Jason and Sebring are course coordinators for the Blue Ridge Disc Golf Club. They are at the Meadow Creek Gardens 9 hole disc golf course right after work most days. Several groups of players tee off while they talk about the club’s work to create and maintain the courses since the early 2000’s. Meadow Creek Gardens used to be a forest that needed a machete to get through. Now it is a manicured course with poured cement tee pads and carefully marked holes.
As groups come through to play the hole they talk about how long they have played disc golf, with the range from 20 years to a couple months most have played for several years regularly. Sebring and Jason estimate the club provides “5,000 hours of labor each year” to maintain the three courses in the area. The city provides tree cutting services to remove safety hazards but the club provides all mowing and improvements otherwise at their own expense and with their own labor. Sebring handles much of the mowing responsibilities and Jason comes to the course during lunch to meet deliveries of mulch for the course. Jason says the Club has grown at a steady 10% average yearly over the last 5 years.
With only 90 club members it seems like a small group but a trail counter last year counted 15,000 players coming through this 9 hole course in 6 months. The Club’s social media page has over 600 members so it represents, if unofficially, a large constituency. The Club carries a large amount of responsibility for course maintenance for a much larger player base in the area. So why does the Club take on the responsibility for managing 3 courses for a big player base at their own expense? They love the game and without the Club there wouldn’t be a place to play. Both Jason and Sebring admit that it is a little selfish, they love playing and are willing to take on these tasks so ensure there is a place to play disc golf for them and for anyone else looking to get into the sport.
In case you have never been to a Phish concert, let’s take a look at disc golf as a sport.
Disc golf has been around since at least 1965 when Ed Headrick and George Sappenfield both developed similar versions of disc golf. Certainly since the patenting of disc golf pole hole in 1975 we can say disc golf has been a sport. Over the decades between the 70s and early 2000s disc golf germinated in different states where it experienced strong clubs supporting the sport and a governing body in the Professional Disc Golf Association.
The sport is played similarly to ball golf but instead of holes in the ground for putting, there are standing baskets with chains which mark the end of the hole. Courses have a tee box that includes signage showing distance to holes and par. The course par is based on the average scores of professional players. Courses are designed with similar aesthetic and sport concerns as golf: flow from hole to tee, a mix of length versus technical difficulty and putting greens that take skillful play to succeed. Meadow Creek Gardens has signs donated by a local sign shop with hole layout, par, distance and recognitions of local businesses that sponsor club activities.
Josh Woods, an associate professor of Sociology at West Virginia University, sums up the different ways players engage in disc golf with “Yet, competitive disc golfers account for a small percentage of the total population. Beyond the modern achievement domain, there’s less consensus on the meaning of the game. Disc golf is a competitive sport to some, and a form of meditation to others. It is a social club and a solitary act, an unforgettable adventure and a mundane habit, an escape from family life and a family, a retreat from workplace pressures and a job, a momentary lapse in an otherwise sedentary lifestyle and a hiatus from more rigorous exercise, an excuse to use drugs and alcohol and the only thing stopping an addict from relapse.”
So this is obviously played on an expensive course with gates and a club? Nope, welcome to public parks.
The public parks systems throughout the United States have over the last decade seen staggering cuts in funding. The backlog of maintenance for the National Park Service experienced a 62% ($227M) shortfall in the operations account from 2005-2015. Between 2010 and 2015 following the great recession NPS saw its budget cut by 12% according to the National Parks Conservation Association. In a 2009 study by Resources for the Future nearly 87% of parks directors saw insufficient funds as a significant challenge or worse and insufficient funds for operations was the single most pressing concern with 24 of 46 park directors surveyed citing it as their number one concern. A 2011 study at NC State shows that while state parks on average return a 10x profit compared to the investment of state tax dollars, they were experiencing an 12.3% decrease in funding.
During recession years as sequestration and strained government tax revenues diminished funding, disc golf was experiencing a boom. Over the period from 2005 to 2015, PDGA tripled their membership from 9,629 to 30,396. The number of annual PDGA events nearly quadrupled from 682 in 2005 to 2,590 in 2015. Over this time span for the Blue Ridge club they would see 2 additional courses open and take on the responsibility for providing funds and labor to maintain them as a continuing project to benefit the disc golf players and community at large.
Disc golf as a sport was taking off and looking for a home.
The existing ball golf infrastructure was unavailable largely due to the difference in culture between the two sports. Ball golf has a high barrier to entry while disc golf has a pervasive culture of being cheap and accessible to new players. From 2005 on clubs around the country are looking to build more courses and need a partner.
In 1998 only 26 states had more than 10 courses. By 2018 only 1 state has fewer than 10. Public parks administrators found organized clubs in need of space to invest in. The combination of large declines in funding with a booming growth in the sport forged a relationship between disc golf clubs and public parks. Between 2005 and 2010 courses grow from 1500 to 2500 and by 2018 there are almost 5863 courses. 73.1% of disc golf players participate in tournaments bringing in revenue for hosting parks with 94.2% of players willing to travel. In addition to organized events that bring in revenue to parks, the disc golf clubs invest in the installation of courses in parks. Local clubs pay for professional design of courses and provide upkeep labor and continuing support to parks through club dues for maintenance and to defray operating costs.
