#GrowThe$port: Course Design


The #GrowThe$port series will examine the potential pitfalls of disc golf’s rapid growth through historical examples and wild conjecture. 


When you think of “street skateboarding”, is this the picture you have in your head?

Not likely.  But, in the not-so-distant past, the folks who were betting big on skateboarding’s rise to the top of the pop culture plateau were able to molest our understanding of the sport in order to better serve their budgetary purposes.

When you think of “disc golf”, is this what you think of?

The Story behind the Famous Windows XP Desktop Background - Artsy
Not likely.  This is the Windows XP desktop picture.

Did a lightbulb just appear above your head like it does in the cartoons?

We, as a sport, are swiftly headed toward a major inflection point, and there is little doubt that whatever form we manifest in on the other side of that moment will be disc golf’s proper introduction to the mainstream of American culture.

We find ourselves in a formative and important time in the history of the game of disc golf, and this is a moment that has been telegraphed by a number of other singular, personality-driven counterculture sports before it; skateboarding being chief among them.

In the mid-1990’s, skateboarding began to see the first few meteoric rises of its second coming, thanks in a rather large part to ESPN’s XGames, (called the “Extreme Games” at the onset).

The games were set to feature skateboarding prominently, as they should have.  Skateboarding had been through one of these brief bouts of quasi-mainstream success before, just a decade-and-a-half earlier, when pool and vert were the primary disciplines of import.

In that decade-and-a-half between peaks in popularity, skateboarding was essentially burnt to the ground.  In that era between Tony Alva and Tony Hawk, the sport went back underground, existing largely in the dingy corners of urban and suburban locales.  This was the decade of the skate-rat; which is akin to a ski bum but often poorer, dirtier, and angrier.

This was a much less attractive era of skateboarding for the squares, who essentially shunned the sport and the greasy teenagers making scraping sounds on grimy curbs and stoops around town.

But herein lies the unavoidable truth about solitary passion – it is the prime incubator of innovation.

Unencumbered by the requirements of revenue, and purer for it, this hidden-from-the-mainstream generation of skateboarders were innovators without equal, who not only completely up-ended that limits of what was possible but who also re-emerged into pop culture with a shove.  GoPro cameras?  Modeled after the wide-angle lens cameras used to make skateboarding videos in the early 1990’s.  Vans sneakers? They are now so ubiquitous in American culture that I’m going to wear a pair at my wedding.  Skateboarding is American counterculture – plain and simple.

But instead of recognizing the holy societal momentum that was percolating in skateboarding’s underground, ESPN had another idea.

In 1995, in Rhode Island of all fuckin’ places, ESPN did the whole of skateboarding an enormous disservice.

As they looked to cash in on “extreme” sports, (blegh), ESPN reimagined what “street” skateboarding would look like, and through the lens of network cameras and revenue potential.  (See the video above).

Gone were the suave and nuanced maneuvers executed as deftly as concrete and asphalt allowed, replaced by simple feats of height and distance and “amplitude” where the crowd’s “oohs” and “ahhhs” tended to have an unwritten impact on the judges’ observations.  Simple to understand for the folks at home:  Go fast + jump high = maneuvers to clap about.  [And I have the immeasurable Sal Masakela to thank for that turn of phrase).

And, to make matters all the more insulting to skateboarding, the paint job of these unnatural “street” obstacles was purple, accented by the sort of diluted, bullshit “graffiti” that would get you fired from your job as a set designer on SVU.

This was essentially a jump-ramp stunt show compared to what was happening in real skateboarding, and the first iterations of the XGames brought with them a great deal of resentment toward ESPN.

But those oversized features and purple ramps were just what it took to hook the squares.  It was bright and fast and loud and all of the other things that tickle our brains.  Almost immediately, ESPN had a hit on their hands.

I could go on about the cultural reverberations of this for tens of thousands of words, and it will surely come back in future installments of the “#GrowThe$port” series, but what we need to know it this:  ESPN’s nerfing of street skateboarding in 1995 took one of America’s most enduring pop culture legacies and reshaped it in their own image.

ESPN’s intentions were to squeeze skateboarding for whatever she was worth, and if that meant dumbing it down for the folks at home, so be it.  If that meant coercing an entire generation of athletes onto a path that is less evolutionary for the sport, that was just fine for ESPN.  So be it if we smother the entire progressive spirit of skateboarding…this is not the network’s concern.

ESPN, in a bid to cash in on skateboarding, poisoned the well of the sport itself.  A well that existed decades before ESPN was even a thought or a whisper, and all for the sake of milking the consumer.

This is is the sort of elemental cultural power that we’re fucking around with in disc golf right now, whether we’re willing to admit it or not.

As they say on Twitter:  Read.  Apply to disc golf.

