By Joshua Woods ~
One of the most common hashtags used in disc golf social media is #GrowtheSport. It pops up on Twitter more often than hot takes from Brodie Smith.
To many disc golfers, “grow the sport” is an aspirational catchphrase that celebrates the grassroots of the sport and unites the volunteers who made it great. You can find it in social media posts about fundraiser tournaments, new course developments and any number of club activities and volunteer efforts.
But the hashtag can also be found in the promotional materials of private firms. #GrowtheSport appears in the Twitter bio of leading online retailer Infinite Discs, and in the advertisements of disc golf apparel companies. The major disc maker Dynamic Discs invented “Grow Disc Golf Day.” Top pro players like Ricky Wysocki use the hashtag in their social media branding.
Evident in the diverse uses and meanings of the hashtag are two different formulas for growing disc golf—one that relies on public resources and grassroots efforts, and another that is driven primarily by product development, commercialization and consumption.
Over the last five years, I’ve been studying these two social processes. On the topic, I published four articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, a few articles in popular US media and posts in disc golf publications like Udisc’s Release Point and Ultiworld Disc Golf, as well as more than 100 blog posts in Parked. Much of this research has been compiled in my recent book, Emerging Sports as Social Movements: Disc Golf and the Rise of an Unknown Sport.
In the book, I argue that the growth of sports movements depends on whether and to what extent they can increase their stores of five resources: 1) central authority, 2) unified culture, 3) a shared identity, 4) material and human resources and 5) legitimacy. I explain how both the grassroots and business sides of disc golf have provided these resources over the years and contend that disc golf’s future hinges on which side takes the leading role in the years to come. Brief previews of each chapter can be found here. I summarize the book below. If I can provide more information about my research or you’re looking for a podcast guest, please contact me here.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
How do small sports become big ones?
When answering this question, scholars and sports fans alike usually point to the economics of sports and media. These industries work well together, as sports provide valuable content and audiences for media organizations, and media coverage offers needed exposure and revenue to sports organizations (Bolotny and Bourg 2006; Grant and Graeme 2008; Rowe 2003, 2011).
It seems simple: A sport grows when mainstream media pay attention it. Increased media coverage attracts more participants and consumers, which accelerate the growth of related businesses and product development. In some cases, the number of participants keeps rising, a non-participant fan base emerges, bigger private firms and outside sponsors enter the space, the sport reaches into the public consciousness and “goes mainstream.”
A sport that enters this stage is nearly impossible to miss. Its star athletes endorse products that are unrelated to the sport itself and large-scale media organizations package the sport for a mass audience of non-players. For this reason, in the year 2021, most forty-five-year-old Americans, even those who had never set foot on a basketball court, could probably still remember the “Be Like Mike” jingle in Michael Jordan’s famous Gatorade commercial of 1992.
In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, several sports were reaching their fast-growth stages. Skateboarding was headed to the Olympics and regularly appeared on television and in fashion magazines. Energy-drink-powered teens were pulling down big paychecks from esports megaevents. The Ultimate Fighting Championship was filling large arenas with fans and pouring mass-mediated adrenaline into mixed martial arts.
Even a few lesser-known sports were on the rise. Spikeball, the main promoter of roundnet, landed deals with Shark Tank and ESPN. Cornhole was appearing on ESPN and courting moneyed sponsors like Johnsonville Sausage. Ax throwing and wood chopping were being nationally televised.
Yet, despite the excitement, emerging sports like these often go overlooked by scholars. Most of the available scholarship on sport development focuses on traditional athletics such as football and basketball in the United States, megaevents like the Olympics, or general categories of physical activity such as outdoor recreation (Beamon 2010; Boyle and Haynes 2009; Kidd 2013; Maguire 2011; McGillivray 2017; Rober 2013; Sanderson, Frederick, and Stocz 2016; Bernstein and Blain 2012). These studies provide important insight on commercialization processes and the cultural politics that arise as emerging sports transform into profit engines (Wheaton 2013).
But the economic lens has it limits when it comes to small, non-normative sports like disc golf.
Show Me The … Self-Actualization?
Participation in disc golf has grown consistently for more than fifty years, but much of this growth cannot be explained by the strategies of private business. Disc golf is a uniquely public endeavor (Woods 2019b). Most of the world’s tournament directors, league managers and disc golf clubs are not motivated purely by profit, nor do they use profit as a key measure of success.
