With disc golf growing, will ultimate fandom be able to keep up?
November 30, 2021 by Ultiworld in Opinion with 0 comments
We at Ultiworld are always up for a good-natured debate, which these days takes place in our Discord server, where all of our contributors and Full and Plus subscribers have a chance to weigh in and share their thoughts. Now, we’ve decided to pull back the curtain on some of those debates as a bonus for all subscribers. What follows is a lightly edited version of a recent internal Discord Debate sparked by The Deep Look subscriber bonus segment on fandom.
As disc golf continues to grow in size and popularity, the fan base grows as well. New eyeballs are streaming to the sport, allowing more and more top professionals to sign six, seven, even eight-figure deals with disc manufacturers on the promise that they’ll be able to turn fans into loyal customers. Major tours and events have lucrative media and sponsorship deals that are turning players into minor celebrities and enhancing the spectator experience both on the ground and watching from home. That is visibility and marketability that ultimate can only dream of right now and could have profound and increasingly divergent impacts on fandom of the two sports.
Ultiworld subscribers and staff have taken notice of the big difference between the fan base for disc golf as opposed to ultimate. They took to our Discord server earlier this year to debate the topic of fandom in disc golf and ultimate. How is it similar? How is it different? And why are disc golfers better at getting fans than ultimate players?
What is holding back fandom in ultimate and why is disc golf able to grow its fan base?
One thing I like about the Jomez Pro tournament coverage is the segment they do at the beginning of each round focusing on one of the players. It helps you get to know the competitors more. As a new viewer of disc golf, a year ago I didn’t know who Paul McBeth was, but now almost all top 25 players are familiar to me. It’d be great to see similar featurettes in more ultimate coverage.
Joe Wright (Subscriber)
Yeah. Gatekeeper this year started doing a thing where during the round they have like 15 seconds from each of the players talking to the camera, promoting something, thanking someone, whatever. It’s just so much easier in an individual sport to highlight individuals, but it would be cool to see more of it in ultimate.
Aidan Shapiro-Leighton (Director of Video)
The structure of touring and professionalism of disc golf both gives plenty of opportunities to set up in-person interviews and provides incentives for players to participate. Neither of those things exists in ultimate when teams play at two to four major tournaments and there’s few striving for exposure or financial compensation. The semi-pro leagues are more the model of comparison though, and they offer more opportunities to do this type of thing
Steve Sullivan (Executive Editor)
I agree with Aidan about the challenges of making this happen in ultimate. Whenever we try to grab on-camera interviews with players at big tournaments, it’s like pulling teeth. Even if we overcome the scheduling obstacles, there is so little incentive for most players to participate. I wonder if Charlie’s Sideline Talk podcast gets at a little bit of what Aidan is talking about, even if it’s not on video?
Keith Raynor (Senior Editor and Business Development Manager)
Well, we have done those interviews at Club Nationals, like when a few players came by the Ultiworld house a couple years ago. I think that worked pretty well.
Ian Whitman (Subscriber)
I feel like part of the difference in the success of disc golf fandom versus ultimate fandom — at least regarding getting players to also be fans — is that the talent gap between decent and excellent players in ultimate is diluted by teams being large and players being therefore able to delude themselves into thinking they’re almost just as good as elite players. If I go out to a local, easy disc golf course and shoot +6, then watch coverage where a pro shoots -9 on a course that’s ten times harder, I have no case to make that we are of similar skill. But in ultimate, I think it’s easier for people to say “well if I had x, y, and z player also on my team, I would finally be able to shine!”
Part of being a fan, to me, is the clear distinction between me and the players I’m a fan of — that being a fan is my only option because we don’t exist within the same realm of skill within the sport. That said, this delusion might actually still be good in the short term for club ultimate because, while it makes players reticent to be outright fans of their opponents, it’s also leading to tons of mid-Regionals-level teams believing year after year that this is the time they’ll beat Sockeye/Fury/AMP, despite having 95%+ of the top end of their roster being people that Sockeye/Fury/AMP cut over the course of extended tryouts.
This is a really interesting thought.
Mags Colvett (Associate Editor)
I’ve had a theory for a while that ultimate viewers (who are almost all ultimate players) can have kind of an unstable proud/resentful, shades-of-tall-poppy relationship with ultimate “stardom” — think of the way the idea of someone like Jimmy Mickle as an ultimate celebrity is something people kind of half buy into, half tease Jimmy about, or the way the backlash to Beach of Dreams had kind of a “who do these people think they are?” undertone — because the sport is so small that they just don’t feel remote enough to be put on a pedestal. On the flip side, when ultimate viewers perform fandom in a positive way that also kind of feels small-pond, like hyping up a friend or someone who feels like a friend or a hometown celebrity of sorts. But disc golf is a really interesting point of comparison here, and I think what Ian’s saying may get at it better.
