Disc golf is set up for success. The sport is growing rapidly, more now than ever. Nothing can possibly derail the progress that is launching us to the forefront of worldwide athletic competition. Right? Well, it’s important to realize that with the heightened exposure and insurgence of new players over the past few years, disc golf is now entering the most crucial stage of the sport’s growth. The next decade could determine the indefinite trajectory of the game we love, in regards to pure growth as well as business success. I bring my personal disc golf story to attention because it’s a success story. Not in the sense that I became a success within the sport itself, but because the sport successfully caught my attention and held it for years to come. Disc golf has a difficult task ahead that all sports must face at one time or another: Adapt a professional model that brings revenue and new players, while still holding on to the roots and charm that made it relevant in the first place.
My disc golf story isn’t abnormal, but I think it paints a good outline of the key factors that make disc golf such an alluring pursuit. I grew up playing sports 24/7. Athletics was how my Dad and I bonded. If we weren’t playing sports, we were talking about them. I played almost every sport out there, but disc golf wasn’t on my radar. My earliest memory of disc golf was my Great Grandfather taking me and my sister to a course near his home when we were very young. I hardly remember it. The next time I played was at a local park with some of my neighbor friends. I was probably 11 or 12 and we played with ultimate frisbees. If you’ve ever played disc golf with an ultimate disc, it’s easy to understand why this version of disc golf failed to interest me. It wasn’t until the summer after my 8th-grade year that I really got to experience the sport in its true form. My Uncle had played casually with his buddies during high school, and one day he decided to take my brother and me to the course to give it a try. We first went to the local sporting goods store where we purchased our first discs: Innova three-disc starter sets. Up until this point, I had no clue that golf discs even existed, let alone that there was an expansive variety of them that all flew differently. My mind was officially blown. After one round I was hooked. The next summer would see me jump into disc golf head first. If I wasn’t playing, I was watching it on youtube or shopping for new discs online. I soon began competing in tournaments and my disc collection grew and grew. Once I was heavily invested in high school sports, I wasn’t able to play as much. However, when summer rolled around I would always feel that itch to pick the discs back up. This eventually led to me joining a college team, and now I even get to work a job in this sport! Needless to say, disc golf got me and it got me good. How did this happen? I had so many other athletic interests, but disc golf still found a way to capture my imagination like nothing before. I reflected on this time in my life, and I believe I have a good grasp on the recipe that worked for me, the recipe that disc golf needs to rely on during this new stage of explosive growth.
I like to refer to the aforementioned recipe as the three “C’s.” Those are the cost of equipment, course accessibility, and community. We’ll start with the cost of equipment because that is the most important in my opinion. Disc golf has a rare combination of low cost and high incentive to buy. Allow me to elaborate. The low cost is self-explanatory, but what do I mean by the high incentive to buy? Some sports incite the want to buy and collect more equipment than what is required. Some sports do not. For example, I used to play baseball. Once I had bought the equipment I needed, I never felt an urge to get any more until I had worn the current set out. I would consider this a low incentive to buy. Disc golf provokes players to continue buying discs beyond what they need to participate in the sport. This is for a number of reasons. Cost is one of them of course, but there is more at play here. The collectability of golf discs, and the fact that they fly and feel differently from one another is the real driving force. It’s hard not to be curious about how a disc flies when you pick it up. I mentioned that the combination of low cost and high incentive to buy is rare. This is because typically when a sport has a high incentive to buy, such as in traditional golf, the costs are high enough to discourage collecting and the possession of excessive equipment unless you are very wealthy. Not all disc golfers have more than a few discs, but I feel that is not the norm, especially amongst players who have been around the sport for more than a year. I think this combination of cost and desire to collect was the initial hook that reeled me in. Even as a 14-year-old kid, I was able to scrape up 10 bucks to buy my next disc. And don’t even get me started on Christmas. It was very easy to grow my collection.
The second “C” is course accessibility. There aren’t many areas in the US where you can’t find a disc golf course within an hour’s drive. If you live near a heavily populated city, you might have 10 courses within a 30-mile radius. I grew up with two courses that were 10 minutes away. This meant that getting to the course was a short drive away. Though this is an important part of the sport, and more courses pop up constantly, the primary reason I bring accessibility is due to the price, not the proximity of courses. Almost every disc golf course is free to play. The majority of them are in public parks. Even the few courses that do cost money are only a few dollars to play. This creates an opportunity for players to fall in love with the sport without running into the financial roadblocks that other hobbies possess. The only reason I was able to play traditional golf on a consistent basis when I was growing up was that I worked at the course to earn free rounds. But with disc golf, I could play as much as I wanted with no concern related to cost. I really believe that disc golf is one of the most accessible sports in the country, and it is probably the most powerful asset the sport has.
The third “C” stands for community. This one is very important, and the most fragile. From the time I started competing in disc golf, I’ve noticed that the community in this sport is very proud and tightly knit. Many times when you ask a disc golfer about the sport they’ll be quick to mention how accepting and friendly the community is. I would agree with this statement for the most part. The community within disc golf is still a plus for the sport. Most of the people you meet are very good ambassadors of the game. There are of course some bad apples, but that’s expected in any social setting. If newcomers are to keep up with their new hobby, those who come before them need to encourage them and welcome them in with open arms. This is essential to growth. Community is a very important “C,” but I’ve seen reason to believe it could be in jeopardy, just like the other “C’s.”
So what trials do these three factors face as we enter this new era of disc golf? Let’s start with the cost of equipment. The biggest threat to cost is inflation and more specifically the increase of materials to make the discs. Disc costs have been rising lately. Much of this is because crude oil is one of the main ingredients used in polyurethane, which is used to make discs. If prices hike too high, then manufacturers will need to research and consider new materials to keep the price of discs down. Being able to walk into a store and buy a disc for $10 is a massive advantage that cannot be lost. Many players who are just giving the sport a try are willing to blow 10 bucks on a disc, but probably not 30. Let’s move on to course accessibility. This one is a bit tricky. Disc golf is going to face a bit of an identity crisis. Our sport for a long time carried the image of a casual, stroll in the park type of game. Now things are getting more serious, and the money is piling up. We now need courses that can support a very professional tour and draw in sponsors, and all we have to work with for the most part are public properties that aren’t built for the infrastructure these new events require. This is why we’ve seen our share of pro tour events hosted at traditional golf courses. It’s easier to film, broadcast, and accommodate spectators and sponsors. The issue is that in order to have these new super courses work, they need a private piece of land and a full-time staff. That stuff doesn’t come cheap, so now we need to charge players a good amount to play the course. But disc golfers love that they can play for free, and they won’t hand over their money easily. This is the power struggle we face ahead. Can disc golf find a balance between free and pay-to-play courses? Will disc golfers support a course that needs to operate as a business? Only time will tell. But I wouldn’t be shocked if some of the bigger entities in our sports start working on these new disc golf properties soon if they haven’t started already. We might genuinely be talking about disc golf tourism in a few years if things keep trending this way. Lastly, we arrive at the community. This one is a touchy subject. Some disc golfers haven’t been as receptive to the newcomers in our sport as others. There have been complaints of overcrowded courses, slow players (because they’re new) on the course, and disc drops selling out faster than before. This is creating a sub-group of people in our sport that are pushing new players away. I don’t have much to say to the selfish people gatekeeping this game, but I will say that without new players disc golf will die.
Hopefully, this article gave you an idea of what got me hooked on disc golf, and why we need to protect these core ideas during these crucial years of growth. The upwards trajectory of our sport is not guaranteed. Disc golf captured me and kept me for the reasons listed above. If we keep the focus on what makes this game special, there’s no telling how far it can go.