Put simply, some things that are profitable have little social value (reality TV anyone?), just as some things of high social value are not profitable (disc golf anyone?). If alternative motivations, such as friendship, community, identity, camaraderie, self-actualization, the great outdoors and the love of the game, suddenly vanished, so too would disc golf.
The disc golf community consists of a growing, global network of individuals, groups and organizations. Most of the groups are local disc golf clubs of various sizes, which function as voluntary associations and produce little or no profit. Two of them, the PDGA and the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF), are large non-profit organizations that depend on talent donations from community insiders. There are also several national organizations aboard and regional bodies in the US that rely on volunteers.
For-profit firms are enjoying growing revenues as they manufacture equipment and provide services, but, as discussed in Chapter 7 (“Movement Commercialization and Disc Golf’s Closed Economy”), most of these businesses were founded by player entrepreneurs whose influence on the sport should be characterized as “movement commercialization” rather than “mass-market commercialization” (Edwards and Corte 2010, 1144).
As argued throughout Emerging Sports as Social Movements, these groups and organizations represent the building blocks of a social movement, and for this reason, theories of social movements should be used to explain disc golf’s development in addition to the business-oriented models of commercialization.
A Social Movement
Establishing the groundwork for this argument, Chapter 2 (“A Social Movement”) conceptualizes the disc golf community as a social movement, locating it historically and theoretically among the “new movements” of the late-twentieth century (Johnston, Laraña and Gusfield 1994; Woods 2019b; Cohen 1985). Though no less focused on social change, new social movements are brought together less so by social class, political ideology or contested politics and more so by an alternative set of values, group identity and pragmatic objectives than other movements. The organizational structure of new social movements also tends to be less centralized than some movements of the past.
The development of such a movement depends in part on whether its leaders can inspire a common outlook and a sense of we-ness among members. Although adherence to a standard set of rules and competitive formats is growing, disc golf remains culturally fragmented. The community is made up of multiple groups and social identities, and people are motivated to participate for different reasons.
This kind of cultural divergence presents a special problem to small emerging sports—ones that lack institutional support from mainstream media, popular culture, large corporations and school systems. Disc golf, like all things residing in the normative margins, is a still-developing thing, a DIY thing, a culture in beta mode. The guidelines for interpreting it are unsettled. And so, its definition is equally unresolved.
Still, these various understandings are not randomly assigned, nor are they too numerous to list. While the following categories are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive, many self-identified players experience disc golf in one of two ways: as a modern achievement sport, or as a lifestyle. I refer to these categories as “domains.” Each domain represents a distinct set of assumptions about why people play disc golf, what they think of it and how they practice it.
Let’s take a deeper dive into each domain.
Sport Versus Lifestyle
As discussed in Chapter 3 (“A Modern Achievement Sport”), disc golfers of the modern achievement domain usually play competitively. They follow the PDGA’s official rules, keep score and often play for tags, equipment or money. To improve performance, they practice specialized skills, research new throwing techniques, watch professional events on YouTube, and invest in high-quality equipment. Supporting key aspects of modernity—specialization, rationalization, bureaucratic organization, quantification—the PDGA is a driving force behind the modern achievement domain (Guttman 1978; Suits 2007).
Yet, only about 14 percent of disc golfers are members of the PDGA, and many devoted players have little interest in organized, competitive disc golf (Woods 2019a).
Chapter 4 (“A Lifestyle”) argues that a greater portion of players gravitate toward the lifestyle domain, where commitment to the sport is high, but participants tend to be less focused on winning. Many don’t even keep score. Among other reasons, they participate because they love playing or they enjoy the outdoors, the health benefits of walking or the social aspects of the game. Their participation is guided more by local customs than official rules. Like rock climbers, mountain bikers, hikers and skateboarders, they experience disc golf primarily as a lifestyle rather than a strictly competitive endeavor.
Per Wheaton (2004, 2013), lifestyle sports are characterized by their newness, non-aggressiveness, alternative views on competition, and a high level of commitment. This chapter explains how organizational and technological changes have influenced disc golf’s lifestyle domain over time. It also identifies the conflicting values among people who play disc golf as a modern achievement sport and those who experience it as a lifestyle.
