Want disc golf to grow? Follow Finland’s lead

Disc golf is a sport played all around the world. When we first launched ATDG in 2012 we expected to reach disc golfers everywhere. Sure, the vast majority of our traffic comes from the United States, but its the next layer of data that provides some interesting information.

Since 2012, ATDG has seen roughly 850,000 visits. Finland has racked up the second highest number of those visits. Finland disc golfers account for more than double the traffic from Canada, and nearly four times that from Sweden. Even more interesting stats can be found when you go down to the city level.

No other city can account for more visits to ATDG in the last two and a half years than Finland’s capital, Helsinki. Nearly 20,000 visits have originated from Helsinki. That’s 4,000 more than Chicago, and 8,000 more than Houston and San Francisco. Helsinki has a population of roughly 625,000 people. Chicago on the other hand has 2.7 million people living in the city.

This perked our interest and we had to find out why this could be the case. Over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to build up a relationship with Discmania’s Jussi Meresmaa and had the casual conversation with some of his other coworkers like Erno Väyrynen and Janne Lahtinen. Throughout this time we’ve picked up on just how disc golf is different in Finland and how, in our minds, it is setting the bar for how to really push this sport forward.

Disc golf courses are everywhere

Finland Disc Golf Courses

In 2014, Finland has nearly 430 courses nationwide with 442 completed today and another 15 under construction. Finland itself is about half the square miles of Texas and holds around 80 more courses. That type of concentration is virtually impossible to find. The access disc golfers have in Finland is only something people can dream of.

Wisconsin is another interesting comparison with the chart above. With a similar population, Finland is nearly twice as large as the Badger State. There are currently 1,434 active PDGA members in Finland with another 686 holding an expired membership. For Wisconsin, there are 646 active PDGA members and 1,575 expired memberships. It is nearly the complete opposite of each other.

While there is no doubt we have some beautiful courses in the United States, just one look at some of the parks that play host to a disc golf course in Finland can make you realize just how beautiful that country is.

Dominating European marketshare

Disc Golf European Market Share

Estimates from Spin18 on disc golf’s European market share.

New disc golf company Spin18 has been collecting data on the the economic side of disc golf in Europe. Based on estimates by Spin18, they put a €16 million (roughly $17.8 million) value on the overall European disc golf market for 2014.

In fact, they value the Finnish disc golf market to be at €9 million (roughly $10.03 million) of that total €16 million market. Disc golf in Finland is reportedly that large.

To take it one step further, they project the Finnish disc golf market to show a 67% growth and rise to the €15 million level itself. This is right along side of the overall European market to also grow to €25 million.

Admittedly, we’d love to see what these number would look like for the United States, even down to a state level, but just the strength of the market in Finland is telling of where a lot of this total European growth originates from.

Truly a professional sport

One of the most important things we’ve learned over the last few years in these conversations is the image that disc golf has in Europe and, more specifically, Finland.

In the United States, where disc golf originated, it tends to be looked at as more of a casual and recreational sport. When people find out about the PDGA and the World Championships, for example, they tend to react in a somewhat surprised manner that those two things exist. The professional side of things in the United States is not the first thing people see or think of.

This professional side of the sport is no stranger to the Finnish. It is looked at like a true sport in every sense of the word and not just a game. One way to show this is the support of the sport from outside disc golf’s walls.

Wide range of support

In the United States, on a national level, there are very few companies outside of disc golf that lend sponsorship support to big tournaments. Keen, for example, is one national brand that has been a supporter of disc golf for many years now. They are at the major tournaments and the world championships putting their brand at the front of the sport. Who are the majority of the other large sponsors for these big tournaments? Disc golf companies. Disc companies, bag companies, etc… It’s all resources from inside the sport.

The focus in Finland is on outside resources and the efforts are paying off. The 2015 European Open has seen sponsorships from many including Budget Sport. Budget Sport is a leading disc golf retailer in Finland and not only recognizes the potential of disc golf on the professional side, but offers large retail displays for customers.

