Has Frisbee Culture Delayed the Rise of Competitive Disc Golf?

By Josh Woods ~

Cover art

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.”

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.

Frisbee Advertisements

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.

References

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.

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

 

3 thoughts on “Has Frisbee Culture Delayed the Rise of Competitive Disc Golf?

  1. I was a player in So Cal, La Mirada, in those days. Active off n on over the years. Now an then us older guys talk about this general topic from varied perspectives, pondering the past-present-future of disc golf. Truely a multi faceted conundrum. But whenever Substance use is linked to stagnation of growth, I ask, Why are we running from a Red Herring.
    EMBRACE OUR HISTORY. We’re the coolest people in sports.
    We dont have beer carts on the courses, adult beverage vendors ringing stadiums, with advertising everywhere, title sponsors pedaling poison in a bottle. Alcohol is directly attributed to deaths and social decay. There is a toxic double standard, Alcohol vs Pot. Set the record straight. At least in your minds.
    The profit incentive for sponsors tells the story and points the way. Be BRAVE.
    And by the way not all players back then were Hippie stoners. Yet if perception is reality, I’d rather be a stoner than a drunk.
    So Illuminate the benefits, sell the product, and continue to enjoy it’s counter culture growth until your ready to pull up your big boy pants and fight.
    P.S. many players dont want explosive growth. They love the status quo. Uncrowded courses without a bunch of PC frisbee Moms hovering over us.
    That won’t help touring pros of the current generation but should the tail be wagging the dog? Can we do both?

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  2. As someone who loves the sport and its culture (past and present) and who is trying to study it as a research career, I often find myself in a tough spot. My job is to follow the data and use social theory as my guide, but I don’t always like where it takes me. At the same time, I think you’ll enjoy my next post. While Frisbee culture may be on the decline, signs of commercialization (as measured through news media representations) are flat across a twenty-year period. The relatively slow growth of disc golf–perhaps the product of people “embracing our history”–has continued, consistently, over decades without the wildfire of commercialization that we see in many other sporting communities. Thanks for your comments.

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  3. “Frisbee” is a registered trademark belonging to Wham-O, which is why the sport must use the “disc golf” terminology rather than “Frisbee golf”. There’s no debate on that subject. They’re still in the business of protecting their brand. https://www.trademarksandbrandsonline.com/news/frisbee-maker-throws-tm-suit-at-counterfeiters-5234

    The other issues are very capitalistic and independent. Nobody owns the sport of throwing a round object at a target. The PDGA and Innova and every other organization, company, club, etc. build their own brands and markets hoping to tap into the monetization of the game. Until there’s a real demand for it, competitive disc golf will remain at the grass roots level. And you better believe when there is a real demand, the big companies like Nike or Yamaha or whoever is clever will buy out small disc golf companies and/or put them out of business.

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