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Disc Golf's Popularity May Be Declining

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A look at disc golf groups on social media provides clues about the sport’s growth - or lack thereof.[/caption]

A decade ago, golf was hot. A young, crowd-pleasing Tiger Woods could beat anyone on the planet, the banks were still small enough to fail, and 30 million Americans called themselves golfers.

But since then, golf has hit a rough patch. The game shed roughly six million players over the last decade, and each year more golf courses were closed than opened, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Not great news for golfers. But at least they know what’s happening to their sport.

In contrast, as I’ve argued previously, there is currently zero data on the total number of disc golfers in the United States. Is disc golf the “fastest growing sport,” or has its heyday come and gone? Like a disc flying through the dark, no one knows where the sport is headed.

Hoping to solve the mystery, I recently contacted several disc golf companies and asked them how many Americans play disc golf. Their estimates, none of which were scientific, ranged from 90,000 to 3 million.

Unsatisfied, I turned to a source that seems to know everything (sort of): social media. On October 26, 2016, I posted a question on Reddit, asking disc golfers about the volume of players in their local areas. Fifteen people responded within 24 hours. Thirteen of them said that their local disc golf community was growing, and two reported a flat or declining trend.

Although this micro-study suggests that disc golf is making positive strides, the results of a more expansive, scientific study of disc golf groups on Facebook are less optimistic.

There are currently about 2,612 distinct Facebook groups based in the U.S. that have the word “disc golf” somewhere in their titles or group descriptions. From this population, I randomly selected 100 of the groups and attempted to determine when each was created and whether it was still active. I was unable to collect dates for 22 of the closed groups. For this reason, my total sample includes 78 Facebook groups, each of which represents about 33 of the 2,612 groups in the population (A full description of the methodology can be found here).

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Based on this sample, San Antonio Disc Golfers is the oldest disc golf group on Facebook. With roots going back to the 1980s, the group now connects disc golfers online from the greater San Antonio area, organizes several weekly and annual events, and is probably one of the more active disc golf groups on Facebook with multiple posts per day. Created on September 17, 2008, the group’s 1,334 members recently celebrated their eighth birthday, a notable feat given that Facebook has only been open to people outside universities since late 2006. As seen in the top ten list above, the lifespans of several other groups are also impressive.

Having studied numerous disc golf Facebook groups, I’m convinced that disc golf clubs in some regions of the country are strong and growing fast. Far more than a means of communication, disc golfers are using Facebook to solidify their club’s organization, culture and friendships. As seen in posts from my club, the Morgantown Mountain Goats, disc golfers use Facebook groups to learn about local events, recruit players for casual rounds, report tournament and league results, share artwork and photography, organize workdays, immortalize aces, post videos of miraculous shots, marvel at the extraordinary landscapes and wildlife of disc golf courses, celebrate victories, agonize in defeat, return lost discs, sell and trade equipment, and, of course, goof off.

Unfortunately, not all disc golf groups on Facebook remain active. Some groups are haphazardly created, experience a few sparks of interest, then quickly go dormant. Other groups build their memberships, gain momentum, but still wither away after a year or two.

The average lifespan of disc golf groups on Facebook is 2.6 years. As illustrated in the figure below, the number of active groups peaked in 2015 and began to decline in 2016.

In the first four months of 2016, four groups were created, but 13 went dormant – a net loss of nine groups, which is equivalent to roughly 300 Facebook groups in the population. Over the next four and a half months, one group was created, and six went quiet. Finally, between August 16 and September 16, 2016 – the month prior to data collection – no groups were created and eight groups failed to log a post, for a total net decline in 2016 of 34 percent.

Given that I recorded the latter data point more than a month ago, I went back to check on the eight inactive groups in the latest period. As of October 31, 2016, two of them had new posts, but six were still dormant.

There are at least three interpretations of these findings. First, maybe club life is declining, even while the total number of disc golfers is increasing. You don’t need to join a disc golf club or a Facebook group to be an active disc golfer. Perhaps the world of disc golf is increasingly filling up with lone wolves and small groups who play round after round, compete in tournaments – perhaps even join the PDGA – but avoid organized leagues and club life.