The Professional Disc Golf Association in 1997 had 1 full time administrator but by 2006 it had an International Disc Golf Headquarters in Appling, GA. How was this massive growth coordinated? Out of necessity, the PDGA grew to match demand. Local clubs were organizing more events and growing so many players hungry for more competition the PDGA, as the governing body, had to match it. The original PDGA player certifications were mailed on paper to each new member by one person for a whopping $10 fee. The development of a more organized and professional governing body provided consistency in the experience of disc golfers in events around the country and a public image to the sport that was consistent with other sports that use public parks space. The PDGA maintains yearly demographic data detailing the sport’s adoption in each state, across different player demographics and participation in organized events.
Collaboration with public parks for individual clubs spread across the country creates a nationwide phenomenon of disc golf accessibility in public parks.
During the 2000s and beyond, clubs strike up partnerships with public parks to help create and maintain courses. A thriving social media environment percolates ideas and spreads them along with the events where members of different clubs share ideas of how they have made progress creating courses and collaborations with parks administrators. The combination of strong local clubs interacting with each other at events and a maturing governing body in the PDGA provides legitimacy to the sport and to the clubs looking to interact with parks.
The availability of tested and proven partnerships from around the country give a recipe for other clubs to adapt to their local circumstances. Jason and Sebring knew that the club would have to provide funds and labor to bring to the table and the city with its maintenance infrastructure would cover larger improvements like tree maintenance. This proved useful when working to make Meadow Creek Gardens a reality, previously this lot was overrun with vegetation and because it lies in a flood zone it was unlikely to be developed. The Club brought a core of committed volunteers and capital to the project and the city received a free upgrade to otherwise untended public land.
Public parks also become the focus of weekly events for disc golfers and organized charitable events. Disc golfers donate time and money consistently for the maintenance of public parks for their use. Courses are maintained and park facilities are improved through increased usage driving funding requests. The Blue Ridge club participates in the PDGA yearly Ice Bowl which is a disc golf community wide event in the winter to drive charitable donation to local food banks across the country. At the Walnut Creek course that the club maintains, the disc golf course was designed to weave through existing hiking and bike paths. This integration of the course with existing public park services lets the park get extra path maintenance from disc golfers that benefits park users who don’t play disc golf.
In addition to the contribution of volunteer labor and donations, the increased availability of disc golf courses creates a system of public park usage that takes advantage of an ever more popular sport with low barriers to entry. Compared to ball golf or other common park activities like cycling and baseball, disc golf is economical in its cost and accessible in its participation. Jason and Sebring both commented that improving paths through the park was a major concern to allow players to have access to the course regardless of ability and was a driving concern in proposals for a bridge over a river that as of now must be traversed via stepping stones. Sebring said about the cost “it is a cheap sport to play”, and that local players have access to most courses for free since the Club underwrites most economic costs for the parks.
Larger team related sports like baseball and soccer require extensive social commitments that might deter newcomers from participating. Disc golf’s accessibility provides an active outlet for people to engage in outdoor activity at their own levels of comfort. All of the players coming through the course said they were exposed to the sport as adults by a friend. This kind of ease of exposure creates a safe space for new players to enjoy a sport in public parks without a history of competitive play growing up, this can create new generations of players participating in sports in public parks that would otherwise not be there.
So what is the future of disc golf and public parks?
Looking forward, public parks will be partners with disc golf clubs and the disc golf competitive scene. As the sport grows exponentially, more courses and more players will be heading to public parks bringing revenue and attention to the funding of public parks. Given the low barrier to entry and growing media exposure disc golf seems to have room to grow. There is a difference in the availability of land in urban spaces compared to rural. Midwest and states in the Rockies have much higher access to park land per capita than cities. While Texas and California have the most players and courses because their urban density and urban parks germinated the early big clubs, the sport is growing faster per capita in more rural areas.
As the sport continues to grow from a cult following to mass appeal, course design and integration into public parks as a core component and not an addon will determine the future of the partnership. Managing the risks of running a disc golf course as a core park business and creating a viable funding model that adds value to the park will be the future task of the sport. Most courses are designed pro bono but as parks look to integrate the sport as a core feature, better design and construction are likely to be required by parks administrators. The core plans for both parks and disc golfers align greatly: better park facilities, more restrooms and cleaner parks. With this strong consensus between the players and park administrators the grounds for collaboration continue to look strong. Players are throwing farther and want more complex courses so the future of this collaboration will have new challenges but for now looks strong.
Clubs like Blue Ridge are finding that public policy decisions for funding parks are responsive to data. Their trail counter data showing that 15,000 people played the course in six months is a strong signal to park administrators and local government that spending on public parks for infrastructure and development will directly benefit constituents. With disc golf courses driving more residents to the parks, this increased attention will trickle down to improvements in restrooms, parking, and trash cans that improve the parks for all users not just a committed core of disc golfers. The continued club contributions of labor and funds for the course maintenance defrays a large part of the financial burden on an already stressed budgets and drives more people into public spaces that are being beautified and maintained by committed groups of disc golfers.