Perhaps resorts underplay disc golf because it’s so simple to operate. Yes, many mountain resorts offer disc golf, but few capitalize on it. As the sport’s growth continues to accelerate, mountain resorts have opportunities and resources they can leverage to take advantage of the growing number of both destination guests and locals that play.
Mountain resorts are tailor-made for disc golf courses: lots of land, enough capital for the modest investment the sport requires, and a customer base of outdoor enthusiasts. Plus, many resorts have existing infrastructure, equipment, and staff than can be used to build, maintain, and operate a course successfully. Courses can be designed and installed in areas that are flat or mountainous, open or wooded.
This formula doesn’t guarantee success, but it offers many opportunities. And the opportunity for success is growing. In September 2018, the PDGA Professional Disc Golf World Championships was held here at Smugglers’ Notch Resort. This was the first time the sport’s biggest event was held at a mountain resort.
With the future of disc golf looking as bright as ever, let’s explore the state of this growing sport and how mountain resorts can leverage its growth and development to supplement other spring, summer, and fall offerings.
As many industries continue to navigate the impacts of changing consumer preferences, especially when it comes to Millennials, disc golf is emerging as the golf of a new generation. As interest grows, so does the number of disc golf courses. Disc golfers are even beginning to act like golfers at country clubs—finding their home course, socializing with their local club members, spending money on the sport, and playing tournaments. The sport also has a growing media presence.
The Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) is the sport’s governing body, and is the largest member organization in the disc golf world. The PDGA has created and updated the official rules of the game, it oversees technical standards for discs and courses, and sanctions thousands of tournaments. The PDGA also conducts annual surveys, the data from which point to the growing popularity of the sport.
Active PDGA membership has skyrocketed in the last five years, from 20,000 to more than 50,000 now. About 61 percent of PDGA members are age 20 to 39, so it’s definitely a younger set. Studies suggest that there are now between two and three million people who play the sport at a casual level or above.
With more players comes more courses. Since 2012, the number of disc golf courses in the U.S. has nearly doubled, to about 7,000 right now, with more opening regularly.
A large part of the recent surge in the sport is connected to improved media exposure. Professional media teams follow the pro disc golf tours and generate quality content that’s being consumed by more and more people. Outside TV broadcast an hour-long TV show about the 2018 Professional Disc Golf World Championships at Smuggs’; this ran seven times in November and early December.
As with golf itself, leagues are a big part of disc golf’s growth. Most are weekly affairs and are popular nationwide. Beyond local competition, there are tournament-based competitive point series for every state as well.
This maturation of both the sport and its demographic has created a consumer that spends money, when given the chance. A well-designed and -maintained pay-to-play course attracts more players than a free, less-maintained public course. Add a spot where players can grab a craft beer and locally-sourced burger—such as a base area bar or restaurant—and you’ve got a winning combination.
Disc golfers also spend money on disc golf equipment and products at a high rate. The top three manufacturers of discs and disc-golf-related products in the U.S., Innova, Discraft, and Dynamic Discs, are helping to drive growth by introducing quality, affordable products. Disc golfers are constantly buying the next new disc, often making point-of-purchase decisions to do so. These spending habits create another prime opportunity that mountain resorts can capitalize on to fully realize the revenue potential of having a course.
1. Mountain resorts often have land and existing infrastructure well suited for a course.
2. Disc golf requires a minimal investment.
3. The sport is maturing with the Millennial generation in several ways.
4. Disc golf consumers seek higher quality courses and a resort-like experience, and are willing to spend money.
Build It Right
Identify goals. When considering a new disc golf course at your mountain or renovating a forgotten course, first identify the goals for the operation. Does it make sense to create a family-friendly course, a championship-level course that can host big events, or something in between? An assessment of current infrastructure, land, and resources can help shape the answer. Determine who will likely use the course by assessing your resort’s current non-winter guest profile, and what the local market looks like. These considerations will narrow your choice further.
Design for success. Consider whether you will meet the PDGA design standards. Many regular disc golfers look for that as an indicator of a course’s quality. As with golf, hiring a known pro or design company carries cachet. Review sites (dgcoursereview.com and discgolfscene.com) also provide a measure of quality. So consider your options carefully.
