In the six years since Eagle McMahon began touring as a professional disc golfer, he‘s seen a change. When he started, there might’ve been one production crew at tournaments. Even then, next-day coverage of events was rare — and live coverage was nonexistent.
These days coverage has exploded, with events broadcast live over the web, broadcast TV and on the Disc Golf Network’s app. There’s more money and galleries at events are bigger. When McMahon plays at his local course in Boulder, Colorado, he stops to sign autographs. He‘s recognized at the airport, which he described as “the craziest thing to me.”
For the 23-year-old, “It almost feels like a completely different sport.”
The contours of the game itself haven’t changed — players still follow the basic rules of traditional golf, replacing the club, the hole in the ground and the ball with an arm, an elevated basket and a flying disc — commonly called a “Frisbee,” the trademarked name of one particular brand that often serves as a generic stand-in for the entire product category.
Disc golfers have long nurtured lofty ambitions for the sport, dreaming for decades of outgrowing the niche label.
There’s a feeling — supported by a record $10 million endorsement deal for five-time world champion Paul McBeth and increased coverage and fan attention — that the sport is poised for a breakthrough.
The momentum building behind the sport is exciting, but golfers like McMahon are trying to maintain a sense of perspective.
“Every disc golfer kind of fantasizes about the idea of it being constantly on ESPN, live coverage week in and week out,” McMahon said. “Of course, that would be really cool. But they were saying that since the ‘80s, so I try to more take it a month, a year at a time.”
The pandemic effect
Most of the sports world took a hit from COVID-19. The opposite happened for disc golf.
“Without a doubt, the pandemic supercharged the sport of disc golf,” said Matthew Rothstein, the Pro Disc Golf Association’s media manager. “As people wrapped their heads around what the pandemic meant, what the safe activities were as opposed to the dangerous activities, it became really clear that disc golf was really well-suited for the circumstances of the pandemic.”
Like traditional golf, which offers social distancing and an outdoor course, disc golf became more appealing during the pandemic. New players came out in droves.
For much of the past decade, the PDGA’s membership numbers have seen a steady increase of about 15% each year. But with a surge in interest beginning in June 2020, memberships rose between 2019 and 2020 by 33%, Rothstein said. According to data from UDisc, there were between 35 and 37 million rounds played on the roughly 8,000 courses in the United States in 2020, with 193 of those registered PDGA courses in Virginia and Maryland alone.
The interest in the game has continued into 2021, with total memberships up 18% in six months compared to the year before.
Part of the increase can be attributed to the reduction in other activities during the pandemic that prompted people to find new forms of recreation. And with a low barrier of entry, the sport is easy to try.
“Some of the biggest companies in the sport, they simply cannot make enough discs,” said Jeff Spring, the CEO of the Disc Golf Pro Tour. “They’ve scaled up, they’ve doubled their production, they still can’t make enough to satiate the demand for discs.”
When McMahon played locally as a kid, other players often urged him, as an up-and-comer, to get on the road and travel for tournament events.
It was advice was easier given than put into action. Barely into his teens, McMahon didn’t have the funding to support to travel at that age. But by the time he was 15, he‘d earned a 1,000 rating — rare for someone so young, especially for someone sticking mostly to local events.
The national stage called. And this time, McMahon answered.
“My second National Tour event ever, I was on lead card, final round, competing against the best players in the world,” McMahon said. “And right there, I was like, ‘OK, maybe there’s something more to this.’”
Since then, McMahon has risen to the top of Ultiworld’s disc golf rankings. He’s won four events in 2021 and has 49 career wins, amassing over $200,000 in tournament prize money.
“The money to start wasn’t great, and it still isn’t exactly what it needs to be,” McMahon said. “But there are players who are out there making a living, and a lot of players who are doing very well at this point, at least for the top-10 players in the world. So the opportunities are more there now than there was ever before.”
Spring acknowledges the sport has a way to go in terms of money, but there are strides being made.
The purse values have doubled in 2021 compared to 2020, and Spring figures those purses will double again soon, leading to the Disc Golf Pro Tour’s first $500,000 purse within a year. He figures the first million-dollar purse should follow in a few more years.
“It keeps surprising me what we’re able to do,” Spring said.
As the purse sizes increase with the help of higher ticket sales, sponsorships and endorsement deals are swelling, too. McBeth’s $10-million contract with Discraft, a disc manufacturer, has established a baseline for what the best players in the sport can receive while paving the way for others.
“For any sport, the players and professionals are going to exist within the ceiling that the best of those players sets,” Spring said. “So the higher that Paul can set that ceiling, I think everybody else will kind of fall in higher and higher ranks for their own contracts, their own success.”
Rothstein remembers the excitement that animated conversations about disc golf two decades ago.“We’re gonna be on ESPN very soon, because this sport is just so fun, so exciting, so accessible,” Rothstein recalled people saying at the time.
“But I don’t think people had a realistic view of how far we had to go to bridge the gap between YouTube-produced video all the way to big, national mainstream media,” Rothstein added.
Disc golf still isn’t there — at least not fully. When the Disc Golf Pro Tour began in 2016, the main content producers were YouTubers, shooting video that would be made into segments later. There was no live coverage.
But as the Disc Golf Pro Tour grew, so did those YouTube channels, attracting vast audiences that show there is interest in the sport.
JomezPro, for instance, now has 313,000 subscribers. For any sports league, a television deal can be highly lucrative. But the Disc Golf Pro Tour and PDGA received their first platform from more niche markets, and they don’t forget that.
“We certainly do hope it becomes more mainstream, and we absolutely have ambitions to get our events on national media platforms,” Rothstein said. “But there’s also a sense of, you know, not wanting to turn our back on those who brought us here, and the people who really contributed in the last 10 years to growing the awareness of the sport are these YouTubers content producers.”
In the time since, disc golf has landed on ESPN and CBS Sports Network for select events, and highlights — such as James Conrad’s 247-foot birdie at the Disc Golf World Championship in Utah in June — are circulated far and wide.
But Spring felt live content was necessary for the Disc Golf Pro Tour, leading to the inception of the Disc Golf Network in 2020. In just over a year, the network has pulled in 25,000 subscribers. He hopes that is just the start.
“Down the road, maybe we’ll have bigger decisions to make with national media,” Spring said. “I think putting the Disc Golf Pro Tour events live on ESPN in the future, there may be a decision about that in the future.”
Sky’s the limit
Disc golf isn’t immune to the growing pains that follow a push into the mainstream. As more fans show interest in attending Disc Golf Pro Tour events, Spring is left to change venue plans for the next five years to accommodate for more parking and room for spectators.
Rothstein said there’s a need for more tournaments overall, because there are more players interested than event organizers can accommodate.
But those are good challenges to face for a growing sport, one that now boasts a player with a $10-million endorsement deal and surging fan interest that could attract the eye of national broadcasters. It’s a preview of what could be on the horizon — of what’s rising ever nearer into full view.
“As long as we keep doing good stuff, and producing great disc golf content, there’s going to be more fans out there and more people watching,” Spring said. “And the sky’s the limit.”