The Cascading Effect of a PDGA Suspension

When the PDGA pronounced an 18-month suspension of professional player, Bradley Williams, because of a shoulder-check leaving the tee at the 2016 Ledgestone Insurance Open, it began a cascading effect that may have reached its apex with the Pro-Tour decision to separate the finale from the PDGA by making it a non-sanctioned event. It didn’t take much for the wave to swell. One of the biggest names in disc golf, Paul McBeth, quickly posted on social media that he desired more transparency from the PDGA about the decision, and soon thereafter announced that he would not play non major PDGA events in protest. Pro Tour organizer, Steve Dodge, then made the announcement that he’d decided to separate the Pro Tour from the PDGA, making the finale an “unsanctioned tournament”.

There are many more details and undercurrents that can be researched about those cascading events, but the intention here is not to outline what happened, but simply to follow that chain of events down the rabbit hole. Let us project the attitude of separation further and ask some relevant questions that arise when a major tournament featuring top-tier pros suddenly declares that it does not need the existing governing body. For example, does separation from the PDGA really mean anything if the tournament still happens with the same players, the same payouts, and the same media attention?

The Value of The PDGA

What does the PDGA offer in terms of value?

According to the 2016 State of Disc Golf Survey, the most important aspect of PDGA membership is player ratings. 86% of respondents said that their PDGA# and Rating was “Important” or “Very Important”.

pdgaratingimportant

Survey respondents also value being able to see lifetime statistics of their competitive performance that appear on the PDGA website for current paying members.

lifetimestatspdga

A good number of those surveyed also value PDGA membership so that they don’t have to pay the $10 non PDGA registration fee for the tournaments they play.

nonpdgafee

If the PDGA is a governing body (the organization that sets the rules), how did they become such, and are they necessary if the independent tournament sets their own rules– rules which are accepted by the participating players? The list of questions and “what if’s” could go on and on.

The real question is, if the big names in disc golf start shunning the de facto governing body, then how long before that governing body no longer has any sway at all? It would carry into all aspects of the game, because the PDGA only has whatever power the players concede to give it through united acceptance. Take away that acceptance, even piece by piece, and the power lessens. If the Pro Tour says “we don’t need you” and it doesn’t change the material outcome of their events, then how long before smaller tournaments decide that PDGA sanctioning is no longer a necessity for their events either?

For example, the Cache Valley Classic is a PDGA sanctioned event that takes place in Logan, Utah, where Infinite Discs is located. It doesn’t draw big-name pros, but it fills a full roster of intermediate, advanced, and open players. By sanctioning the event, the PDGA established guidelines that had to be followed to the smallest detail, and also meant that a check for a few hundred dollars had to be written out to the PDGA.

What was the payback in terms of the event’s outcome? Would fewer players have come without sanctioning? Would it have been any less or more of a success, had those hundreds of dollars been withheld? It’s hard to say. It is possible that fewer of those open players who have sponsorship deals would have come. In their absence, more advanced, intermediate and even recreational players might have paid to participate, quickly filling any vacancy. What would have ultimately been missing? A stamp of approval? A formulaic ranking for the event, the course, and the players?

Let’s assume that PDGA rules are removed from previously sanctioned events? Who then becomes the governing body? Who enforces a standard? Is it too much of a stretch to assume that the tournament directors could step in and say, “these are the rules associated with this particular tournament”. What might happen then? There are a couple of possibilities. If the players all understand and approve of the rules and still love the way the tournament is set up, then certainly that is enough. If the players don’t like the rules, don’t show up to play, and don’t have a good experience with the tournament, then the event fails, probably loses money, and likely won’t be repeated.

The tournaments that set welcome and appropriate standards for participation would succeed. The ones who muck it up would fail. Is that a bad formula for the growth of disc golf as a competitive sport? Or is it too much like anarchy if there were no central authority figure, like the PDGA, to keep rules consistent and put their stamp of approval on events?

Technical Standards

The PDGA is not only involved with events, but is also responsible for the technical standards of the game. They set the guidelines for approved targets in tournament play, which all of us who have played temporary courses with home made bicycle wheel baskets are grateful for.

The PDGA makes the ultimate decision to approve or not approve the discs that can be thrown in the game of disc golf. Of course, that technically means the discs that can or can’t be thrown in PDGA events, but the power of that “stamp of approval” has shaped the disc market. An approved disc is much more likely to sell successfully and has a shot at becoming a staple in the game. An unapproved disc is quickly dropped from production and banished into the dark corners of forgotten products. How many players own a Gateway Ninja disc? Not many. It is unapproved. How many players pull out the outlandish looking Turbo Putter? Not many, because it is unapproved and thus is nothing more than a collectible novelty. But if tournament promoters were to separate from the PDGA who set the disc guidelines, then it is logical to say that players could pull out whatever disc the tournament director allows. Suddenly, that unmentionable 180g Destroyer comes into play. Suddenly somebody brandishes a sharp-edged Ninja disc, or an Aerobie that they can throw 800 feet.