Budget Sport

Disc golf display at Budget Sport in Finland. (Photo: European Open)

In a conversation with Jonathan Poole, team manager for Innova Disc Golf, Poole mentioned how on a recent trip to Finland he was blown away by what he saw at the Ideapark shopping center.

“It was an eyeopening experience, as if I had been catapulted into the future. Every single store in the mall that it made sense to have golf discs, had them. This is something I have never seen in my 20 years in disc golf here in the States. And it wasn’t just the presence of disc golf equipment, it was the size, location, and quality of the displays themselves,” Poole said.

“One major sporting goods store in particular, devoted its entire front glass display to disc golf. As you entered the store you were greeted with hundreds of discs, portable targets, disc golf bags and other accessories, before you reached anything else. Even student book bags which were right next to the display! Imagine walking into Dick’s Sporting Goods here in the United States and seeing disc golf positioned front and center, ahead of every other sport. I realize things are different here in the US, but that provided me with a glimpse of what could be. It shattered my perception of how I view disc golf’s potential in the mainstream. It was something every disc golfer should experience.”

From narrowcasting to broadcasting

Paul McBeth - YLE

Paul McBeth talks with Finland’s YLE after the 2014 European Masters in Sweden. (Photo: Innova Champion Europe Ltd.)

On the broadcasting front, in 2013, the final round of the European Open aired for 90 minutes nationwide in Finland through their national television channel YLE. They were only able to show the final few holes for the final few cards on the course, but you saw multiple camera setups, a full broadcast team, and a very professional presentation. If you were living in Finland that afternoon and casually flipping around TV channels, live disc golf was an option for you and they’ll have that option again at this year’s tournament.

To have a major broadcasting network devote an hour and a half to live disc golf was a big step forward. In the United States we’ve also made progress in recent years with delivery of disc golf on TV. We’ve seen this new Emerging Sports Network with coverage of select tournaments like the World Championships, Aussie Open and Japan Open, for example. They film, edit, and put together a 30-40 minute package of highlights to air a few months later on a handful of affiliates like regional Comcast SportsNet and Fox Sports channels. There isn’t commentary, there isn’t a hole-by-hole update. It’s a highlight reel that doesn’t really show the true competition side of the sport. A welcome step forward for the United States, but in order to see it continue to grow we can’t stop pursuing even greater options and that is exactly what people are doing. Momentum has grown quite a bit in just the last few years. Everyone wants the ultimate goal, but it takes many, many steps to reach the end. Dedicated people and patience can go a long way.

One thing that can be misleading is the overall portrayal of the true reach of something like the Emerging Sports Network. In the 2015 World Championships Sponsorship guide, they state how they reach 50-90 million household subscribers. That’s like ATDG stating that we publish disc golf articles for the 3 billion people who access the internet. If 50 million people sat down to watch disc golf one weekend, I likely wouldn’t be writing this article.

Along with the Emerging Sports Network, the folks at Disc Golf Planet such as John Duesler, Terry Roddy, Crazy John Brooks, and more, have helped us get to where we are today. For many years now they have been working to get disc golf on the eyes of people everywhere. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for them. Pioneers help build the foundation that we needed. They had to establish themselves and a product in order to approach production companies and network leaders to even have a chance of getting disc golf on TV. You can’t deny what Disc Golf Planet has done to get us to where we are today.

Disc Golf Planet’s previous efforts and other live streaming platforms like YouTube have helped inspire others to take up broadcasting disc golf. Folks like Terry Miller and his SmashBoxxTV platform have brought more than just National Tour and A-Tier events to disc golfers around the world. At this year’s Glass Blown Open, Dynamic Discs worked with the local Emporia Gazette newspaper. This broadcast division of the Gazette does media for Emporia State University and the online side of the newspaper. Dynamic Discs Media Manager Bobby Brown tells us the group approached Dynamic Discs nearly eight months before the GBO to inquire about doing a live stream.

