By Chris Bawden ~
Last April, Parked published an article claiming that disc golf is pandemic proof and offered preliminary evidence. In this article, I’ll take a deeper dive into the 2020 data and show that participation in disc golf did expand, but certain areas of the sport have been impacted in other ways.
More Foot Traffic and Family Time
Starting in the spring last year, there were a few obvious differences in the disc golf environment. Across the US, most disc golf courses remained open while many other locations and events were shut down. This brought an influx of foot traffic to our local courses from less experienced players.
I personally loved seeing the increased participation. Though reports were mixed, in my experience, most of the new players were respectful. I also noticed an increase in families and children on the course. Having talked to at least five friends from around the nation, I learned that many disc golf courses were seeing a rise in family-oriented recreation.
Cancelations and Closures
The competitive disc golf scene did of course experience several cancellations. Below is a monthly trend of the percentage of disc golf tournaments in Michigan cancelled in 2020, according to data pulled from Disc Golf Scene’s tournament list. Michigan had higher lock down restrictions than many states, but this still gives a good idea about the extent of tournament disruption. Other tournaments were delayed until later in the year resulting in a higher density of tournaments in the late summer months.
Perhaps the most disappointing impact of COVID-19 was course closures due to overcrowding and people ignoring social distancing rules. A friend in Illinois related a story about the baskets being covered and eventually removed from courses because there were so many large groups and individuals near each other.
Dillon Carr wrote of a similar case of local disc golf courses closing because of overcrowding. Additional studies are needed to understand how these impacts will affect the demographics of disc golf.
To be sure, there were more people on the course in 2020, but what about official PDGA participation? Data on new PDGA memberships purchased each year from January 2016 to November of 2020 provides quantitative evidence of the spike in disc golf participation. In 2017, the PDGA grew by almost 14,500 new members. In 2020 the PDGA has seen an incredible 22,000 new members representing an increase of greater than 50% year-over-year in new memberships.
Internet Disc Golf Activity
One of the first trends that tipped me off to the pandemic’s effect on disc golf was the boost in traffic to my co-edited website, DG Puttheads. Disc golf web traffic is seasonal for us, and we experience a spring traffic lift every year. However, as illustrated below, our lift in April was about three times the normal increase. Our traffic ultimately quadrupled year-over-year in 2020. It appears that as disc golf gained popularity during the pandemic, new disc golfers began searching for information online and found us.
We can observe similar trends across the internet in the sports and recreation industry. Below is the Google Trends search data for the term “disc golf” over the past 5 years.
Again, there was a clear seasonal trend, but 2020 saw a precipitous increase reaching an all-time high at the beginning of summer. Even in the off-season, search frequency remained high compared to previous years.
Search trends for some other sports revealed negative impacts from the pandemic. The search term “baseball,” for example, showed the normal off-season decline, but searches remained comparatively low throughout the year.
On initial observation, it seems likely that team sports such as baseball and football that had been shut down have seen less participation and less interest among internet users while individual, outdoor sports and activities gained popularity.
Disc Golf Equipment Availability
Many disc golfers have voiced their frustrations with the decrease in disc production this year. Due to a disruption in the plastics supply chain, as well as diminished capacity at some manufacturing facilities, along with a significant increase in demand, the supply of discs decreased drastically in 2020. In large numbers, disc golfers turned to eBay and Facebook groups in search of their core discs.
The Discraft Buzzz is one of the most popular discs in disc golf. Even this disc was sold out across stores nationwide. As of writing this, Infinite Discs had no Buzzzes in stock and Discraft themselves had a low supply.
Supply was so short in fact that prices of used discs skyrocketed to nearly match the price of new discs. The Play It Again Sports stores in two cities in Michigan both sold approximately 90 percent of their used disc stock by September 2020 and were unable to replace them. I know because I visited these stores.
Used disc prices on eBay nearly doubled. Just to test the market, I listed a two-year old broken-in Z misprint Buzzz for $40 (original purchase price was just $5). Within two weeks I received an offer for $27 plus shipping. In the end I decided this was price gouging and removed the listing.
Although the number of discs available on the market may have decreased, the total number of new discs approved by the PDGA did not decrease and may have even increased above average in Quarter 3 of 2020. This is further evidence of the optimistic business outlook for disc golf manufacturers.
The pandemic is far from over and disc golf, as well as all other aspects of our lives, will undoubtedly see more impacts from quarantine restrictions and our new way of life. We can be certain that the pandemic increased disc golf participation, but also disrupted the normal culture of existing disc golfers. We can also be sure that any equipment shortages are temporary.
One lingering question is, will the explosive growth of new players continue, or will the 2020 class of new disc golfers be an anomalous cohort? It may be years before we will fully understand the lasting effects of the pandemic. Until then, keep throwing and we will keep researching.
Parked is made possible in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.
Chris Bawden is a Michigan disc golfer of nearly 20 years and has been an author with the Disc Golf Puttheads since 2015. He lives with his wife and two daughters near his home course of Burchfield Park and is a data scientist on the side.