Budget appropriately. This decision on course style and clientele will help inform a capital investment budget. Recreational courses in open fields or meadows will require less investment than a long and wooded championship course. Smaller courses can function well on as little as five acres, while large courses suited for professional play can span up to 80 acres of land or more. It’s important to engage an industry professional to help get this step of the process right.
Labor and installation costs can vary greatly, but some general guidelines apply. Professional baskets cost $300 to $500 each, and tee boxes and signage run from $200 to $500 per hole. Combined with labor and installation, costs can range from $12,000 for a simple 9-hole course up to $100,000 or more for a championship-caliber 18-hole beauty.
It’s cheap. Ironically, the relatively low investment needed for disc golf has led many resorts to overlook its upscale potential. Disc golf has taken root at mountain resorts mostly because of its minimal risk, not its revenue potential. Low cost allows resorts to add another activity to their lists and not fuss about the ROI like they would for, say, a $3 million mountain coaster. Avoid this trap!
Inattention. The “it’s cheap” mindset can lead to a missed opportunity. Too often—especially at mountain resorts—disc golf courses are not well planned. As a result, many disc golfers view resort disc-golf operations as rather careless in design, installation, and maintenance. When poorly planned, safety can become a factor as well.
So, while disc golf is relatively easy to embrace, it does take some attention and effort. Without regular maintenance, a solid local disc golf scene, and a pro shop to help monetize the operation, disc golf can easily become more of a challenge than a benefit for mountain resorts. As is the case for many activities, a little investment—in time, thought, capital—can go a long way, and get results. You can’t just stick some baskets on the mountain and expect people to show up.
Location. Some winter resorts have successfully placed their disc golf courses on downhill trails, but this can be less than ideal for both the resort and players. Courses are more difficult to install and maintain on a slope, and disc golfers often struggle to find discs and complete the course. Cross-country trail networks, meadows, and woods in gentler rolling terrain near the base of the mountain are all potentially good locations.
Lack of maintenance. What maintenance is required? Most courses will need mowing, unless they are mostly wooded. Fairways, typically, are grass. Drainage may be an issue to address, depending on the terrain. At Smuggs’ we do yearly limbing and pruning on trees, and leaf blowing in spring and fall. To provide good footing, we spread woodchips in some highly trafficked areas, such as around the baskets, and also seed and add hay in other areas.
Maintenance can be performed by existing staff if they have the necessary bandwidth, but it’s best to assign at least one person specifically to the course. Our two courses have two full-time maintenance staff, who also work on the mountain bike trails. Our existing grounds department includes one full-time member who mows, and one part-timer.
Smugglers’ Notch debuted its disc golf operation in 2012, and is now one of the premier disc golf facilities in the world. The resort approached the project by setting long-term goals, identifying land that would work, and building out supporting infrastructure. What began as a smaller investment in a high quality course has matured into two 18-hole courses and a new pro shop and outdoor center stocked with equipment, apparel, and refreshments for disc golfers.
Smuggs’ now puts more than 10,000 rounds on the books every year, with greens fees of $15 a day. The courses attract disc golfers from all over New England, and also from around the country to enjoy a “stay & play” package. It is now a regular stop on pro disc golf tours, too, culminating in Smuggs’ hosting the World Championships last September.
As that suggests, disc golf at Smuggs’ is more than just another thing to do. It contributes non-winter room nights, revenue, exposure, and activity at the resort.
Think disc golf could work for your resort? You may find local disc golf clubs can help get your operation off the ground, and also contribute to its success once it opens. Their members are passionate disc golfers who are willing to help with maintenance, organizing leagues and tournaments, and provide word of mouth promotion.
These folks can also help connect you with other resources—designers, suppliers, consultants—to ensure your commitment to a quality disc golf operation is a sound investment.
With disc golf’s popularity accelerating, and showing no signs of slowing down, now is the time to establish your disc golf operation. Do it the right way, and your resort will reap the benefits.
Disc Golf Suppliers
Innova - www.innovadiscs.com
Discraft - www.discraft.com
Dynamic Discs - www.dynamiddiscs.com