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Let's Get More Spectators


Climo putting at Worlds

In this five-part series I'll suggest potential, perhaps radical, ways to get 50 to 1000 times more spectators than we have now. Without a quickly growing base of paying spectators, whether in person, live online, or post-production video, there will continue to be just enough money in the game for a small number of professionals to eek out a living from their winnings and sponsorships. This is true for any emerging sport, not just disc golf. 

Several pros certainly get some expenses covered and earn bonuses from disc golf related sponsors. But even that is only sustainable as a business model when each sponsor does their business math and is satisfied that their sponsored pros generate incrementally more product sales than they would otherwise sell to justify their sponsorship outlay. If not, then it may be a poor business decision to continue sponsoring a team of pros or at least as many of them.

The first sport credited with bringing together large numbers of spectators has a basic connection with disc golf. In the 1870s, big crowds turned out to watch race walking (pedestrianism). One 500-mile(!) race around the track between two men packed a stadium for six days straight. The race wasn't even close with one guy winning by more than 50 miles. One might hope that 140 years later combining walking with throwing discs at targets would draw even bigger crowds...

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Photo credit: KingOfThePeds.com

In what some historians consider the first modern spectator sport, one reason for the number of spectators was a lack of much alternate legal entertainment at the time - no movies, cars, or outdoor lighting for sports at night. Sports we now take for granted, like football, baseball and basketball, were just being developed. Their pro versions started a few decades later when race walking started a steep decline in spectator interest by the 1890s.

What's instructive from early race walking history is that events draw spectators because they perceive it's fun and interesting plus a good value and use of their time. When other competing alternatives become available, interest can drop. Once the electrical grid, horseless carriages, and interesting new sports became available as the 20th century emerged, I suspect people looked back and wondered why they ever thought spending hour upon hour watching two guys walking around a track was worth it. But apparently it was fascinating for its time...and gambling was involved.

Regardless of whether you think about it consciously or not, we all do this mental calculation on how we choose to spend our free time. We can think of activities by how much we enjoy them relative to their cost. The more enjoyment we get per dollar spent for an activity, the more likely we are to choose it versus another activity. Some free activities we might prefer even more. But how long they take does have a hidden mental cost that varies with each person. The value of time continues to increase and attention spans decrease as evidenced by faster cuts in news and videos and, BTW, fewer words being used, LOL. 

This creeping increase in time value could be one underlying reason for the steady drop-off in rounds of ball golf played per year. I doubt those who play ball golf enjoy it any less. But as perceived time-cost increases, it might reduce a ball golfer's overall enjoyment value for this typically 4+ hour activity. It's easy to see why many disc golfers prefer rec rounds to typically slower tournament rounds when considering how players might calculate their enjoyment value for both activities. Now taking it a step further, consider the challenge we have to attract people to watch any activity versus participate.

We have the commonly shared perception over the past 30+ years of PDGA competition that people who play disc golf, if they have a choice, would usually prefer to play it than watch it. This seems to hold true even though watching our best players is usually free when the event is in their backyard. Watching free live disc golf coverage online also hasn't been sufficiently compelling versus doing other non-disc golf related activities even when players are not able to play.

There's an ongoing frustration among many pros who feel that, "We play this cool sport at a World Class level. People should want to watch us!" Unfortunately, there are world class players in many sports and games playing in many world class competitions where few, other than fellow competitors, coaches and family, watch their awesome skills let alone pay to watch.

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Photo credit: KayakingJournal.com

The PDGA has firm numbers showing the competition side of disc golf is experiencing unprecedented growth approaching 25+% annually with recreational play perhaps growing even faster. One might think this would naturally result in more potential spectators. But even if their percentage or level of interest in watching continues to grow at the same percentage as our current base, it's not going to be enough for the pro purses to really take off, especially since we're currently just talking about a small percentage of people willing to watch free, not necessarily pay to do so.

