This is part three of a three-part series. If you haven't read part one or part two, we suggest you do so before continuing.
Disc Golf Pro Tour Basics
Here are quick facts about the Disc Golf Pro Tour (DGPT) we cover in more detail later in this piece. Read on to learn more about the people and events mentioned.
- Was the Disc Golf Pro Tour sold at some point?
Yes. In late 2019, Todd Rainwater bought the majority stake in the Disc Golf Pro Tour from Steve Dodge.
- Who owns the Disc Golf Pro Tour now?
Todd Rainwater owns the majority stake in the Disc Golf Pro Tour.
- Who runs the Disc Golf Pro Tour?
Jeff Spring is the current Tour Director.
2019: Early Events' Media Problems
The 2019 DGPT started with the Memorial Championship in Arizona from February 28 to March 3. The tour's media strategy faced harsh criticism over the offseason, and the DGPT team knew almost anything short of perfection would make already bad public relations even worse.
That bar was almost immediately put out of reach. Danielle Charlier, who had been slated to run the DGPT's 2019 media operations, quit shortly before setup for the Memorial began.
"All this gear was showing up and all these people were showing up without the person who was supposed to manage them," said Seth Fendley, the DGPT's current Administrative and Operations Director who was helping Dodge run the tour in 2019. "So Steve very quickly had to pivot and become that person and, just because of the way everything works, it resulted in some of our media items not getting in on time."
While this behind-the-scenes scramble unfolded, one of the first public glimpses of the new DGPT media operation also failed to inspire confidence. A shipping delay meant a DGPT banner did not arrive in time to the tour’s broadcast studios, so co-commentators Nate Doss and Valarie Jenkins took to the air on day one of The Memorial with a bedsheet as their background. Predictably, this debut served as fodder for critics.
All the complications took a toll on the DGPT team's morale.
"It was such a terrible experience that I remember distinctly that we were driving to Vista del Camino [a course used in the 2019 Memorial] – Steve, Steve's brother Todd, and I – and he [Dodge] looked at both of us and asked if we should just pack it in after the event was over," Fendley said.
The tour continued, but significant issues with live and post-production coverage plagued the following two events, the Waco Annual Charity Open and Jonesboro Open, too.
A critical aspect of the DGPT's 2019 financial planning helped turn the situation from bad to worse. The tour had launched a new, free streaming service for live coverage and believed it would generate income through serving ads from a business that supposedly bought commercials on behalf of large companies. But the ad revenue never materialized.
Current DGPT Director of Partnerships Sean Jack wasn’t yet a full-time tour employee and was never directly involved with negotiations between the company and the DGPT, but he was beyond disheartened with their results.
"It was the biggest overpromise and underdeliver that I've ever been a part of in my professional life," Jack said. "We were supposed to get Subway ads and Domino's Pizza ads inserted to the program, and it just didn't work."
Those views only crystallized when Jack asked Dodge how much the tour made from the agreement.
"I remember Dodge saying the number 'two,' and me saying, 'Oh, like 2,000?'" Jack said. "And he said, 'No...two.’ And I was horrified."
2019: "He'd answer the phone with, 'Is the tour over?'"
After three events the 2019 tour was already running on fumes, and according to Fendley the only reason Dodge didn't close up shop after Jonesboro was that the circuit's fourth event was the San Francisco Open (SFO). That tournament was run by Jack, a longtime friend of Dodge's who had done free work for the DGPT since well before its first season.
But in order for the SFO to happen, Fendley had to make one of the most eventful road trips of his life.
Fendley – who lived in Florida at the time – needed to use a truck parked in Kentucky to pick up DGPT equipment in Arkansas, then get a helper in Colorado, and eventually end up in San Francisco.
The problems started early and piled up.
First, the truck had to be jump-started. The engine overheated immediately as Fendley got on the road, and a mechanic tended to the issue in Arkansas when Fendley picked up the equipment. In Colorado, the engine started overheating again, which – as Fendley discovered from a Colorado mechanic – was due to an oversight during the previous repair. In the Sierra Nevada mountain range crossing into California, a trailer tire fell off.
Notably, these repairs weren't just nuisances. Fendley said the tour "had a very finite amount of money we could use to fix the truck," and if that money ran out, it would all be over. Unfortunately, the truck's troubles didn't end in Colorado.