If the tournament director says, “follow PDGA guidelines” then that certainly sets the rules. This is what the Utah Open, an “unsanctioned” tournament that will be on the Pro Tour next year has done. Would, or should, an unsanctioned tournament need to pay the PDGA for declaring an enforcement of the rules and standards that were set by the PDGA?

Can Tournaments Effectively Govern Themselves?

Let’s go back to the small action that started this chain of cascading events. Let’s assume that a tournament is non PDGA sanctioned, and one player walks past another player who is approaching the tee and gives them a shoulder-check, either intentional or non-intentional. Does the offended player have recourse if they can’t call up the PDGA and complain? Of course they would. They’d simply tell the tournament director, “this guy behaved in an unsportsmanlike manner toward me, and it effected my game.” The tournament director, who is then the immediate governing body, then could decide the appropriate response. Maybe the result would be to add penalty strokes, or maybe to kick that one player out of the tournament, or even take the extreme of saying, “you’re not welcome here anymore…ever.” That’s their call. The tournament would then either benefit or lose credibility based on that decision, and that is where it ends. It doesn’t go beyond that. It doesn’t bleed into other tournaments, other opportunities, and a player’s ability to seek a livelihood with winnings.

In a world where there is no longer a generally accepted governing body, is disc golf better off? Would it continue to grow? Of course. The game is addictive, fun, challenging, beautiful, and would continue to be so, even without an entity setting rules which really aren’t changing much. But would it be perceived as less professional without that entity watching over the competitive side of the sport? Probably. Do we need an NFL, a PGA, an NBA, an NHL? Or do we take disc golf in a different direction that feels more open, more free, more organic, and less ruled by red tape?

Ratings

Another argument for the role of the PDGA remaining solidly implanted within the competitive disc golf world is that they have created a system of rating players, tournaments, courses, and events. Those ratings can consistently rank players in order, determined by performance. It is a mathematical formula, and the variables within that formula have been established and fed with data which helps division assignment. Thus, the ratings and rankings seem to make sense and treat all players, across the board, fairly. That matters, assuming you’ve paid the dues to become a member of the PDGA and you care about playing in a manner that produces accurate ratings. If the PDGA were to vanish, taking away those rankings, would chaos ensue? Would players suddenly feel like they have no measuring stick by which to evaluate their game play?

Many have argued that the disc golf rating system should be replaced with something more similar to ball golf.

While the PDGA does have a rating system that in most opinions is pretty good, it’s definitely not something that can’t be replicated or replaced. While our intention is not to create an official rating, Infinite Discs has created the Infinite Rating that uses and creates ratings very near those created by the PDGA. These ratings have been very valuable for creating divisions for our local disc golf events, especially for those players who are not PDGA members.

Compare the PDGA rating and the Infinite Rating from our recent tournament:

infiniteratingvspdga

The main difference between the results is that the Infinite formula creates round ratings based on past results.The first round of the Infinite formula is based off of scores submitted before the tournament, while the second round is based off of scores submitted during the first round. The PDGA formula compares scores and determines a rating solely from within that round.

Formulas like these take the X’s and the Y’s into account when players upload scores from different courses, and then calculate a course rating, subsequent player ratings, and even individual round ratings based on averages within the existing data set. In the case of Infinite Courses, there are still very few courses and players that have a rating. Players need to upload scores under a variety of circumstances and in different locations for the X’s and Y’s to be replaced by actual, meaningful data. All it takes is enough people uploading scores in enough places, and suddenly there is a full-fledged rating system that can do essentially the same thing the PDGA system does, but without membership fees, and without the pretense of a governing body. Infinite Courses is free to access, free to use, and easy to pull up a variety of stats and comparisons, if that’s what you want out of your game. There will still be those in the silent majority who will never care about rantings, averages, and comparisons. They just want to play disc golf.

Ultimately, we can’t currently answer the questions posed by a world without the PDGA. Undoubtedly there would be less standardization in tournaments. With some of the current events, it sure teases us all with a glimpse of what that world might look like. We can imagine it. We could long for it, or we could fear it. But we probably shouldn’t worry about it, because with or without the PDGA, disc golf will continue to spread like wildfire. There is something magical in the disc golf experience which can’t be suppressed.

We want your opinion. If you are a PDGA member, what aspects of the PDGA enhance your disc golf experience? If you aren’t a member, are you more or less inclined to play a tournament if it is sanctioned by the PDGA? Is there something we’re missing that makes the PDGA more essential than we can comprehend?