Our growth in pro purses has been agonizingly slow so far for most pros on the road trying to make a decent living. The huge Ledgestone Insurance Open event on the surface appeared to be a major breakthrough in cash added to the pro purse. However, it may have been a temporary windfall. Tournament Director, Nate Heinold says that none of the Ledgestone purse came from spectators and some money came from players buying tournament stamped discs which continues to be our traditional means of indirect sponsorship.

This story is a wake-up call to pros, TDs, and their sponsors to brainstorm and try new and even some radical ideas that might significantly accelerate not just the number of spectators, but more who are willing to pay to watch. This famous adage, which might apply to our history of high level disc golf events cautions,  "If you continue repeating the same process, you are foolish to expect a different outcome."

One of those "same processes" is if we simply continue making the game better for pros in our top events, such as incorporating longer or more challenging courses suitable for spectating, using better or different equipment (smaller targets), and adding more amenities (bleachers, snack bars, alcohol), it should boost spectator numbers. They might do that. But shouldn't we also determine whether those improvements are in-sync with what really compels people to watch various pro sports? 

Our 30+ year track record of tweaking equipment, improving courses and venues. at least in North America, does not indicate these methods produce much of an increase in spectators or produce an increase any faster than the general growth in the sport. It's reasonable to consider ways to improve our current pro game. But doing that alone may not do much to help produce orders of magnitude increase in spectators in North America.

The success Jussi Meresmaa and his team had this year generating TV viewership for the European Open provides hope that generating disc golf spectators including those willing to pay may be an easier task outside North America. The sport in Northern Europe, especially Finland, has recently grown faster than in North America. The question is whether that media success can be duplicated in the much larger, more diverse North American market. We know that sports fans outside the U.S. are avid spectators in large numbers for sports like cricket and soccer that have yet to really gain traction in the U.S. compared with the NFL, MLB, and NBA. Maybe disc golf, as currently played in our majors, will turn out to have broader appeal to generate paying spectators outside the U.S.

The bottom line: Shouldn't the ability to significantly increase interest from spectators be an important factor when considering potential game improvements or changes at our highest pro level? Otherwise, the long term money available to support our professional stars will not be sustainable.

One of our early big time promoters, former PDGA Commissioner, Jim Challas, was successful in the 70s and early 80s getting 4000-5000 spectators for the legendary Sky of 10,000 Frisbees events in the Twin Cities using the conventional marketing and promotion options available such as finding a radio sponsor, getting a charity tie-in, planning relentless media spots, and paying for some advertising. Jim shares his perspective that, "Players, workers, spectators, sponsors and media are the elements for a successful event, in that order. There's no disc golf course that's ever been designed with room for spectators with excellent public access, public parking and public facilities at the course."

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Here's one important promotional concept learned from his experience, Jim says, "Run your event where many people are already located," versus the tougher task prodding them to visit a more remote, perhaps lesser known, venue. This mantra, known among retailers and real estate agents as "Location, Location, Location," was applied for the 2001 Pro Worlds and 2014 Am Worlds Finals. They were held on a temporary layout at Como Park in the middle of St. Paul where 50,000 already visit the park, zoo and conservatory on a typical summer weekend. The crowds at these disc golf events may have been among our largest ever in the U.S.

Rather than only look at these traditional ways to attract more spectators to watch the current best version of our sport, this series of stories will also jump outside the box. We'll explore elements in other sports that seem to draw spectators and see if they can be applied to disc golf at the highest levels. Some of these ideas are out there and meant to stimulate new thinking.

However, we don't want to scare amateurs and rec players that any of these ideas would necessarily be applied to change the current recreational game they've grown to love. Just consider this story a brainstorming session for the highest level pro game. We know you love to play recreational disc golf  just as it is. What we're discussing here is what changes in the high level pro game might compel you and your friends to watch and even pay to watch them much more than you do now.

The following stories, starting with Part 2: Increasing the Perceived Value of Watching, gradually ramp up from: things that could be done today to either increase revenue from spectators and/or increase the number of spectators with little if any changes in the current game, to: creative ideas that would significantly change how the high level pro game might be played. Concepts, ideas, and potential programs presented in each part come from research, interviews, personal experience, analysis, and speculation - writing for myself, not the PDGA. Please consider how each idea presented has the potential to increase the enjoyment relative to cost for both players and non-players to become spectators. And if you're willing to do something about it, we'll look forward to your efforts.