Tanner Jurek (Social Media Manager)
I don’t think the majority of casual league-level or pickup ultimate players know or care who the top players are, so there is no opportunity for fandom. I feel like more casual disc golfers are somehow more exposed to top players and know who they are. For example, the night before the first day of the US Open, we had summer league at the fields in Blaine. Medellin Revolution was there selling merch at the fields. Out of my 12 person team, only three people (me included) had any idea who Revolution was or that the US Open was happening. If you don’t follow Ultiworld, I don’t know how anybody could be a fan anyway. It feels like a big issue that people who play ultimate and have convenient access to the fields where the biggest tournament happens have no idea it is happening.
Matt Graves (Subscriber)
Club teams also don’t do self-promotion. Part of the reason disc golf is exploding is that players are putting out content and storylines. It gives fans a reason to pay attention. Unless you follow Ultiworld you don’t know the club storylines. Casual ultimate fans don’t have a reason to root for a team unless they live in that area or know someone on the roster.
AJ Klopfenstein (Subscriber)
I think that ties into Mags’ point about the small-pond feel of ultimate fandom. High-profile teams aren’t that far removed from the “fans” (who are nearly 100% comprised of other players) so the attachment is a much more local, friends-and-teammates style rather than a fan/team dichotomy. I think this also relates to Ian’s point about the relative “distance” between high-level players and fan-level players — it’s hard to truly feel like a fan for a team when your buddy made it and, well, you could too if you just did more lifting in the offseason.
For the purposes of making the game more accessible, would it make sense for Ultiworld to put out a blurb before major tournaments that isn’t an in-depth preview but more of a basic overview that can be easily shared? It could feature things like: what is this tournament, this is how to watch, this is what is at stake, and what to expect as a fan, etc.
Joseph Marmerstein (Video Editor)
Ultimate teams also don’t really have incentive to promote themselves, though. As a disc golf player, if you’re good, having a social media presence means you may be able to get a sponsorship. That kind of money just isn’t there in ultimate, so as a team, why should we spend our time doing that?
Has any team tried? Teams could at least sell their team jersey or try to use social media followers for fundraisers to offset some of the cost of the season. And while there might not be many ultimate-specific companies, you can always try to find sponsorships with local companies. For example, after practice come to XYZ brewery to meet the team and ask questions about our last tournament. Yeah, it sounds like a semi-pro team but unless club teams try to make money, club will become secondary to the semi-pro leagues. I think that’ll happen in the next five years on the current trajectory.
I can tell you that we have tried to get local sponsorships, and plenty of teams do fundraisers which are visible on social media. But if it’s anything like my experience, I would guess that 95% of the fundraising comes from local people — mostly friends of the team. I’ve also seen teams that have some kinda sponsorships — like teams giving away beer from a local brewery or something — but I very much doubt that they’re getting any kind of significant financial compensation from those sponsorships, especially since, compared to disc golf, you’re splitting the sponsorship money 26 ways.
Teams could step up their content and social media game. I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not following teams.
It feels to me like some part of this comes back to the question of if ultimate “deserves” fans at this point. Have the best players of the sport perfected it to a level that can be easily understood as physically exceptional? Or maybe even more basic — is the sport designed to promote things that look exceptional? When a basketball player dunks or a hockey player hits a shot into the corner of the net, or even a disc golfer parks a 550-foot shot, I understand those things as intrinsically remarkable, without even adding the pressure of defense or the moment or the stakes. But in ultimate, a great sky or a disc that floats just long enough to be caught certainly creates tension and excitement, but I don’t think that they always ring the same way.
A play that does stick out to me in this vein is Jimmy Mickle’s throw in the Colony vs Ring game from 2018 Worlds where he’s in the corner by his own end zone, then he throws a dime to a well-guarded receiver in the back corner of the other end zone. To throw a disc accurately 85 yards to a two-yard box to hit a receiver in stride under pressure in a WUCC game is obviously insane talent. It feels like until we get more spectacle into the sport — more plays that aren’t just incredible but are clearly incredible by design and with intent — it’ll remain hard to convince non-ultimate players to give the sport a long look, which is ultimately what is essential to make things like sponsorships and fandom viable at a large scale.
It is hard to say that ultimate doesn’t deserve fans when teams have fans right now. Thousands of people are going to AUDL games every week. But outside of maybe the semi-pro leagues and Ultiworld, nobody is doing anything to cultivate fans or a culture of being a fan. Fans don’t just come out of thin air, you have to work for them. I’m exaggerating a little here but USAU (or individual teams) has to do more than tweet out, “Nationals are on this day at this time” if they want fans to show up. And maybe that’s a low priority for them, but that’s a different discussion.
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