By Josh Woods ~
Watch the essay here:
Back in 2017, Paul McBeth dropped a sympathy bomb on social media. He was like, check me out. I’m only five and a half feet tall and I weigh less than a panda. I’ll never be the favorite in sports. I’m the OG underdog. Send me some love.
Of course, he didn’t say it quite like that, and he had just dropped out of the Green Mountain Championship due to an injury that was only going sideways. And so, his fans did send love.
“Heal up Champ!!!” someone wrote on Facebook. “Hope you feel 100% by USDGC.” “You’re always my favorite!”
And yet, none of them embraced his point. No one acknowledged the simple truth that McBeth is an underdog.
Of course, to many observers, this simple truth is neither simple nor true. At the time, McBeth was a four-time world champion and since then he picked up a fifth world championship, along with a 10-million dollar contract and now drives a gazillion dollar spider car built by super nerds in some far-off European capital.
They call him McBeast, because he’s a wild animal. I mean, watching McBeth play is like watching a jungle panther leaping, nimble-footed, through tree limbs to catch its prey before devouring it.
To anyone who has played disc golf for even one week, McBeth is many things, but an underdog he is not.
But now, let’s back it down the cherry tree for a minute.
McBeth is a decent disc golfer and he’s good at life and whatnot, but to deny him the status of an underdog is to ignore the history of the sport and the broader context in which he and many other pro men and women play.
To overlook the opportunity costs of playing pro disc golf as a career, the puzzled looks from outsiders, the condescending smack talk from mainstream sports media, and the sheer courage it takes to go on tour is to miss the sport’s most glaring characteristic.
Disc golf is small. Disc golf, like Paul McBeth, is an underdog in the world of sports. And it may “never be the favorite.”
But then, disc golf is not alone in this respect. Several sports, such as flat track roller derby, Pickleball, parkour, cornhole, drone racing, roundnet and ax throwing have attracted large followings, but have not broken through to the mainstream.
Like McBeth’s self-proclaimed stature, all sports were, at one point in their histories, small. Over the decades, some sports grew quickly for a time, but lost momentum before reaching a mass audience. Others experienced slow, consistent growth, but never emerged from the margins.
In recent years, only a few sports, such as skateboarding, snowboarding, mixed martial arts and esports, captured the public’s imagination and broke through to the mainstream. The question is, what explains these different outcomes? How do small sports become big ones? And, most importantly, will disc golf become a big one?
To answer these questions, my new book, Emerging Sports as Social Movements: Disc Golf and the Rise of an Unknown Sport, identifies the five driving forces of sport development. Just as humans need nutritious foods from the five food groups, new or emerging sports need five basic resources to grow.
These include: Culture, organization, identity, material and human resources, and, most importantly, legitimacy.
The goal of the book is to show how the future of disc golf and other emerging sports depend on whether and how they gain access to these five resources.
If there’s interest, I’ll be posting articles and videos about the book over the next couple months.
My name is Josh Woods. I’m a sociologist, a writer and a professor at West Virginia University who fell in love with disc golf back in 2013. This is the most interesting research I’ve ever done. I hope you’ll check it out.
To follow along, you can subscribe to the YouTube channel or to my blog Parked. You’ll find the videos and written content under the category “Rise of an Unknown Sport.” You can also follow me on Twitter (@ADiscGolfBlog) for daily updates on all things disc golf, as well as on Facebook and Instagram.
Josh Woods is editor at Parked and author of Emerging Sports as Social Movements, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in August 2021.