Who are you watching?
At the top level of disc golf, an interesting phenomenon is happening. Our top players save up some initial gas money and go on tour. After a couple years "touring", there is less money in the savings account than when they started. These players scrape by, but the road is a hard and unforgiving mistress. A minor injury, which knocks them out of the cash for a few weeks, knocks them off the tour. If disc golf is lucky, they save up some money and give it another try.
Top players are unable to make touring their career, which means that the players that I want to root for - the ones that toured for a couple years and I am starting to know and like - are no longer on the tour. We constantly talk about the youth movement in our sport and how the younger players are winning more and more championships. The reason this is the case is because there are not dozens of seasoned players for them to be competing against.
When Andre Agassi won his first championship, no one knew who he was. He had to establish himself, grow his name, and get some fans. Imagine tuning in to a tennis match against two players that you have never heard of. You would not do it unless you were a hardcore fan. That is where disc golf is. We've got the hardcore fans watching, but for casual players, it is tough to root for someone you've never heard of. We need our top pros to be able to have a realistic expectation of making a career out of playing disc golf on tour so that we, and the casual fans, will have a reason to tune in and watch.
Watch. And grow the sport.
The numbers of people playing disc golf continue to grow at a 10-to-20% rate. The sport is experiencing tremendous grassroots growth and I expect, at this point, it is an engine that will not stop. Vibram Disc Golf will continue our support of the myriad of grassroots promoters. The engine that drives the top end of the sport, however, has been languishing over the past five years or so. The solution to this is eyeballs. People ask why disc golf is not on ESPN. The answer is eyeballs, or lack thereof.
If we want to kaboom the sport, we need people to watch. If we want people to watch the sport, we need to have the sport's best playing at our top events week in and week out, for many years. In order for our best players to compete at the premier events, they need to be able to earn a decent living doing so. It is expensive to travel for 20 to 30 weeks playing disc golf and we can't expect someone to leave their job to play disc golf, no matter how good they are. I am reminded of Nate Doss, AFTER winning the World Championship, needing to take some time to determine if he wanted to play disc golf professionally. That should speak volumes to us.
In order to get eyeballs, we need to have our best players on the course, week in and week out. In order to do this, we need at least ten events with a flattened payout of $50,000 AND these events need to have only two divisions: MPO and FPO. There are three numbers in that sentence which I would like to explain.
Ten events: In order for someone to commit themselves to playing the sport, they need to earn a living. If you can earn $1,000 per event over 10 events, then this money combined with sponsorship income and money earned at other events would be enough to allow someone to earn a decent living on tour.
Flattened $50,000: With a smart payout of $50K (see chart to the right), the top 40 players who are paid will earn an average of $1,000. That's 40 players earning $1,000 per event at 10 events. Our sport is currently stagnated at 20-25 players earning that amount. We could double this just by spending current money more wisely (see "Is the USDGC good for the sport?" below).
MPO and FPO only: In order for our sport's top players to be the ones that earn the money, these 10 events can't afford to have age-protected divisions, otherwise the money gets divided up and the sport's best don't earn enough to eat. If a player is over 40 and they are one of the best, this setup will benefit them as the sport will be able to grow. It may be a short term setback for the Masters-aged pros, but it will be a long-term gain for them and the sport.
One thing to remember here is the goal. We want the best players in the world to be able to commit to playing the sport. We want them playing so that the masses will want to watch the sports top events. As the numbers of people that watch our sport grow, the interest in advertising during these events will grow.
With a flat deep payout, more players earn more money. With a capped field of 120 MPO players and 50 cashing, this gives an incentive to compete because regional pros and top Ams have a real shot.
Since the season is not complete, 2012 is an estimate.
Why have we stagnated?
The growth of professional disc golf has stagnated. This has happened, for the most part, because of the creation of unsustainable models.
2009, Discraft stopped its sponsorship of the Players Cup, causing a dip in the number of players earning more than $10K. Luckily, Vibram was able to step up and give the event its rebirth.
2011, Innova changed the USDGC to a handicapped event, lowering the payout by more than $75,000, and lowering the number of players earning more than $10K.
2004 - 2011, Discraft Great Lakes Open payout went from $22K to a little more than $1,000.
The USDGC (Innova) and The Memorial (Discraft) are still two of the sport's premier events. However, Discraft and Innova do not welcome support from other manufacturers at their signature events and this has apparently made some of these events financially unsustainable.
Even with these pull backs, the pro tour side of the sport is still not shrinking and may be growing, albeit slowly.
DiscGolfPlanet.TV is building a model to bring the sport to tens of thousands of viewers. As their viewership continues to rise, more and more advertisers who are currently outside of the sport will take notice. Over time, these advertising dollars will find their way to the events and the purses will go up. This is the long play that will bring disc golf to the next level.
Vibram Disc Golf is consistently moving the Vibram Open forward, garnering more spectators, more players and a larger payout ($38K in 2008 to $51K in 2012). For comparison, the USDGC had fewer spectators, players and payout from 2008 to 2012.
Vibram has also stepped up to be the presenting sponsor of the PDGA National Tour and they reincarnated the Players Cup as The World Match Play Championship. We are putting a significant percentage of our marketing money into creating spectator friendly events that can capture the attention of the advertising dollars that are currently outside our sport.
The number of manufacturers of golf discs has risen from a half dozen in 2000 to more than 25 in 2012. They are here because they see a future in this sport. I agree with them.
Is the USDGC good for the sport?
The USDGC model is clearly not sustainable and, if the goal is to grow the sport, is an ineffective expenditure of the money. Having said that, it is Innova's money and they can spend it however they want, just don't let them say it is for the growth of the sport when it is actually just about them. Over the last decade, imagine if this money had been invested differently, could we be on TV already?
Five Top Events, sorted by Total Payout
Look at the numbers above. The USDGC spends $250,000 and in one short week, they've blown their wad. Let's pretend the USDGC was actually four $50,000 payout events (this assumes a similar budget as The Vibram Open, which has a $62K budget and a $51K payout to the players). With four mini-USDGCs, Worlds, the Vibram Open, and the Memorial, we are already up to seven $50,000 events. The Beaver State Fling ($33K) and Steady Ed Memorial ($29K) with a little growth, would make nine and The Players Cup ($23K payout with no payin) is a nice completion to the season. This would make a great foundation on which to build a pro tour. Anyone want to call Innova?
But this is not where we are and my guess is the USDGC is not going to be paired down so three additional premier events can be born, but hindsight is 20/20 and we have the advantage of looking at the last 10 years knowing the sport could have grown more.
Let's instead concentrate on looking forward. I would like to ask each disc golf manufacturer to commit to growing one or two events into premier events with a $50,000 payout. If we can get a dozen manufacturers, who are in the sport and will benefit from its growth, to make this commitment, then the sport will gain the eyeballs it needs to attract outside sponsorship and we will be able to watch DiscGolfPlanet.TV many more weekends out of the year. Furthermore, these events need to work together to schedule a cohesive tour around and across North America. It is too late for this to happen in 2013, but if you would like to commit to a 2014 event with a $50,000 payout and will work with the tour on scheduling, shoot me an e-mail.
I look forward to sitting in my armchair and watching the best in the world compete and when they come to a town near me, I'll go out and watch them play in person. Until then, Vibram Disc Golf will continue to push the envelope through our support of the Vibram Open, the Players Cup, the PDGA National Tour and the myriad of regional grass roots events that we sponsor.
Watch. And grow the sport. One man's thoughts on the future of disc golf.
Vibram Disc Golf
Update: I have had one manufacturer call me and commit to trying to make this happen for 2014. Anyone else in?