Comments

Discgolflife.net is a new disc golf growth site and company that is dedicated to growing the sport and accomplishing this goal of paying spectators and making Disc Golfers house hold names. We need to have children wanting Sockibomb and McBeth posters on the walls of rooms. Grassroots partnered with TV coverage is where it starts and in the end will payoff. I'm glad to see this being brought up.

Submitted by Haukur8800 on

More spectators, live or online, = more value for advertisers = more money entering the sport from companies outside the sport.

cgkdisc - I think you may have answered your question in part by talking about sports that are successful outside of the USA. In cricket, which was a lowly paid profession a generation or so ago, huge strides have been made in promoting the game (80% of money in the game is now from India). TV rights are big, much bigger I think than live spectator money. Cricket became commercially big by expanding it's format(s) to something much shorter, from the original 5 day tests (still popular, but only in 2 countries, England and Australia), to 1 day matches (popular everywhere) to the jazzed up shortest T20 format (3 or 4 hours), hugely popular in most countries.

Cricket also has expanded its availability in time, playing matches at night (or day/night). In the shortest format (T20), you can often go to a match after work (or watch the match at home in the evening). I take newbies to T20 matches, who will not go to other types of game. If DG sticks with 2-5 day tourneys for its main events, I suggest it will continue to attract mainly die-hard spectators, and few others.

I live in New Zealand, I like to watch sport, mainly what interests me is international sport. I am 10 times more likely to watch international than local sport. Professional DG is a long way from being an international sport, it is almost entirely USA-centric, with a keen but amateur European following.

So my suggestions are:

- USA models may not apply to DG (although I acknowlege that the USA are world leaders in many things).

- TV may be more important for the future of DG than live spectators.

- Look at non-US sports that have recently made big money (cricket is one, rugby is another - a generation ago it was an all-amateur sport).

- Look seriously at DG formats that make the sport more available to the spectator or TV viewer in time. This may require out-of-the-box thinking.

- Continue to develop the game outside of the USA. When every tournament has European and US players vying for the top spot, the missing ingredient of spice will be there to draw in viewers.

Hope that helps.

Submitted by Catamount on

This is an interesting article and I am looking forward to the follow up articles...well written and well researched...ideas worthy of further discussion. I like the idea of spectator friendly final 9's for the pro fields. Smaller targets are ludicrous (for a myriad of reasons I won't get into here).

Submitted by datonn on

"There's no disc golf course that's ever been designed with room for spectators with excellent public access, public parking and public facilities at the course." - Jim Challas

I think the above is a key take-away from the article. As a husband and father of two daughters, let's just say I hear about it every time the loves of my life are forced to use Porta-Potties (or worse) at parks with DG in them, with lots of "splashes" on the seat/floor from the 98% of previous users who were male. ;-) As but one example. Nothing for the kids to do (apart from stand around, not sit around) but get hot, sunburned and thirsty/hungry.

I also agree with Paul Deacon, in relation to TV likely being as/more important than in-person spectators at events. For many of the same reasons mentioned above. It's always "72 and sunny" in most of our homes. With comfy seating, other things to occupy us during breaks in the action, a refrigerator, clean (or at least familiar) bathrooms, et al. And since it is all most of us can do to get City/County government to fund course design/prep, basket purchases, tee surfaces and on-going maintenance? "Home" is probably going to be the most logical, comfortable place for spectators to enjoy watching top players show us how it's done for the foreseeable future.

I'm bad too...as I have very-limited discretionary time in my life. And I'm one who would MUCH rather play than watch other people play with said discretionary time. So much so that I've moved much of my own play to Recreational (non-sanctioned) play and "course collecting." When I want and am available to play...not sacrificing sleep and income (work) to make it to a course when said TD says we're required to be there for a player's meeting. As if I've got an afternoon free and $25-$30+ burning a hole in my pocket? I would MUCH rather relax and find a new place to play...versus watching others have fun. Getting hot, hungry, thirsty, and having to take a deep breath before entering said Porta-Potties when nature calls.

