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Sports Outlook: The Growth of Disc Golf

19 Mar, 2017

By: Brian J. Graham

EDITORS NOTE: NO, YOU DIDN'T HEAR AN ALTERNATIVE VERSION OF THE INDUSTRY NEWS. Brian Graham, the longtime executive director of the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), is changing his role with the Association. He has moved to Morris Communications, where he is in charge of a number of the organization’s sports properties. In the meantime, however, he continues in the role of interim executive director at PDGA and retains involvement with the National Collegiate Disc Golf Championships, meaning his ties to the industry remain strong. Graham took the time to address the industry for his last time on behalf of the PDGA.

New Management
The PDGA has just named a new executive director. His name is Joe Chargualas, and he will start in April or May. He is a disc golfer, so he has a relationship with the sport – in fact, he has played for over 20 years, He is about to retire from the United States Air Force and he worked in what is called MWR – Morale, Welfare and Recreation – for the USAF, and he has managed those programs all over the world. The sport has grown tremendously in the 10 years I have been here. It is our belief Joe will take the organization to even further levels.

Growth of the Sport
In mentioning earlier about the growth of the sport, it is important to put it into context. Disc golf is still undergoing phenomenal growth – we’re growing at the rate of 20 percent a year. Since the time I started 10 years ago, membership has tripled and we’ve quadrupled the number of sanctioned events we do each year – this year, we expect to sanction about 3,600 events around the world.
One  illustration of our membership growth this. When we first started out, we assigned numbers to memberships. The founder of the organization is number one, to give you an idea. Mine is 5,861. This coming year, we will hit member number 100,000. It is a milestone for our sport.

Disc Golf Growth Internationally
We are often asked whether disc golf is growing in other countries, and we’re glad to say it is. One of the countries in which the sport has absolutely exploded is Finland. It’s funny when you think about that because the winters are so cold and so long that people can play maybe six or seven months out of the year, at most, and yet the sport is so incredibly strong there.
For purposes of comparison, there are some states in our country that are about the size of Finland – and yet Finland has 700 to 800 disc golf courses. In fact, if you were counting Finland as a state of the U.S., it would be in third place behind California and Texas in the number of courses it has.

Most recently, the European Disc Golf Championships were held in Oulu, Finland. It was an absolutely huge event and as it turned out, about 25 percent of the country was tuned in, watching it live on TV. (Sweden, by the way, is another country where disc golf is very big.)

Availability of Courses
Along with the number of players, the number of disc golf courses has really proliferated. Parks love putting in disc golf because while it’s a minimal investment on their part, it brings in people. In fact, when we first started, we would talk to cities and convince them to put in a disc golf course in a park, and they would designate land they couldn’t use for athletic fields or anything else because it was too wooded, too hilly, too rocky, or maybe it just was in a really troubled area.

Something the cities would see, though, was that once they put in a disc golf course, it brought in a lot of people. That extra foot traffic in the park got rid of a lot of undesirable activity. Plus, disc golfers are actually very environmentally conscious; in fact, it’s not uncommon to see disc golfers picking up trash while they’re playing. We keep hearing it time after time after time: when you put in disc golf courses, it actually improves the area. One more thing: for us, rocky or wooded land just makes the course more challenging and interesting. It’s a lot more fun to have to throw a disc around trees and bushes in order to advance to the next hole than it is to throw in a flat, open field.
As another example of the growth of the sport, the PDGA has an online course directory, and you can search by city, state, country, etc., to find places to play. The course directory literally changes every day because new courses are going in all the time.

The Appeal of Disc Golf
Sometimes, people ask us for the reasons behind all the growth and there are many. This really is an affordable game. You don’t have to buy much to take it up – just the discs, which are available almost anywhere. Unlike a lot of sports, you don’t have to pay for disc golf because most of the time, it’s located in public parks. There’s no membership fee or greens fee or court costs or anything else. You just walk right up and play.

Disc golf is also growing so well because it’s something everyone can do. Maybe not everyone feels confident going out on a field with a football, for example, but just about everyone, at some point in his or her life, has thrown a Frisbee. What’s funny is if you ask people if they think they’re good at it, they will almost always say yes. It’s easy and fun to play.

he sport is also a mix of both active and passive recreation. You have this passive recreation – walking around and going from one place to another. You get to see wildlife and talk with your friends or your family. Then you get to throw the disc, which is the active part of it. It’s something everyone can do without being intimidated by a lack of skill – everyone from children to senior citizens.

Disc Golf vs. Traditional Golf
Often, we are asked about the role of disc golf as opposed to the traditional version of the game. It is our belief that at some point, disc golf will surpass traditional golf. At the rate that disc golf is growing and at the rate that traditional courses are closing – we’ve been told that hundreds are closing every year – we think that at some point, disc golf will have more participation.
We occasionally get calls from courses, for example, that are trying to stay open and want to institute disc golf as a last gasp to keep people coming in. We’re also seeing courses adding foot golf, which is another game that allows people to use the facilities and enjoy being outside.

Collegiate Disc Golf
At this time, disc golf is available to college students on a recreational level, meaning it is a club sport or an intramural program. Each year, we offer the National Collegiate Disc Golf Championships, which this year, will be held in April in Augusta, Georgia. Between 60 and 70 college teams will be coming in for that. We have the Open Division, which men and women both can enter; we also have the Women’s Division. It’s a really unique event because colleges bring in teams, which means you get the really great competitive atmosphere, with colleges waving their flags and doing school chants. People compete individually but also as a team. Even people who might not necessarily have heard of disc golf will get excited about it because of the college aspect.

The Industry of Disc Golf
The industry of disc golf is also growing. Years ago, almost nobody had heard of the sport and almost no stores had equipment. Now, PDGA works with about 70 different manufacturers and we set the specifications for the equipment used in the game. And with strong growth at all levels, we expect there to be a market for all those goods.  SDM

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