The way people participate in disc golf and the meanings they attach to it depend on the situation, as well as boarder social forces. Even the most competitive pro disc golfer plays purely for fun at times, or participates for the sake of health benefits, camaraderie, hedonistic pleasure and other non-competitive motives. Likewise, many disc golfers who lean toward the lifestyle domain play competitively, delight in victory and mourn defeat.
The differing meanings and practices of the two domains should not be understood as totalizing categories, but rather as cultural equipment or tools that can be used by the diverse members of the disc golf community (Swidler 1986). Disc golf culture is an assorted repertoire of symbols, habits, skills, styles, values and attitudes that can unite or divide groups depending on how they manifest in behavior (Johnston and Klandermans 1995).
Effects of Social Media
The evolution of disc golf culture depends greatly on what happens inside local clubs. With the rise of social media in the 2010s, much of this life world was uploaded to groups on Facebook. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the relationship between social media and the popularization of disc golf.
Based on an analysis of 123 randomly selected disc golf Facebook groups, the chapters show how social media have both integrative and disruptive influences on the disc golf movement. After defining these influences with a qualitative study in Chapter 5 (“Group Integration and Disruption in Disc Golf Social Media”), I use a quantitative analysis in Chapter 6 (“Social Media and the Growth of Disc Golf”) to show that social media use is positively correlated with regional participation rates as well as the skill levels of individual players. Yes, believe it or not, scrolling through social media, posting the obligatory ace photo and smack talking your buddies appears to be part of a social process that makes people better at disc golf.
Social media, despite their reputation for sowing conflict, are a grassroots growth engine for the sport.
A sport movement with strong leadership and a unified culture is more likely to take root and grow than a movement that lacks these properties. Alone, however, these resources are not likely to transform a non-normative sport into a mainstream one.
Building on resource mobilization theory, Chapter 7 (“Movement Commercialization and Disc Golf’s Closed Economy”) introduces additional resources, including legitimacy, human resources and material resources, that are required for transformative growth (Jenkins 1983; McCarthy and Zald 1977; Edwards and McCarthy 2004). The chapter defines these resources and illustrates their importance by analyzing other fast-growing sports, including mixed martial arts, esports and BMX. Drawing on interviews with key disc golf stakeholders and a comprehensive data collection on disc manufacturers, I argue that, unlike the development of other fast-growing sports, disc golf’s commercialization has been driven primarily by talent donations and a relatively small pool of player entrepreneurs and movement enterprises (Edwards and Corte 2010).
Lacking large outside investments, disc golf’s brand of movement commercialization has not achieved the explosive growth seen in mixed martial arts and esports, but it has sustained the sport with consistent growth for more than four decades.
Disc Golf in the News
Ultimately, the future of a sport depends on people’s perceptions of it. Even a sport movement with promising internal characteristics—a cohesive culture, a pronounced identity, strong leadership, long-term investors—depends on outside organizations and institutional players to convert these resources into increased legitimacy and new participants. Non-normative movements like disc golf face the added challenge of breaking through the public’s indifference, negative perceptions and stereotypes. People are unfamiliar or vaguely familiar with these sports and so their perceptions hinge on a relatively small set of real and mediated experiences.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people play disc golf for the first time or take in a few rounds recreationally but never join a club, identify as disc golfers, or develop a strong desire to improve their skills. The same is true of people who occasionally hike a beautiful mountain trail but do not identify as hikers or join a hiking club. Beyond the fringes of all non-normative sports are millions of people whose understanding of the given sport is shaped mostly or completely by news media and popular culture.
Building on the inward-looking perspective of resource mobilization theory, Chapters 8 and 9 utilize a cultural approach to social movements and examine the role of news media in the development of non-normative sports. Drawing on a large sample of articles published in local and major metro newspapers, elite national newspapers, television news transcripts and Sports Illustrated, Chapter 8 (“The Framing of Disc Golf in News Media”) shows how both the volume of coverage and the framing of disc golf in news media are positively correlated with reliable measures of the sport’s growth over a twenty-year period. The sport received more news coverage and more favorable portrayals as the number of disc golf courses, PDGA members and events increased over two decades.
