New event series set to launch next year is ‘taking the leap’
It seems that 2016 will be the year of the disc golf tour.
In addition to the annual PDGA National Tour Series and the recently revealed Disc Golf World Tour, a third event was announced tonight: the Disc Golf Pro Tour, a set of six tournaments running from June through September next year.
The brainchild of Vibram Disc Golf manager Steve Dodge and Ledgestone Insurance Open tournament director Nate Heinold, the Disc Golf Pro Tour is focused not only on building a circuit that makes sense for professional disc golfers, but also on attracting spectators with a festival atmosphere and helping to grow disc golf by spreading what Dodge refers to as “the culture of the disc.”
It’s something that Dodge has been pondering for decades, he said. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some trepidation involved.
“(The biggest challenge was) convincing myself that disc golf is ready for this,” Dodge said. “I strongly believe that disc golf can be a great spectator sport, but are we really big enough? …I think the biggest challenge is taking the leap to say, ‘We are going to do this, and it’s going to work.’”
Sustainable for spectators, players
In order for the tour to work, organizers have plotted out a schedule that will find players participating in five PDGA-sanctioned A-Tier tournaments that lead up to a Tour Championship event:
- June 23-26: Maple Hill Open, Leicester, MA
- July 8-10: Silver Cup, Manitowoc, WI
- July 29-31: Minnesota Majestic, East Bethel, MN
- Aug 18-21: Ledgestone Open, Peoria, IL
- Sep 15-17: Green Mountain Championship, VT
- Sep 17-18: DGPT Finals, Smugglers’ Notch Resort, VT
With the events running in a geographically and chronologically-organized fashion – a wrinkle not found in the other tours – the DGPT aims to make touring more sustainable for professional disc golfers.
“It is still difficult for a large number of players to stay on the disc golf tour, so we want to make it as easy as possible for them to tour and have success,” Dodge said. “We expect to have a larger number of players attend multiple events, and this participation is critical to our, and any tour’s, long-term success.”
With 2016 viewed as a smaller test run for a larger tour in years to come – Dodge and Heinold envision 12 or more $50,000-payout events in future iterations – the hope is that connections can develop between players and spectators, similar to other sports.
“There are a lot of great players out there and a lot of great companies supporting them,” Dodge said. “Once players are able to stay on tour for a decade rather than a couple years, fans will be able to count on their favorite players being in events and build an emotional connection with them. This will build the fan base which will build the desire of advertisers to get in front of these fans.”
Three-time United States Disc Golf Champion Will Schusterick said an organized tour would change the toll that travel takes on him as a player.
“The scheduling would affect me in a positive way, I am hoping,” Schusterick said. “Instead of going from one side of the country to another in a two-week time span and dealing with the pain of traveling long distances, I will be able to focus more on practicing and hopefully be able to participate in my clinics and demonstrations in specific areas.”
Three-time World Champion Valarie Jenkins agreed that the series’ itinerary would benefit professional disc golfers.
“There are few tournaments that pay out well enough to allow players to fly in, rent a car, get a hotel room, and come out ahead. Our sport just isn’t there yet,” Jenkins said. “Having more of a flow to the tournaments will allow touring pros to be on more of a consistent schedule and have enough time to travel and practice before the event. It’s how it should be.”
The venues chosen to host the events also have spectators and quality of play in mind, with five of the six tournaments being played on Top-20 ranked courses (per DGCourseReview.com).
“It is going to be thrilling to attend in person or watch live online and see the best players in the world challenged on the best courses in the world,” Dodge said. “Rollin’ Ridge, Maple Hill, Blue Ribbon Pines and Smugglers’ Notch are an amazing array of courses, and I would dare say the best courses on any of the three tours.”
Common ideals, different execution
With these three different tours on tap for 2016, Heinold said he realizes some people will see them as competitors.
“While that is partly true, we believe we can all work together towards the common goal,” Heinold said. “At the end of the day we also believe that competition is good and that the presence of these tours will help everyone get better.”