Although this scenario is possible, it’s doubtful. For one thing, most disc golfers do belong to clubs, according to Infinite Discs’ 2015 State of Disc Golf Survey. The rapid growth of any sport just seems implausible without healthy local clubs, leagues and organizations. This theory also fails to explain why lone wolves began to flourish and club life started its descent in late 2015.

Another possibility is that disc golf clubs are doing just fine, but their memberships are using other means than Facebook to communicate. This theory seems to make some sense, considering recent claims by various media outlets that Facebook is in decline. Yet, as shown in the figure below, such claims do not hold up to empirical scrutiny. Facebook use, across all age groups, is at or near all-time highs.

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Source: Pew Research Center[/caption]

The last – and least optimistic – interpretation of the data holds that Facebook groups represent a relatively good measure of the disc golf population, and that disc golf, like its sister sport golf, is currently experiencing a decline in popularity.

As an indirect measure, the number of disc golf groups on Facebook is an imperfect, suggestive indicator at best. But this study does, at very least, stress the need for further research. To understand what’s happening to our sport, we need a large-scale disc golf survey based on reliable measurements and probability sampling techniques, like the ones funded by the National Golf Foundation. The financial cost of such studies would be considerable, but, as Arthur Nielsen put it, “The price of light is less than the cost of darkness.”

This study also suggests that the ongoing debate over the best way to grow the sport should continue. If the disc golf community is indeed struggling at the grassroots, how will efforts to grow the sport at the top – through all-pro events, greater media exposure and bigger corporate sponsors – remedy these problems? More importantly, what would disc golf look like if such efforts succeeded even as clubs and grassroots organizations stagnated or declined?

One answer to this question may be found in the histories of some big-time sports. Basketball evolved from a disorganized network of amateur and semi-professional organizations – which included numerous athletes from all walks of life – to the well-oiled corporate machines of the NCAA and NBA, which generate thousands of paying fans and remarkable commercial success but do little to further the sport at the grassroots.

Rather than discussing the best way to grow the sport, perhaps we should first debate what kind of sport we should grow.

Originally published at: https://discgolf.ultiworld.com/2016/11/16/disc-golfs-popularity-may-declining/

Thanks for the article. I wanted to add that the San Francisco Disc Golf Club has been around since 1997. Our Facebook group was created on February 29, 2008 and currently has over 1600 members.

Our club has reached 300+ active (paid) memberships for at least the past 3 years. Our Sunday weekly averages over 80 players.

The San Francisco Safari tournament has been held every year except 1 since 1998.

From our perspective, disc golf is growing. Especially the competitive side.

Shawn Mercy
SFDGC Vice President

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Thanks for the thought provoking article. I’d like to point out that as you mentioned in the beginning there is currently ZERO data on the number of disc golfer in the united states. From that you did a lot of work to conclude, based on Facebook data primarily, that disc golf is in decline. I think you conclusion is simply too large, Facebook disc golf groups appear to be in decline based on your work but since we have no data on how many disc golfers exist and use clubs / FB that by itself says nothing more. To help generalize the result we are pointed to a survey by Infinite discs that concluded that a very large percentage of disc golfers are in clubs. That survey was distributed almost entirely on social media so how could it really reach any other result? I think you can see the problem with this. It’s been along time since university or stats but I really do take issue with calling this an “expansive, scientific study of disc golf groups.” This is a well written and thought provoking piece that clearly had a lot of work going into it. You should be proud of that but you should also dial back a bit on the claims.


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Thanks for the comment Shawn. I appreciate it. I should mention again that the findings discussed in the article are based on a simple random sample of 78 disc golf groups on Facebook (FB) drawn from a population of 2,612 FB groups. Given that each group in the population had an equal opportunity of being selected in the sample, these data are representative of the population of FB groups (notwithstanding the standard error/margin of error). However, a sample is merely a subset of the population and certainly does not represent the population perfectly. In my sample, “San Antonio Disc Golfers” was the oldest group. It was created September 17, 2008. Your group, “San Francisco Disc Golf Club,” did not end up in the sample. Created February 29, 2008, SFDGC, as you mentioned, is older than SADG by about seven months. I’d like to know if there are any other, even older groups. Given that your group is in the 99th percentile for age, there may be one or two older groups, but it’s unlikely. Anyone know of an older DG group on FB?

