New Study Examines the Moneyless Rise of Disc Golf
By Josh Woods ~
Three years ago, I quietly jettisoned my sociological research agenda on terrorism and immigration and began thinking about the growth of disc golf and other emerging sports. The two-part question that has held my curiosity longest is this one:
Is the popularity of disc golf growing, and if so, why?
Early on, I must admit, I was a growth skeptic. Several observers were talking big about the sport’s future, but I just didn’t buy it. There was no real evidence. No one even knew how many players were out there (Woods 2019a).
And why would this weird sport, tucked away in the woods, be growing? Other sports weren’t. Per surveys conducted by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, between 2013 and 2018, the number of kids playing football and soccer declined and basketball increased only slightly.
In the 2010s, the almighty screen was having its way with Americans. Netflix was in. Couches were in. Esports were in. Instagram was in. Memes were in. Texting your friends during my lectures was definitely in. But spending time in the wilderness with sketchy cell service was not. Or so it seemed to me at the time.
While the not-for-profit PDGA was on the rise, the commercial side of disc golf was showing signs of instability. In the last years, Vibram went bye-bye. The Disc Golf World Tour tapped out. And complaints about the Pro Tour added a new chapter to the history of discontent.
Even if the disc golf biz was doing okay, it didn’t look like other fast-growing sports industries.
Skateboarding, that rising Olympic darling, was regularly appearing on television shows and in fashion magazines. Energy-drink-powered teens were pulling down giant paychecks in esports. The Ultimate Fighting Championship was pouring gobs of mass-mediated adrenaline into mixed martial arts, not to mention boatloads of cash. Spikeball was landing deals on Shark Tank and ESPN. Even cornhole was able to steal ESPN’s heart and court moneyed sponsors like Johnsonville Inc.
If the disc golf community was growing, it was doing so without large-scale investment, major corporate sponsors and mainstream media coverage.
And that’s what I think has happened. Disc golf is now making a meaningful impact on recreational habits in the U.S. and several other countries without big money, or big media, or big anything. The disc golf revolution is not earth-shattering or unique, but it’s real.
It joins other emerging sports and recreational activities that rely heavily on volunteers and public resources. To sociologists, these intriguing sports collectives look a lot like social movements (Johnston, Laraña and Gusfield 1994; Haenfler, Johnson and Jones 2012). When explaining the rise of social movements, sociologists focus not only on the individuals and groups that push movements forward, but also on the external forces that both constrain and support them (Benford and Snow 2000; DiMaggio and Powell 1983).
I recently published an article in the academic journal Sociological Spectrum that examines how one of these external forces may be shaping the future of disc golf (Woods 2019b). As discussed in a previous post, disc golf does not receive much attention from mainstream media outlets, but it does emerge in local news sources quite often.
Based on a content analysis of 2,920 newspaper articles, the study offers a novel approach to answering the why-growth question. After conceptualizing disc golf as a social movement, I show that increasing participation over a twenty-year period is positively correlated with both the volume and favorable framing of the sport in local news. In short, disc golf’s public image and legitimacy have improved significantly over the years.
Yet, measurable indicators of disc golf’s commercialization did not show signs of growth. These findings suggest that commercial viability is not the only solid predictor of the future of emerging sports. Over two decades, the small community of disc golfers expanded substantially without relying heavily on the growth engine of commercialization.
Once published, academic studies like this one usually vanish behind a pricey paywall. But, as it turns out, I have access to 50 free online copies of the article. I can think of no one I’d rather share these with than Parked readers. Over the last three years, your support, advice and thoughtful comments have helped me in ways I cannot count, but surely appreciate.
If interested, just click the link below for a free copy of the article. And if they run out, just shoot me an email and I’ll send you a copy (use the contact box below or send directly to email@example.com).
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Benford, R. D., and D. A. Snow. 2000. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology 26(1):611-639.
DiMaggio, P. and W.W. Powell. 1983. The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields. American Sociological Review 48(2): 147-160.
Johnston, H., E. Laraña, and J. R. Gusfield. 1994. “Identities, Grievances, and New Social Movements.” Pp. 3-35 in New Social Movements: From Ideology to Identity, edited by edited by Enrique Larana, Hank Johnston, and Joseph R. Gusfield. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Haenfler, R., B. Johnson, and E. Jones. 2012. “Lifestyle Movements: Exploring the Intersection of Lifestyle and Social Movements.” Social Movement Studies 11(1): 1-20.
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, DOI: 10.1080/02732173.2019.1669236.
Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.