Paul's comment is spot on in that the money for most major sports is in advertisements and TV viewers, not spectators. Even American football works around this model. Football players are played obscene amounts of money because they are essentially viewed as advertising tools. A skilled wide receiver leads to wins, wins lead to more viewers, more viewers means more advertising potential.

As far as spectators go, I would say the two biggest hurdles are location--as mentioned in the article--and just general public knowledge. In my limited tournament experience, I usually have to go out of my way to find information about a tournament. The only reason why I'm able to sign up for popular local tournaments that sell out fast is because I know which niche websites to look up for sign up times. Other than that, there are almost never any announcements or general hype made about upcoming events.

On more than one occasion in my early days of disc golf I have showed up to a league day or casual monthly or small tournament at a course only to be told that "the course is closed for an event and to come back and play another time." Think of all that missed potential! Instead of being so focused on the "closed course," TDs should be thinking about ways to advertise a "fun family day at the park" before the event even takes place.

I also question the emphasis on live paying spectators. Since most (nearly all?) DG is played in public parks, how can you charge the public for access? Are you implying that we should have private courses to host events for which the public have to pay to enter and spectate?

Good Evening Disc Golf Community,

I will first have to agree with Catamount about not changing the size of the targets. The monetary and logistical nightmare of updating courses to accommodate for changing basket types is not realistic for the sport as a whole.

I think before continuing this discussion we all need to step back and really identify where disc golf is in its evolution as a sport. To best do this we have to consider ball golf as the closest example to follow. That being said, the first generations of ball golfers only played for the love of the game and competition. Much like disc golf, the first ball golf spectators were players themselves, who enjoyed taking time to go watch their favorite local professionals in local tournaments. This is where disc golf is today.

With the passing years and countless amazingly talented ball golfers, the sport created venues, more accurately vacation destinations, where people who avidly followed and played the game could spend a week or weekend to enjoy their sport. To me, this is the next step in disc golf evolution. I have long wanted and am planning to save my finances with a few of my disc golfing friends, to buy a large piece of property, develop the land into several par 70+ disc courses, I'll be it slightly differently but to the standards of a ball golf vacation destination, open a full scale hotel and resort with restaurants, shopping and attractions, and advertise the location as a full scale vacation destination and as Professional Tour Event Site. I would also include a weekly Disc Golf Camp during summer months, a "putt-putt" disc golf mini course, a campground, and a group of talented professionals willing to live, teach and contribute to the site's vision.

I am a huge fan of the sport and I would play or watch over most other activities almost everyday, but unless sport allies itself with a profitable industry like the vacationing industry, it will not grow as fast as it should. Publicly announcing that professionals of our sport are growing tried of not getting paid, is downright grimy and distasteful. The first thing I thought was, "How selfish. I play the game because I love it. Why can they not be happy enough with the exponential growth the sport has shown thus far and just winning tournaments." If you really compare disc golf to ball golf, disc golf has surpassed ball golf in almost every aspect of growth in a shorter mount of time. This is purely because disc golf is virtually free to play and everyone can play. No need to change this fact; just expand upon it.

Submitted by Tall__Paul on

Changing the traditional way tournaments are played is a necessary consideration to improve spectator numbers.

Most tournaments are held on a Saturday & Sunday.
Play 2 different courses on Saturday. Then a 3rd course on Sunday.

Changing tournaments to a single course like PGA tournaments would be a smart first step. Would mean spectators only have to go to one course.

Copying the PGA format for tournaments would be the smartest first step in my opinion.

This is stupid. As a long term advocate of Dg, euchre, water polo and bridge, I can tell you that none have any merits to be marketized and to bring paying customers. This is akin to a capuchin monkey furiously masturbating each time a person walks into a room looking to find a mate.