Thanks for your comments Justin. You’ve made a fair and tough critique. As Infinite Discs acknowledges, the data from their survey is not based on a random sample of disc golfers from the general population. For this reason, their data is not, in a statistical sense, representative of a population (that is, we cannot infer findings from the sample to the population). I have written about this issue in a previous article, but I probably should have noted it here as well, and softened this point. Thanks again for your critique.

I might add, however, that the Infinite Discs survey, from a measurement standpoint, is solid. Frankly, I was surprised by its methodological rigor. Compared to other available surveys, Infinite Disc’s State of Disc Golf survey has been thoughtfully constructed and carried out. It stands, in my mind, as one of the sport’s best sources of (publicly available) survey data on disc golfers. It is the only source of longitudinal survey data that I know of. (I have no affiliation with Infinite, but I like what they’re doing).

But, let’s get back to your point. Let’s assume that the State of Disc Golf survey inflates the number of disc golfers who are club members, and that the fastest growing segment of the dg population is unaffiliated, which would explain the findings. Attributing the decline of DG on FB to the rise of lone wolves and small, unaffiliated groups is indeed an interesting, plausible theory. But I’m still unsure about what would be driving this trend? What do you think? Do we see increasing frustration with institutional forms of disc golf starting in 2015? Is it possible that two, divergent trends are happening at the same time: a very large group of disc golfers are increasingly avoiding organized groups (leagues, clubs, PDGA tourney’s and so forth), ergo the decrease in DG-FB activity, while a smaller group is increasingly adopting the norms (and membership) of organized groups, as seen in the significant increase in PDGA membership? Are we seeing a divide in dg culture: anarchists versus institutionalists? I’m generally fascinated by the cultural differences between disc golfers. Perhaps we will see cultural balkanization in the next years, especially considering what seems like a recent emphasis on “growing the sport” through all-pro events, greater media exposure and bigger corporate sponsors. But I don’t know of any evidence to support such a theory.

It makes sense to me that there would be an initial boom in the number of Facebook pages followed by a decline as the golfers gravitated towards specific pages and left others behind. Hence I think the number of active group pages is probably a pretty bad indicator of the sport’s popularity. A better indicator would be, for example, the total number of posts per day across pages.

Hi Josh - I am the director of leagues at the Christie Lake Disc Golf Club in Dundas, Ontario and I came across your interesting post while looking for “Why Disc Golf” sort of information, to add to a Power Point which I hope to present to the City of Burlington, as they are very interested in putting in a new disc golf course on developing recreational land in the city. I found your article interesting, but like Dustin_Locke above in that a lot of groups may crop up and then abandon their group in favor of something else later on. I believe the same pattern could probably be found with the groups for almost any other activity as well. In addition, at least amongst most users of social media that I know, Facebook is in steep decline as people move towards other social media outlets like Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest etc. etc. That has to be a factor.

In any case, there is one piece of hard data that you can certainly consider (though admittedly it mostly only tracks players who like tournament disc golf): PDGA membership. From 1977 or so to 2005 the membership grew to 30,000. I don’t have all the growth figures in front of me but when I first purchased my membership in 2013, I was given the number 65885. This fall, some lucky player was given the magic 100000 PDGA number. That is a growth of 34.1% in the last 4 years.

In our area clubs at least, disc golf is in exponential growth. How about another morsel of anecdotal evidence: Consider our flagship annual tournament, the Christie Lake Spring Fling. In 2014 the event JUST filled up in day-of registrations. In 2015 we expanded the registration by adding extra holes to our course and sold out within 2 months of the opening of registration and well over a month before tee off. In 2016 the event sold out on pre-registration in about 3 days. This year the event sold out on pre-registration in about 3 hours, with the Men’s Intermediate and Men’s Advanced amateur divisions selling out in under 5 minutes.

Granted I run a nice tournament, but that doesn’t explain the amazing increase in interest for tournaments in our area - all of the disc golf events in Ontario are experiencing this kind of growth and demand.

Oh it’s growing if you ask me.