11 comments

  • The PDGA must remain the governing body if the sport is to continue to flourish. We are exploding as a sport and on the threshold of mainstream acceptance. If we fracture now we run the risk of losing that acceptance. If the Board as it’s presently established is inadequate to the task then make adjustments to the Board. WT and PT deserve to be given consideration if they are proving themselves but they cannot be allowed to roll over the majors and A-tiers. That’s the bread and butter of the sport. The top tier golfers have to understand as well that to separate themselves from the rest of us will not be in their long term best interests nor for the rest of us either. Everybody just needs to Calm Down and Bang Chains! JerryB #7619

  • Rules, enforcement, insurance, ratings, statistics, standards, outreach, tiered tournaments, the IDGC, document resources, and so on are all excellent reasons to support the PDGA. I am much more inclined to play PDGA sanctioned events and I would say 14 out of every 15 I enter are sanctioned.

  • Being a PDGA member, I am more inclined to play PDGA sanctioned tournaments than non sanctioned events for a few reasons:

    1. I see a sanctioned event as a more serious competition, where you have to strictly obey the rules every time vs. an unsanctioned event as a tournament that is more relaxed like a league round with friends. When an event isn’t sanctioned I won’t always use my mini marker for that tap in, will throw a disc more than two meters to get to my bag, won’t throw the disc that still has the tape residue on it from winter ribbons, and may even throw a practice throw after the group has teed off. Being PDGA sanctioned just makes it that much more serious.

    The second reason I get excited (or at least used to) about PDGA events was because it’s another chance to improve my rating. Regardless of what division I’m playing in, or what kind of prize I can win, I’m always playing for a better rating.

    The third reason I like PDGA events is because then I know people won’t be drinking during the round. I can’t stand playing with intoxicated people and some of the non sanctioned tournaments have even had intoxicated people in the morning rounds! It’s also nice to tell people to not smoke around me with the excuse of the PDGA courtesy.

    The big disadvantage of PDGA sanctioned tournaments is for non PDGA members that feel jipped because they have to pay $10 more than everyone else. This is definitely a turn off for many of them that keeps them from playing more sanctioned tournaments.

    While disc golf can survive just fine without the PDGA, it is better off because of it.

  • I am not a PDGA member because I rarely play competitively. However I am emphathetic to everyone involved being an avid pool player myself. In pool there are countless unofficial local leagues that provide no opportunity to advance because they aren’t sanctioned. There also happens to be 3 main recreational leagues which offer the ability of national tournaments and providing standardized player ratings. Unfortunately even those have some critical differences with the professional circuits. Every group of players is at the mercy of a differnet league and set of directors. The professional level is governed worldwide by a the WPA, both men and women, but even with that there can be drastic variations in how each sanctioned tournament is run dependent who the tournament director is. I honestly think the lack of vertical integration limits the growth of the sport as well as its reputation of a legitimate discipline. While there are other issues in play I think those are the ones that can relate to disc golf the most. If we want disc golf to grow “to the next level” then we need to have a central organization helping with establishing guidelines and standards. My last thought that disagreement and discussion are absolutely necessary but they can quickly go down an ugly rabbit hole leading to groups of people leaving the main group and trying a new league with little but malice involved. A quick perusing of the azbilliards forums does a good job at illustrating how a divided fan base has no hopes of achieving main stream success for their sport. *I’m on percocet so I probably missed some typos, please ignore those.

  • I am not a pro, I’m not even an “amateur,” I guess. I am not a member of the PDGA. I doubt that I ever will be as I do not have a need. I do not play in any tournaments. I just play for fun and have been since 1976 when we were using poles and trying to hit them between two lines. I still can’t figure out after all these years how to throw a drive farther than 250′. Oh well.

    Disc golf is a blast. Even lousy rounds are fun. I have gotten more friends hooked on the sport throughout the years. That didn’t need the PDGA to be in existence. As a matter of fact, in my opnion, except for maybe standardization of discs, I do not think that the PDGA has had much to do with the growth of the sport. What the PDGA has had a hand in is the growth of the professional sport. And that’s who ultimately will have to decide the PDGA’s worth and whether they should exist and their importance. I believe that for a vast number of players, like me, who do not play tourneys, really do not care about the PDGA. I do not need an official body to sanction my fun. Nor do the thousands of new players introduced to the sport every year.

    Is it cool that it is beginning to be mainstreamed and we see highlights on ESPN? Sure, of course. Would it be cool for it to be considered an olympic sport? Sure, of course. But with or without the PDGA, this sport is going to continue to grow explosively because it is addicting, good, cheap fun with immediate payback.