"The moment we get the tire fixed and we start the truck, the belt blows off," Fendley said. "So we take it to the shop, and he [the mechanic] goes to put the belt on, pulls the tire off, and goes, 'You don't have any brakes.' We're in the mountains, and we don't have any brakes."
The tumultuous trip served as a metaphor for the upheaval the DGPT was experiencing.
"Keep in mind that every time I called Steve to let him know about something, he'd answered the phone with, 'Is the tour over?'" Fendley said. “That's where we were at at this point."
The truck – much like the 2019 DGPT itself – eventually reached its intended destination, and Fendley's odyssey turned out to be a worthwhile one.
Jack and his team had done an excellent job selling the SFO to locals, and large crowds showed up to take in the action. Spectators bought enough merchandise at the tournament to keep the DGPT alive for another event.
And instead of a DGPT-produced media package, Central Coast Disc Golf pinch-hit on the next-day SFO coverage while SmashBoxx again took over the live production. Soon after, the tour struck deals that essentially re-established the previous media model, allaying many fans’ biggest concerns.
Though the outlook for the tour was better, it was still far from auspicious. Dodge knew he couldn't rely on on-site merchandise sales alone to keep the DGPT afloat.
"I ran out of money, and I didn't want to mortgage my house. I emptied my 401(k) and the savings accounts for my kids' college, and I went as far as I could go,” Dodge said. “I knew the tour should exist, but I was not able to keep it going. So the decision was pretty simple."
Dodge decided to sell his majority stake in the DGPT. He'd taken the tour from just an idea to one of the most-watched disc golf event series ever with nothing more than a tiny budget, a group of volunteers and contractors his vision had inspired, and endless hours of work and dedication. However, he understood that for it to continue, he had to pass it on.
Late 2019: New Directions
Dodge finalized the deal to sell the DGPT in August 2019. The new majority owner would be Todd Rainwater, who'd previously owned a minority stake in the tour. Rainwater is the son of the late investor, philanthropist, and billionaire Richard Rainwater as well as the founder of Nantucket Disc Golf and the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Rainwater Charitable Foundation.
The change in ownership brought more than just new financing: Rainwater would only commit to the purchase if a Dodge-endorsed replacement, Jeff Spring, took over as tour director.
"Todd said, 'I don't want to do it unless you're on board to be CEO,'" Spring said.
Spring didn’t immediately jump at the prospect. He loved his work at Vermont's Smugglers' Notch Resort and believed he was on track to move high up in the resort's leadership. Still, in the end, he agreed that if Rainwater made the deal, he'd take the DGPT's helm. After nearly two months of negotiations, that’s exactly what happened.
The announcement of the ownership change coincided with Spring's birthday and came shortly before Dodge's own DGPT event at Maple Hill. Spring drove down from Vermont to attend, acting as DGPT Tour Director for the first time at a tournament being run by the person who'd just given up that position. Spring said he and Dodge were on good terms throughout the event.
"Steve is a special person and very few people in the world could have done what he did," said Spring, referring to the creation and extraordinarily fast growth of the DGPT's importance and popularity among disc golfers.
End of 2019-2020: The Pro Tour Rebounds
Dodge believed Spring was an excellent choice to heal the rifts that had opened between fans and the DGPT.
"I look at what's the end goal and what gets me there as quick as possible," Dodge said. "Jeff recognizes that the whole community has to come along. His end goal is to grow the Pro Tour and the sport and make players as happy as we can make them. He's able to see the whole picture much better than I ever could."
By the time Spring took over at the end of 2019, there were just three events left in the season, all of which were well-received. Fans knew where to watch the action, coverage was being put out reliably, and those who'd been angered by the DGPT's lapses at the beginning of the year were largely pacified by the change in leadership.
As soon as the 2019 events ended, Spring dove into his work in earnest. With little time to vet new tournaments, he quickly made the decision to keep the tour schedule the same as it had been the previous year. Additionally, he hired a skeleton crew of new employees to help organize the 2020 season.
The team launched the Disc Golf Network (DGN), a streaming service devoted to disc golf content that would be the home of live coverage of DGPT events. Unlike the DGPT's previous attempt at a free live network, this one would generate the majority of its revenue through monthly and annual subscriptions. Though the paid model ruffled some fans' feathers, most were placated by the availability of no-cost post-production from the sport’s standard media bearers as well as free final rounds live on the DGPT's YouTube channel.
