Can disc golf break out of the neighborhood park and into the mainstream?

It's a raw, damp Saturday afternoon at Raintree Park in Troy. There's a chance of snow in the forecast, and the ground is sodden and flooded in spots. But Scott Burnham, a fifth grade science teacher at Roberts Elementary School in Utica, is clearly pumped. 

His first concern: Making sure the dozen or so 8-12 year old kids and their parents don't get hit by a flying disc.

"Stay behind the disc and you're never in trouble," Burnham tells the group, who stand around him bundled up in hats, gloves, and winter coats on this April afternoon. 

His second concern: Emphasizing the importance of sportsmanship, which matters just as much in disc golf as any other sport.

"Count your strokes. This is a game of integrity. It's you against the course. You're not playing against anybody else, you're playing against yourself, so be honest."

It's the first day of the season for "Underage Drivers," the disc golf league Burnham organizes to get area youth interested in the sport. Burnham, who follows Professional Disc Golf Association tournaments around the country during his free time, began combining his passion for the sport with his love for kids a decade ago in an effort to grow disc golf at the grassroots. The league is open to kids until they are old enough to drive.

Scott Burnham demonstrates a throw

 
For the uninitiated, disc golf is a sport modeled after what afficianados like to call "ball golf" -- you know, the one played by Tiger Woods. It replaces the clubs and ball of traditional golf with an engineered frisbee, and the hole with a metal basket set on a pole and hung with chains to catch a disc in mid-air. Disc golf courses are typically found in public parks, and are playable for free or a small fee.

Speak to an avid fan of disc golf, and you're likely to hear a lot of optimistic talking points about a sport that's on the verge of exploding into the mainstream.

"Disc golf over the past decade has been the fastest growing non-impact sport in the United States," says Burnham. 

He points to PDGA demographics as evidence. Active membership in the global organization tripled between 2005 and 2015, now standing at 30,454. The number of courses is also rapidly increasing, from a single course in 1975 to 5,500 in 2015. Most of those courses (4,344) are in the United States, but Finland, Canada, Japan, Sweden and many other countries boast hundreds of courses. The pro purse for the PDGA tour for 2015 was up to $3.5 million from $1.6 million in 2006. Michigan ranks # 3 in the United States in members (1,666), courses (220) and events (146). 

Not surprisingly, the number of tournaments, both nationally and in Michigan, has grown alongside courses and members. For example, the United States Amateur Disc Golf Championships will take place in Milford at Kensington Metropark this year on June 3-5, and the PDGA Masters World Championships will take place in Grand Rapids in 2017.

Michigan also boasts two disc golf manufacturers. Discraft, in Wixom, was founded in 1979 by Jim Kenner and is one of the top sellers in the industry, as well as newcomer MVP Disc Sports, located in Marlette. The company was founded in 2010 by brothers Brad and Chad Richardson, who shared a love of disc golf as teenagers.

"The sport is growing and we're growing in popularity," says Brad Richardson. "I attribute that to our open-mold 'gyrotechnology,' which is pretty new to the market. It allows us to put more weight in the outer edge of the disc, so when a disc golfer throws, it will fly straighter, with more gyroscopic force."

But despite optimism and impressive growth statistics, expanding the sport beyond its informal, underground roots remains a challenge, according to John Minicuci, president of the Motor City Chain Gang, a 30-year old metro Detroit disc golf league.

"Everybody that plays disc golf thinks we're the number one thing in the world," says Minicuci. "But bowling, pool, and darts have been on TV for decades now. Snowboarders and the crazy stunt skiers have the X Games, the Red Bull games. They have million dollar companies backing what they're doing. We don't yet have a huge sponsor that is willing to take our sport from the underground to a household name."

So Minicuci and the Motor City Chain Gang are trying to increase awareness by working with local parks departments to build more public courses and through leagues like "Underage Drivers" to interest kids in the sport. He hopes to add a second course at Addison Oaks County Park in Leonard and one at a municipal park in Sterling Heights

But also in the past year, three newer courses on Belle Isle, in Utica, and in northwest Detroit have closed for various reasons.

Minicuci acknowledges that part of the challenge is the sport's reputation as a pastime for "hippies" partaking in beer and marijuana while playing. To combat this, Motor City Chain Gang has done outreach and fundraising, including raising $50,000 for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. He also preaches the sport's positive attributes: it's a lifelong, family sport that simultaneously tests one's physical and mental abilities. 

"We have leagues from 5th grade and up that bring the family together," he says. "We've brought the sport to the senior Olympics. You may have somebody that's 10 years old and you might have somebody that's 70 years old. Everybody can go out and do this sport together...You can play with no impact to your body."

"Somebody recently threw a disc 1100 feet. That's 4 football fields," he adds. "Do you think they're actually out there stoned being able to do something like that?"

Another goal is adding diversity to the sport. No data for race are reported by PDGA, but the sport is predominantly white by most accounts. And while age and income diversity are strong in the sport, men accounted for 92.5 percent of PDGA membership in 2015.

One entrypoint for women to the sport is through all-women tournaments such as "Ladies Smashin' It," which takes place this Saturday, April 16 in Belding, Michigan and is open to players of all skill levels.

Minicuci, who began playing disc golf in 1981, believes the sport is in the midst of a major shift, and proponents need to responsibly promote the sport for it to thrive.

"There are many positive things we're trying to do that we didn't do in the early 80s," he says. "We're want to keep our parks beautiful, maintain the wildlife and the sensitive plant life, work with our schools and local parks departments. We want to make it a better sport for everyone."

Nina Ignaczak is a Metro Detroit-based freelance writer and editor. Follow her at @ninaignaczak.

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