“Because of their relationship with businesses in town they were able to have the live feed pushed to a local TV channel that is broadcast through ValuNet, a local all-fiber telecommunications network. This allowed the GBO live feed to be on television sets in some bars and restaurants in town and at home if you lived in Emporia and had ValuNet installed at your home,” Brown tells us.

This group had a live stream of the lead card for all three rounds with two cameramen, two producers, and two commentators with one in the studio and one on the course. On top of that, they had SmashBoxxTV covering the chase card live as well on their YouTube channel.

Brown tells us that the live streams were only the tip of the iceberg, “Although we knew live coverage was essential for 2015 we also knew that some people enjoy a more condensed version of coverage. For this reason we invited Jomez Productions to record the top MPO card. For this production Jomez Production had two cameramen. We also wanted to be sure to have coverage for the top women and invited McFlySoHigh to record the top FPO cards for all rounds.”

Brown had a goal of having the “most collaborative media coverage that had ever been at a disc golf tournament” at the 2015 GBO. On top of the 900 players in attendance Brown says he had about 15 people on hand and could have used at least another five.

While it wasn’t a national or even statewide broadcast, Dynamic Discs were able to take their own step forward and offer a local live broadcast and also serve that to the world online. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

Growing is nice, sharing is better

Before this year’s Glass Blown Open we wrote an article about how “grow the sport” was more than just a phrase. Actions are exponentially more important than just words. In fact, we’d argue that “grow the sport” isn’t even the right phrase we should be using.

If someone who has never played disc golf sees the phrase “grow the sport” they likely have no clue what sport it is referencing. It is really disc golfers talking to disc golfers. The phrase itself is too focused internally.

Ask a disc golfer if they want to see better courses and more coverage and they’ll say yes. Ask someone who has never played and they won’t understand. Thats where the focus needs to be. We need to focus outside the sport’s walls if we truly want to see the sport grow. That’s where the potential is.

“Share disc golf” is one phrase that we thought of. This is a phase we can use internally. You’re already hooked. You got “bit by the bug” at some point. Now you have stacks of discs and your favorite bag and you spend all weekend at your favorite course. Go back to what caused you to be hooked. What was the moment that it all clicked for you? Recreate that moment for someone else. Bring out a friend and have them experience it. Help them select some discs out of your collection. If they’re starting to feel it, have them keep those discs. Invite them out a second and third time. Ask them to bring a friend during a round too. Now, you’re not the one sharing disc golf, your friend is the one who is doing the leg work.

I took my parents out for a round a few years ago and after my mom made a putt and heard the chains for the first time she stated, “ooohhh, that does sound cool!” Words couldn’t describe it, she had to experience it.

“Experience disc golf” is another phrase we’re going to start to use here at ATDG. This is more of the external message. You don’t just “play” disc golf. For many of us it is a chance to get out of the office, classroom, or house, and get outside. I played a round the other weekend with a friend of mine and it was early in the morning and we were the only two in the entire park for the round. No other noise. No other commotion. It was us and a disc golf course. Every putt rang loud. Every bad drive left us with plenty of silence to watch just where it would land. Every funny moment resulted in laughter for the both of us. As we made our way to our next throw it was just good conversation. Families, jobs, life. Even when it was just us two, when one would hit a great putt, we’d congratulate each other like it was the final round of a tournament.

When you show up to your local league and you get to see some people who you might not see on a regular basis it never fails for the topic of conversation to be disc golf. We banter about what our new discs are or some crazy drive we had a few days prior. It’s these moments that are hard to describe. You need to experience them.