    If the PDGA were smart, they would address what McBeth is calling for: More transparency. Any time membership is questioning why a governing body is making the decisions it is, it is never a good sign and never a good thing for credibility.

    So in sum, as an average player who goes out for fun, the PDGA does not matter to me. This is something that is only relevant to those who play tournaments to decide, no matter what level they play.

  • For all 30+ years I’ve been involved, a significant number of players and TDs have questioned the value of the PDGA. In my experience, 99.99% of the complaints come from two camps of skeptics: One camp thinks that organizations aren’t useful, and the other thinks the PDGA isn’t effective or isn’t focused on the right things.

    Regarding the view that organizations are not useful, here’s data from my 2016 survey of ~400 players of California’s “dual golf” courses. (“Dual golf” is a permanent disc golf course on a ball golf property.) The players who say they will never join the PDGA or “maybe someday” are 4.4 times more likely to have zero local club memberships than someone who has joined the PDGA or is an active member. (Of 113 never/maybe, ~32.5% are not members of a local club; of 286 inactive/active PDGA members, 7.4% are not members of a local club.)

    Some people think the PDGA has an important role to play, but isn’t doing it very well. Generally, these campers either think that the PDGA is failing in the one area the player cares about (with little/no interest or knowledge of anything else the PDGA might be doing) — or that the PDGA is wasting money (with little/no interest or knowledge of how much money is involved or how it’s being spent). These campers don’t step up, they don’t give their time or offer serious suggestions.

    The final 0.01% of the skeptics are the ones who can imagine new approaches to grow and support the sport, who can imagine new destinations for that evolution — but can’t imagine how the current PDGA can lead that effort. And so they launch their own initiatives, usually to focus on one aspect of the PDGA’s role — e.g., pro tours, youth programs.

  • Maybe you could think of that check for a few hundred dollars as paying it forward, an investment in the future of the sport. That’s what others did before your tournament came along, before you questioned whether your tournament gets back 100+% of what it pays.

  • PDGA is useful because they are the representatives of our sport. Florida Disc Golf Foundation, Inc. is working with local government to build 6-8 new disc golf courses in Central Florida. PDGA provided a letter of support early in the project and will probably send someone in person to support the cause for the final presentation to the County Board’s vote to approve and pay for this project.

  • I’m just glad I don’t see any disc golfers take a knee, when the national anthem is played. Bang the chains, and chase the ace!

  • I am a PDGA member and have been for the few years that I’ve been playing disc golf now. I respect all of what PDGA is doing for the sport and to help maintain a standard. Without a standard to go by it’s difficult at best to have a baseline to gauge ones success in the sport. It also establishes a governing body that should and DOES add an element of “professionalism”, something that a number of the casual players in the sport sometimes lacks. When it is lacking, I’ve often observed it to be severely lacking in their blatant disregard for the rules of the course and/or the game itself. Just like anything else in this world, we CANNOT expect the sport to be respected or taken seriously as it tries to grow if we constantly bicker and poorly represent the sport to casual or non-players. If players respect the established rules of the sport, NONE of these things discussed in the article or other similar media would be an issue AT ALL. It’s only because so many feel some sort of heightened sense of “entitlement”, likely due to social media and its effects on our peers and acquaintances, that is grossly undeserved. The PDGA, following its own rules, is protecting the sanctity of its players and their privacy. If the players involved in a particular situation want to come out and share the information of the incident, it’s their prerogative. Until then it’s only available for speculation by others. Do you really want the PDGA sharing your information just because one or more other players or outsiders asked for it or claim to want “more transparency”? There are notable and severe potential legal ramifications of an organizing body doing exactly that. On that note, one practice that the PDGA used to follow but has recently stopped is citing a general reason for the infraction but not necessarily the details of the infraction itself. Something along the lines of ” has been penalized with a 6 month probation due to “. That would allow others SOME reason for the penalty while maintaining much of the privacy required by the PDGA constituents. You couldn’t walk into a Dr’s office and request a patients information just because they seemed to have a problem with that person that you felt strongly about. They would laugh you out of the room. Both PDGA members and outsiders should strongly consider the REASON they are asking for more transparency from the PDGA and/or their method and reasoning for protesting an organization like the PDGA before they hastily proceed to attempt to do so. There is often a better avenue for recourse, if any is truly needed at all. The whole thing sounds ridiculous to me as does most of what our country and world is going through lately and more people need to just worry about themselves and HELPING others instead of standing up for causes that they have no real skin in or going about “making a stand” without the due diligence required. Now lets get back to hucking plastic enjoying the sport we love so much!

  • Haukur Árnason #8800

    I would never travel to play in a tournament that was not sanctioned or did not offer ratings. It is as simple as that.