It turned out that both the interest in live disc golf and a willingness to pay for it were larger than the team anticipated, and DGN subscriber totals quickly outpaced the DGPT's best expectations.
"My low end was 1,500, my goal was 2,000, and my high end was 3,000 subscribers by the end of 2020," Spring said. "I think it was 2,000 at the Memorial [the DGPT's first 2020 event]...and going into WACO we had jumped really big again – I think to 4,000."
WACO (the Waco Annual Charity Open) was in March 2020, and the DGPT ended the event early and temporarily shuttered the tour due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. However, whereas many businesses had to lay off employees during the early months of the pandemic, the DGPT didn't have to furlough anyone on staff thanks to the support of DGN subscribers.
As most disc golfers know, interest in disc golf exploded in 2020 as people turned to the outdoors for recreation during the pandemic. So when the DGPT returned in late June 2020, the fan base had expanded hugely, and DGN subscriber totals continued to climb. Additionally, disc golf equipment manufacturers, who were and continue to be some of the DGPT's closest partners, were experiencing enormous growth and helped make event payouts higher than ever. This turn of events led to the 2020 DGPT Championship featuring the highest purse at a disc golf tournament to that point: $130,400, with winners of both MPO and FPO taking home $20,000 each.
2020 was also the first time that cable channels aired significant portions of DGPT events. Thanks to a joint effort by Dynamic Discs, the DGPT, and Jomez Productions, condensed rounds from the 2020 Dynamic Discs Open appeared on CBS Sports Network. The success of that broadcast, along with new DGPT Media Director Mahmoud Bahrani’s contacts at ESPN (his previous employer), helped the tour strike a deal with ESPN2 to air post-produced coverage of the final round of its 2020 Tour Championship. The two-hour program was also lucky enough to feature MPO and FPO showdowns that were full of drama, helping it earn high ratings.
The Disc Golf Pro Tour Today
In 2021, the DGPT continued to build on its 2020 successes. DGN currently boasts more than 25,000 active subscribers and aired disc golf’s most famous shot to date: James Conrad’s miraculous "holy shot" at Pro Worlds. The DGPT also struck a deal with ESPN2 for more post-produced coverage, and the tour's reputation among pros, fans, and industry insiders is strong. All these developments have helped attract a flood of new attention from potential business partners that in earlier years were the tour’s white whales.
"It could not be more night and day," Jack said. "Before it was mostly outbound hunting. I emailed, LinkedIn, filled out forms for hundred of companies I thought would be a good fit. And quite frankly, I haven't had to do much hunting this year. Most of the leads that come in are inbound. I've been so busy with that that we're honestly almost sold out. Course assets are busting at the seams, the ad coverage on the live program is almost completely full, and anything I sell now has to be more custom and unique."
On the ground, spectator numbers are growing. Whereas before events sometimes had a hard time attracting crowds even when admission was free, in 2021 most events were ticketed and often sold out well before they began.
This all-around growth has resulted in the DGPT hiring more staff so that all aspects of the tour can receive more attention.
"All of our people are wearing multiple hats, and they will for a while, but we're trying to take hats off people and give them to new people all the time," Spring said.
The DGPT is also continuing to raise event payouts to new heights. This year's Tour Championship purse nearly doubled the record-setting one from 2020 by totaling $250,000. The winners of MPO and FPO each took home $30,000.
But perhaps the biggest feather in the DGPT's cap in 2021 is that it became the "Official Pro Tour of the PDGA." In late September, the PDGA announced its 18-year-old National Tour (NT) event series would not return in 2022, and it was entrusting the DGPT with running all of North America's biggest tournaments apart from PDGA Majors. Since all NTs (as well as Majors) were streamed on DGN in 2021, little will change in regards to how fans watch the sport, but the DGPT will determine scheduling, payouts, and what venues host the big events.
Keeping Up with History
With its recent run of successes, we expect the DGPT's history will only continue to grow, and we hope to be able to document it as it does. We also hope that you've enjoyed this series enough to explore some of our other posts. If you're interested in always knowing what we've published lately, consider signing up for the Release Point newsletter.