Chapter 9 (“Growth without Commercialization: Regional Patterns in Participation Rates and Media Coverage”) examines the relationship between the framing of disc golf in the news media and its popularity across the fifty United States. News organizations in states with higher levels of disc golf participation produce higher volumes of disc golf coverage and more favorable framing of the sport than news organizations in states with lower levels of participation.
However, measures of the sport’s commercialization, such as stories about past tournaments and references to private companies like Innova and Discraft, did not change over time and were not correlated with regional participation patterns. This chapter suggests that non-normative sports may develop through two processes: One driven primarily by large investments and mass-market commercialization, and one that relies more on public resources and grassroots efforts to grow the sport.
Disc Golf in Popular Culture
Although the disc golf movement has generally benefited from coverage in traditional news media, as well as insider media, prosumers and social media, references to the sport in popular television shows and movies are often critical. In Chapter 10 (“Neglect, Trivialization and Stigmatization: Disc Golf in Popular Movies and Television”), I argue that as non-normative sports gain popularity, they meet resistance from the dominant sports culture and media. Drawing on Todd Gitlin’s work (1979) on ideological hegemony and Erving Goffman’s Stigma (1963), this chapter shows how disc golf has been neglected, trivialized and stigmatized by high-status media organizations.
To build this argument, I analyzed seventy-seven references to disc golf in television shows and movies using quantitative and qualitative measures. The findings showed that disc golf references are shorter in high-status programs than in low-status programs. Disc golf is also more likely to be trivialized and stigmatized in high-status programs than in low-status programs. The chapter reveals how the evolution of non-normative sports movements may be constrained by hegemonic sports culture.
The Future May Be a Bumpy Ride
In Chapter 11 (“The Future of Disc Golf”), I review the book’s key ideas and use them to theorize the future of the sport. In the next two decades, disc golf will likely experience consistent growth driven partly by grassroots efforts and the availability of public resources. Barring the arrival of large-scale human and material resources, the movement will rely on its volunteer leadership, generous talent donation from insiders, partnerships with public parks, the development and cultural convergence of local disc golf groups, the mobilizing forces of identity and its legitimacy as a socially redeeming sport and recreational activity. If disc golf continues to develop as a grassroots sports movement, the key to its growth will rest more so on its social fitness than its economic fitness.
At the same time, this chapter also considers the possibility of an alternative path forward that involves privatization and mass-market commercialization. While this future is less likely in the short-term, there have been recent signs of change. In late August 2020, the sport was featured on the CBS Sports Network. A few months later, in November, a second tournament aired on ESPN2. In 2020, viewership of disc golf tournament coverage on YouTube was also growing fast and social media personalities were attracting new players to the sport. In the months following the completion of this book in early 2021, ESPN has shown continued interest in disc golf, and the DGPT has landed key outside sponsors, including L.L. Bean, Johnsonville and Guaranteed Rate.
Meanwhile, in 2020-2021, much of the world was grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and many people were looking for a sport like disc golf that could be played while social distancing. Reports from all corners of the industry indicated that both participation and equipment sales were booming.
While the business of disc golf may be on the precipice of a new era of development, the most likely future involves elements of both grassroots and commercial growth. Chapter 11 concludes with a discussion of how these contrasting elements may create tension and conflict within the disc golf movement in the years to come.
The theory behind Emerging Sports as Social Movements can be summarized as follows: To grow, a sports movement needs five resources.
First, it has to have an organizing body with enough central authority to establish and enforce a common set of rules and standards, schedule events and distribute information. Second, a unified culture is required for aligning the values and goals of the movement’s disparate individuals and groups. Early on, it also needs a social identity, so that people can experience a sense of belonging, a feeling of we-ness that mobilizes collective action. Material and human resources are necessary for constructing a sport’s infrastructure, creating and improving equipment and providing a material foundation for growth. The success of a sport movement also rests on its legitimacy and how it is perceived by potential recruits and people who know little about it.
The goal of this book is to explain how these resources came together in the case of disc golf.
Writing is hard. Writing a whole book is really hard. Finishing this one would not have happened without a lot of help. Gratitude goes to the many people who supported this project. You can find their names in the book’s acknowledgments here.
All the book’s references, including the ones in this article, can be found here.
Please Support Disc Golf Research
To encourage more disc golf research and support Parked, please consider buying Emerging Sports as Social Movements: Disc Golf and the Rise of an Unknown Sport, available on Amazon here or through the publisher here.