Over our recent discussions with Jussi Meresmaa, he brought up this idea of “the black spot.” The Black Spot is us disc golfers. Just a tiny black spot in a vast world.
Meresmaa says, “We think we are big and we think we are making amazing things, but in the reality, we are mainly talking to each other. There are very few exemptions on this. We in the Black Spot tend to think only the way the Black Spot is thinking. We think that the most important thing in tournament website is info for the players. What about the spectators?”
During his trip to design the course for the St. Jude Disc Golf Invitational in Monterey, California, Meresmaa experienced his theory in action.
“We were going to launch the DiscGolfPark concept there that has been the backbone of Finnish success of disc golf. DiscGolfPark is a complete solution for disc golf. As we were communicating with the event organization, one very well-known member of the organization asked me if we should build a ‘side tee’ for the players not wanting to throw from the real tee,” Meresmaa remarked.
“To put this into a perspective, its represents the same idea if Usain Bolt’s coach would ask the International Olympic Committee for permission to run aside from the real track at the 100 meter finals. What would big audience think?”
Innova’s Poole agrees that we need to expand our thinking, “We need to look beyond ourselves and the local community. We need to think bigger. We need act more responsibly than ever before. We need to be proud of the game we love, support its organization, obey the rules on the course, and push ourselves to get better on and off the course, every single day. Lots of people are doing this already. Jussi is one of them. But Jussi is doing this on a global level and we need to prop him and his efforts up as best we can.”

Jussi Meresmaa = You

Jussi Meresmaa

Jussi Meresmaa at the 2014 European Masters. (Photo: Innova Champion Europe Ltd.)

Jussi Meresmaa is without a doubt an innovator and thought leader for disc golf and disc golf’s popularity in Finland can be credited in a large part to what he’s done. He is always keeping the discussion going on Instagram and Twitter. He isn’t the only thought leader though. There are many others like him who work in disc golf and many who don’t work in disc golf. We’d all love to have disc golf be our full time jobs. ATDG isn’t a full time job for me. I work at Illinois State University. ATDG is my way of helping disc golf. We’re here sharing the sport and telling disc golf’s story.

The story that has seen the most views in 2015 as of today? Understanding Disc Golf Flight Ratings. Readers are new to the sport who are trying to find answers to questions they have about those numbers on the front of the disc. We were looking for articles just like that one when we first started playing, but couldn’t find it. We’re doing our part to help disc golf reach it’s ultimate potential.

You don’t have to make a difference on a national or global level. There are others who can focus on that. Help run a local disc golf league, for example. Keep an online record of your schedule and results so people can easily find it. Encourage new players to come out and see what you’re all about. Our local league, part of the Bloomington-Normal Disc Golf Club, offers a way to play for just $1. You won’t be eligible for any payout, but you get to have the same experience the others do. No one likes “donating” each week and losing money. With just the change you can likely find in your couch, you can come out and experience disc golf.

When you’re out on the course, dress like a boss. Clean clothes. Sharp clothes. A golf polo can really make a big difference. If you play in PDGA tournaments, while there is a dress code that calls for a collared shirt at the top level tournaments, why not wear one to your local C-Tier? Others who might be in the park will have a much different perception than what they’ve seen in the past.

Contact your local park district to see if they’re interested in you volunteering to lead some educational events. Organize a clean up and let the park district know your plans. They might lend some equipment or materials to help out. These are the types of efforts that will impress outsiders. Talk to your local school district too.

It can be intimidating when you try and think about what you can do to “grow the sport” in your own community, but you DO have the power to make a difference. It’s how you look, it’s how you act, it’s what you say.

We’re blessed to have strong leaders in our sport. The ones who have not only paved the way in the past, but those who are continuing to make a difference. Just as you can use them as inspiration and their efforts as a foundation, if you can make a difference in your own community, they can use the small things as a foundation for bigger growth.

We all have the same ultimate goal and like we previously said, there are many steps to get there. If we act together, we can make small steps into giant strides.

Whether it is growing, sharing, or experiencing the sport, we need to follow the lead of those around us, become better leaders, and enjoy the ride as disc golf reaches it’s ultimate level.

The post Want disc golf to grow? Follow Finland’s lead appeared first on All Things Disc Golf.

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