Dodge pointed to the DGPT’s Tour Championship as a feature that distinguishes it from the PDGA National Tour Series.
“The National Tour has never given fans a compelling reason to get emotionally invested in who wins the tour,” Dodge said. “There is a small NT points winner, but it is mostly ignored. This is a huge area of opportunity.”
The DGPT has created a system in which players will earn tour points based on their finishes at the five DGPT events, with the top 48 earning a spot in the quarterfinals of the Tour Championship event and the top eight getting a bye into the semifinals.
It’s a stark contrast from the current NT points series that can reasonably be clinched prior to the season’s final event.
“I think it’s highly necessary to have a series Championship,” Schusterick said. “All other sports have something related, and I think it pushes players to compete in all of the events. It also builds interest for the spectators to see that certain players have been playing well all season and it gives them someone to root for.”
Then there are the payout and viewership aspirations, too.
“We have a very exciting Championship structure set up,” Dodge said. “Top prize at the Tour Championship is $10,000, and my goal with the Tour Championship is to have it be the single most-viewed live disc golf event ever.”
The DGPT will aim for this achievement by teaming with Smashboxx TV for live coverage.
“Smashboxx TV continues to improve their capabilities,” Dodge said. “And with their partnerships at the Glass Blown Open and the USDGC, they have learned much more about broadcasting the sport than any team in disc golf.”
With this focus on live coverage a staple of both the Disc Golf World Tour and the DGPT, organizers of the latter noted that there are other clear contrasts that set the events apart.
The aforementioned schedule is a key difference – the World Tour hops across the pond to Europe with a spread of events that will see American players likely going back and forth to compete – as is the inclusion of a women’s division as part of the Pro Tour.
“I understand the reason to have one division, one champion (in the World Tour model),” Dodge said. “But I believe we need to grow both men’s and women’s disc golf and are a decade away from the women being able to have their own tour. So, for the time being, our best men and women should tour and play together.”
Spreading the culture
Finally, there is the festival aspect that DGPT organizers hope will attract spectators from outside the tournament boundaries.
With radar gun booths, putting courses, face painting, inflatable obstacle courses and other special event staples, the DGPT stops are aiming for a broad range of appeal.
“The thing that the Pro Tour will do is give these kids a reason to look to disc golf and say, ‘That’s a real sport. I want to be like (insert cool player) and play disc golf.’”
– Steve Dodge, Disc Golf Pro Tour director
“It is critical to us that these events attract not only hardcore discers that want to watch the best in the world, but that they also provide fun and entertainment for the whole family,” Dodge said. “In addition to attracting an online following, it is critical to get people to come to the course, have them build an emotional bond with their favorite players, and experience a ton of fun while watching the best disc golfers on the planet.”
Aside from attracting spectators and sponsors, Heinold also said the festival can help attract a future player base.
“The tour isn’t just for pro players,” he said. “…With the addition of our festival, we believe all of these things will help grow the sport at the amateur level.”
Emphasizing the “cool factor” will help, Dodge said.
“The thing that the Pro Tour will do is give these kids a reason to look to disc golf and say, ‘That’s a real sport. I want to be like (insert cool player) and play disc golf,’” Dodge said. “We not only need to teach them the game, we need them to know how cool it is and to decide to make it their life sport.”
This ideal of making disc golf a life sport is a driving force behind the DGPT and what Dodge refers to as the “culture of the disc.”
It dates back to his days of first tossing a Frisbee while playing Ultimate, and is something he wants to retain as the sport continues to grow.
“The wonderful hippies that taught me Ultimate were the embodiment of the culture of the disc: fun, respectful, accepting, competitive, giving,” Dodge said. “It is important to me that discers not lose this history of where our sport originated.”
Or, in the case of the Disc Golf Pro Tour, where the sport is going.
Connect with the Disc Golf Pro Tour as it works toward next season’s launch:
Steve Hill is a Southern California-based disc golfer who doesn’t throw very far. Follow him on Twitter @NoodleArmDG.