By Josh Woods ~
Live sports are currently on pause due to the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving the $160 billion US sports industry in a tailspin. Only about half of all sporting events that were originally scheduled for 2020 will likely take place, per a new report.
While all sports will take a hit, some will weather the storm better than others. The esports industry, for instance, will probably do okay. The big stadium events are on hold, but gobs of gamers and fans are still nestled safely online.
Disc golf has a few obvious advantages in the “Don’t-Stand-So-Close-To-Me” era. It’s an outdoor sport, for one thing. We play in small groups (usually). There’s very little contact between players. You can even play alone.
While the challenges are far greater for the professional disc golf scene, recreational players and clubs can, theoretically, adapt in ways that reduce or stop coronavirus transmission. Three to a card. Staggered starts. Udisc scoring. Distancing. No hugs. No high-fives. No problem.
Disc golf also has two long-term advantages that are less obvious.
The question on every sport promoter’s mind is, will residual concerns about Covid-19 have lasting effects on participation and fandom? That is, even after our fears subside, will some moms and dads think twice before sending their sons and daughters off to play team sports that involve lots of contact, enclosed spaces and shared surfaces? When the gates finally open, will some fans skip the stadium?
Since the start of the crisis, public officials have been parsing the safety issues in every nook and cranny of our lives. The non-stop news cycle has churned out commentary on the potential threat of every situation and setting on the planet. Even if we see a best-case scenario with Covid-19, many people may be left with new sensitivities to once-ordinary experiences.
As a social psychologist, I reached a similar conclusion after studying the fear of terrorism for more than a decade. When people worry about something long enough, new institutions and cultural patterns form, making it easier and more likely for people to worry about the same thing in the future.
If Covid-19 seeps into our culture and institutions, we could see more and more people looking for sports that involve less contact and more social distance. Disc golf is not the best sport for distancing, but it has clear advantages over several other sports.
The Benefits of Grassroots
The economic fallout from Covid-19 may devastate the sports industry.
In the case of disc golf, some organizations and businesses will likely struggle. I hope the spirit of our game translates into continued financial support for the PDGA, the Disc Golf Pro Tour, Ultiworld Disc Golf, Udisc, all those pros going without payouts, tournament directors stuck with player’s packs, the camera crews, and the many other businesses that rely on a smoothly operating professional disc golf scene.
Still, compared to other sports, disc golf is a nimble economic creature. It has not yet been commodified as a mass entertainment product, nor fully enmeshed in commercial interests and outside investment.
Disc manufacturers, distributors and sellers are the engines of the industry, and their main source of fuel comes from amateur and recreational players. Given that some disc golfers never stopped playing, some started playing for the first time, and many others will play again soon, the business of disc golf will survive.
What’s more, disc golf could endure even if the industry took a huge hit. With roughly 90 percent of disc golf courses in public parks, the sport’s physical infrastructure is far more recession proof than a high-end, unused, private sports facility. For better and worse, much of the scene relies on volunteer labor and talent donations.
Most importantly, the social value of disc golf is rooted more so in community benefits—getting outdoors, exercising, friendships, civil society—than in privatized entertainment and consumption. For this reason, the disc golf community is more resilient to economic downturns than a big-time sport married to a dwindling fan base and a declining market cap.
Some evidence of disc golf’s unique ability to thrive amid Covid-19 concerns can be found in local newspaper coverage. Using one of the largest U.S. newspaper archives in the world, I searched for the term “disc golf” over the last four months (January-April 2020). I ran the same search for 2019. (I projected coverage for the last four days in April based on average daily coverage for that month).
As shown in Table 1, the total number of newspaper articles about disc golf is low, but the trend for 2020 (with the pandemic) is like the trend for 2019 (without the pandemic). In both years, as the weather got nicer in March and April, disc golf became more prevalent in the public discourse.
Specifically, disc golf saw a 42 percent increase in press coverage between January and April 2019, and an 84 percent jump between January and April 2020.
With circulation declining and newsroom employment plummeting, the influence of newspapers has nose dived over the last two decades. But the press is still an interesting data source, because previous research has shown that newspaper coverage is positively correlated with television news coverage and even social media buzz.
Now check out the press data for two, highly commercialized sports that usually flourish in spring. For traditional golf, the trend line for 2019 rose as expected (see Table 2). Newspapers published roughly 46,000 golf stories in January 2019 and the story count increased by 64 percent by April 2019.
But the 2020 data tell a different tale. The coverage rose only slightly in January-March and then declined in April. The press published 25,000 fewer articles about golf in April 2020 than they did in April 2019. Among other things, there was no coverage of the Masters Tournament (April 9-12), nor several other major events that were cancelled or postponed in February-April 2020.
For baseball, the pandemic downturn was even greater. The number of newspaper articles published about baseball in April 2020 (66,216) was roughly half the number published in April 2019 (123,058).
A proper interpretation of these findings demands further research and consideration. Multiple other factors may explain the consistent increase in Covid-19 era press coverage of disc golf and the decline in traditional golf and baseball coverage.
Yet, it seems plausible that public interest in disc golf is less vulnerable to Covid-19 concerns and financial downturns than larger commercialized sports in part because its value transcends that of a consumer product and the recycled history of mainstream sports entertainment.
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Parked is made possible in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.
Josh Woods, editor at Parked, is a professor of sociology at West Virginia University. He is working on a book, Emerging Sports as Social Movement: Disc Golf and the Rise of an Unknown Sport, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2021.