So what will happen to disc golf in this #GrowThe$port era as the budgets of tournament directors, the DGN, and the DGPT begin to include rather sizable spectator-driven opportunities?  After all this is just about the only place outside of sponsorships where there is budgetary pliability.

The grand, traveling economy of the pro tour is growing larger and more intertwined by the month.  Vendors, spectators, signings, VIP up-selling, after-parties, demos, photo ops, et al.  This little fiscal frisbee factory on wheels may have a lot of different engines, but it’s all burning the same fuel:  Spectator dollars.

And here is where the figurate Faustian folly lurks, as there are two ways to increase spectator dollars year over year on the same property:  Raise prices or sell more tickets.

Guess which path is going to be more popular among fans?

At some point in the future, distant or maybe not, the DGPT will need to adjust their budget.  Could be gas prices, could be property fees…doesn’t matter.  Some invariable, inalienable economic force will be exerted upon them and they’ll need to adjust the inputs and outputs.

This is where, when looking at potential adjustments, those spectator dollars will loom large.  They may find themselves focusing on courses where the design allows for more spectators to be on-site.  Maybe it allows for more VIP areas.  Or more vendors.  All in the name of monetary momentum.  It’s all just another thing the spectators may spend their money on.

They may find that the courses that allow for more “oohs” and “ahhhs” are the ones that also allow for more dollars and cents.

The courses in question, (“camera courses”, if you will), do not make for an accurate representation of disc golf or its history.  They’re an incomplete picture, and the more they resemble ball-golf courses, the more resentment there will be among the purists.

They’re the stunt-ramp shows of the disc golf world, where mom and pop can get a kick out of it too, on some sunny Sunday afternoon, dawdling like tourists up the edges of the fairway, $13 beer in hand, $30 souvenir cap in their head.

They’re the 1995 XGames street skateboarding course of the disc golf world, and if we’re not careful, the ever-mutating financial beast that the pro tour has unleashed is going to devour every tree in the fairway to make room for cash-flush galleries.

Then, just like the lost generation of potentially-innovative skateboarders that ESPN rerouted in the 90’s, disc golf could find itself in an unwittingly stunted growth period of significant consequence.

That’s because a big dumb ollie in Rhode Island in ’95 got more applause than any technical wizardry did, the same way that a 600′ bomb is going to win over mom-and-pop a lot faster than a 40′ death putt is in Las Vegas in 2022.

Poison, meet well.

The DGPT will lead disc golf into the future, full stop.  They are professional disc golf at this point.  They’re the big show.  And so they are the arbiters of relevance for aspiring players, bar none.

Those aspiring players want to practice on courses that are relevant to the pro tour because that’s the goal.  If the DGPT  is drawn to “camera courses” by the ever-alluring spectator allowances, then his is how the sport will be represented from the top down.

If that is what Jonny and Jane-y WannaGoPro see when they turn on the Disc Golf Network, that’s what they’ll need to practice in order to get to the show.  And if Kenny or Katie CourseDesigner want to make relevant tracks for serious disc golfers, they too will look to these DGPT sites as inspiration.

Now we have to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question:  Does this grow the sport or grow the industry, and where do we draw the line between the goose and the gander in that tired, old anecdote?

The purity of course design, in a perfect world, would remain intact far longer than the DGPT remains profitable, but there’s no telling yet if those within the proper positions of power have this sort of restraint.

If ESPN could crater the spirit and innovation of skateboarding by simply dumbing down street skating for a mainstream audience, just imagine the sort of damage that a similar softening of courses could inflict on the future of disc golf.

The 1995 Rhode Island street course was torn down when those first XGames ended, to be replaced by something perpetually slightly better year after year until skateboarding crawled its way out of ESPN’s shadow a decade later and started calling the shots again.

Disc golf courses, on the other hand, stay in the ground for decades, influencing generations of golfers over that time.  And, thanks to a number of factors from club politics to the local Parks Department, making adjustments to these courses in order to keep them fresh is often either a hassle or impossible.

This semi-permanence imbues a great deal more gravity to the design process than it would for a skatepark that you redesign and rebuild every year.  Maybe the moral of the story here is to measure twice and cut once before we take a look at the bank account.

Yes, skateboarding did eventually find its way back to prominence in a proper and well-represented manner, (thanks to some capitulation from ESPN and other parts of the mainstream), but it took almost a decade and a video game to get it there.

Disc golf’s cultural ebb and flow doesn’t have the sort of nomadic elasticity that skateboarding enjoys.  We’re not exactly a mono-culture, but just barely and just recently is that true.

Because of this, we must strive to be careful stewards of our game.  We cannot afford to ignore the lessons of the suddenly-booming sports before us, lest we wish to turn this beautifully bizarre experience into a barbarically boring shadow of its former self.