Growing Ultimate’s Spectator Base

Disc golf hall-of-famer Chuck Kennedy, who has designed over 50 disc golf courses and developed the Professional Disc Golf Association’s ratings system, has a fascinating series (123, 4, 5) on increasing the spectator base of disc golf.

Aside from the obvious connection of using discs to play the sport, there are a great number of similarities between disc golf and ultimate: both sports are growing very quickly (disc golf even faster than ultimate), both are seeing a rise in endemic media, both are developing bonafide star players, and both are feeling growing pains as they lurch towards becoming more than fringe sports.

Here’s a section of Kennedy’s first post on the PDGA website — just imagine replacing ‘disc golf’ with ‘ultimate’:

Without a quickly growing base of paying spectators, whether in person, live online, or [on] post-production video, there will continue to be just enough money in the game for a small number of professionals to [eke] out a living from their winnings and sponsorships. This is true for any emerging sport, not just disc golf.

Several pros certainly get some expenses covered and earn bonuses from disc golf related sponsors. But even that is only sustainable as a business model when each sponsor does their business math and is satisfied that their sponsored pros generate incrementally more product sales than they would otherwise sell to justify their sponsorship outlay. If not, then it may be a poor business decision to continue sponsoring a team of pros or at least as many of them.

The bottom line: Shouldn’t the ability to significantly increase interest from spectators be an important factor when considering potential game improvements or changes at our highest pro level? Otherwise, the long term money available to support our professional stars will not be sustainable.

Disc golf faces unique challenges that don’t bother ultimate, like needing to design entire courses to suit live spectator viewing. Ultimate can be played in almost any major sports venue, whether it was initially designed for football, soccer, or baseball. However, the basic facts from the above are spot on.

Right now, there is still quite a small (but passionate!) base of spectator support for ultimate. A few thousand people tune in to watch an important game live. Mere hundreds are willing to spend money to watch games online. Some semi-pro ultimate teams command 1000+ fans a game, but none averages more than about 1500 a game, max.

That is small potatoes, especially when you consider how much money is being poured into the semi-pro leagues.

But the growth rate is tantalizing, as is the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of recreational players who may not even know that a world of elite club and pro ultimate exists. Reach even a fraction of them and you have a suddenly sustainable spectator sport.

The cold reality, though, is that reaching those potential fans is a slow and difficult process. Kennedy argues for some fairly innovative (even radical) changes to improve disc golf for spectators. Here are a bunch of changes that I think ultimate should make.

If there is not a substantial increase in the spectator base in ultimate, the pro leagues and other sponsor- and investor-funded forms of ultimate are built on sand. It is clear that many believe those spectators will show up given time, but the future remains far from certain.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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