana and alcohol use, which may have encouraged the popular perception of disc golf as a hippie sport or a lifestyle devoted to hedonistic consumption and amusement.
As former Disc Golf Pro Tour Director Steve Dodge put it, “Our sport has a stigma of marijuana use that stems from the hippies that helped bring it along in the early days … I personally love the culture and value system that the early players brought to our sport.”
According to Infinite Discs’ State of Disc Golf survey of 2014, marijuana, tobacco and alcohol consumption rates among disc golfers appear to be relatively high. For instance, roughly 25 percent of disc golfers said they participated in smoking marijuana on the disc golf course; 15 percent of American adults said they used marijuana in the past year.
Meanwhile, the major stakeholders of today’s disc golf scene favor the term disc golf and are working hard to reframe the game as a serious, competitive sport.
One interesting question is, have popular stereotypes involving the Frisbee affected this process? Can the slow growth of competitive disc golf be linked to Frisbee stereotypes in media and public opinion?
In an upcoming post in Parked, I’ll be offering some partial answers to this question. The post will review an academic study that I recently published in Sociological Spectrum. The forthcoming article, “Normative Bridges and Barriers in the Framing of Emerging Sports Movements,” argues that the disc golf community should be studied as a social movement, and that public perceptions are key to its growth (Woods 2019b).
Given that there is no historical public opinion data on this topic, I turned to the news media. Drawing on a large, diverse sample of local and national news sources, the study finds that the volume of disc golf news coverage over a twenty-year period is positively correlated with reliable measures of the sport’s growth. In addition, a content analysis of 2,920 newspaper articles is used to identify the news frames that may promote or attenuate the disc golf movement.
One of the frames involves the Frisbee. The study shows that as the organizational and physical infrastructure of competitive disc golf emerged over the last twenty years, references to “Frisbee golf” in the news media decreased significantly. The findings also demonstrate that local journalists are more likely to legitimize the sport and use its preferred language (“disc golf,” for example) in areas of the United States where disc golfers have demonstrated their seriousness through high rates of competition, course development and group solidarity.
Has Frisbee culture delayed the rise of disc golf? Ultimately, we don’t know. This research only examines empirical associations and cannot identify the causal mechanism behind them.
But we do know this: Frisbee culture, as measured in this study, has declined over the years, and in its wake, we have seen a steady growth in competitive disc golf.
If you would like to learn more about this study, please like Parked on Facebook for notifications and subscribe to our free newsletter by entering your email address below. Fifty free downloads of the published article will be made available first to Parked subscribers.
Norton, Goldy. 1972. The Official Frisbee Handbook. New York: Bantam Books.
Palmeri, J., and P. Kennedy. 2015. A Chain of Events: The Origin and Evolution of Disc Golf. Wethersfield, Connecticut: Wormhole Publishers.
WFDF. 2019. WFDF Announces Strategic Plan for 2019-2024, WFDF, May 30. http://www.wfdf.org/news-media/news/press/2-official-communication/922-wfdf-announces-strategic-plan-for-2019-2024
Woods, J. 2019a. Using Social Media to Estimate the Size and Demographic Characteristics of Hard-to-Reach Sports Communities: The Case of Disc Golf. International Journal of Sport Communication, 12: 36-54.
Woods, J., 2019b. Normative Bridges and Barriers in the Framing of Emerging Sports Movements. Sociological Spectrum, forthcoming in Fall 2019.
Cover art: hippie with Frisbee, cohillcartooning.com; dog with Frisbee, https://clearmirrorhealing.wordpress.com; kid with Frisbee, care.com; Cody Bradshaw crushing on hole one, Seth Burton Memorial, 2017, photo by Jesse Wright.
Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.