Back in the late 1980s, the Oakland Athletics (often shortened to just "the A's") were one of the best teams in baseball. They appeared in three straight World Series, from 1988 to 1990, winning in 1989 with a sweep of their rivals from across the bay, the San Francisco Giants. But all that winning came at a cost, and in 1991, the A's had the highest salary in Major League Baseball (MLB).
At this point, we just want to tell those who might be worried: Yes, this all leads back to disc golf.
When A’s owner Walter Haas passed away in 1995, the team had to suddenly shift to money-saving mode, and the new owners ordered the front office to cut player salaries.
With their backs against the wall, the A’s started looking for exploitable inefficiencies in the player market, players who were undervalued based on traditional methods of player evaluation. They peeled away the layers of stats that were flashy but didn’t matter and found undervalued players who contributed to winning. This helped the A's be a successful team in the early 2000s despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the MLB.
As the disc golf world heads into the 2019-20 offseason, it would be valuable for manufacturers who sponsor professional disc golfers to think like those mid-90s A's. But what things in disc golf establish real value, and what players should be they be looking at? The Moneydisc series—a name derived from the bestselling book Moneyball that told the A's story to the world—seeks to help answer just those sorts of questions.
In part one, the focus is on players making it onto tournament coverage videos. How valuable is it, and which players are doing it more often than anyone else?
The Value Of Coverage
For the most part, this is pretty simple. Players at the top of their fields like Paul McBeth and Paige Pierce are probably going to sell discs. But those players also come with a hefty price tag. Like the A’s, we’re looking for players who are good in the ways that matter, but are undervalued in the ways in which we traditionally measure players.
Let's start with an impressive number: YouTube view counts from major sources of disc golf tournament coverage have totaled over 43.5 million so far in 2019. That's up from the around 30 million last year, and there's still more than a month until 2020.
But even with the growing audience, we don’t have the resources to follow the entire field right now in disc golf media. Even at the biggest tournaments, we’re covering a max of 12 Open players and eight Open Women players during one round. That means in a typical field of around 100+ players for Open, and 25+ for Open Women, only about 10% and 33% of the field are going to get eyeballs. If a player doesn't get on coverage, their sponsor misses out on the products they've supplied a player with being seen and discussed by commentators during a portion of those 40+ million views. That makes it pretty clear why players who appear on coverage are almost always far more valuable than players who don’t.
This creates an interesting dynamic where a more inconsistent player who is occasionally fantastic can be more valuable than a player who is consistently good. For example, 15th in Open at a National Tour event is a really strong finish. However, in terms of actually selling discs, it probably doesn’t matter as much as spiking one good round, being temporarily in fourth, showing up on lead card coverage, and then blowing up and finishing 50th.
And recently we've learned that JomezPro, the most-watched provider of disc golf tournament footage, is covering all Open lead cards for PDGA National Tour and Disc Golf Pro Tour events in 2020. That should make an Open player's ability to spike onto lead cards at big events even more valuable to potential sponsors as they eye potential new recruits this offseason.
With all this mind, it's time to look at more specific numbers on exactly who's making lead cards most often.
Most of the discussion in this section will focus on two tables. The first, below, shows the 25 players who most often made lead and/or chase cards when they played events using UDisc Live in 2019. UDisc Live was used at all DGPT, PDGA National Tour, and PDGA Majors that included an Open field, as well as several large A-tier events. This stat is interesting because it points towards the capability of players to make lead/chase cards no matter if they tour a lot or a little.
The second table shows the top 25 Open players in order of appearances on lead/chase cards by pure amount. The slight differences in ranks and players included here as opposed to the table above show how players with lower percentages of making lead cards can play more events and up their chances of getting on coverage. Conversely, it also could mean that some players in the top 25 by percentage may simply have played few tournaments but done well there (e.g., Bradley Williams).
The top of both tables makes one thing extremely obvious: Paul McBeth, Eagle McMahon, and Ricky Wysocki are very good and very valuable. No one in Open made a lead card more than one-third of the time except for those three. McBeth, in particular, made lead card an insane two-thirds of the time. But those aren't the players this series is looking to analyze.
Looking further down we see some interesting names. Emerson Keith is a name that stands out on this list. Keith didn’t break the top five for lead card percent or totals, but he was probably one of the most surprisingly valuable players of 2019 after his breakout Worlds performance. Keith was on every Worlds lead card following the first of the tournament's five rounds. Worlds was the most-watched tournament of the year, and his presence on the final round lead card alone has advertised Latitude64’s products every one of the over two million times coverage of that round has been viewed.
It's not surprising that Latitude64 quickly got Keith to ink an extension before other teams could go after him in the offseason and offer more money.
Another player who’s high up on this list relative to his current 1022 rating is Anthony Barela, which makes sense if you’ve gotten a chance to watch him play. Barela has a ton of power and explosiveness, but he's not perfect at reining in those weapons in yet. He's a good example of a high-volatility player who's going to make a lot of lead cards and sell plastic even if he doesn't always finish well.
Still, a player rated over 1020 isn't exactly a diamond in the rough, but two players on these lists who aren't at that mark are A.J. Risley and Thomas Gilbert.
Risley is rated 1014 but made 2019 lead cards at a higher clip than more established players like Seppo Paju, Jeremy Koling, Drew Gibson, and Gregg Barsby. Dynamic Discs just lost Paige Pierce, and dropped Jordan Castro, so they have sponsorship dollars to spare. Risley, currently part of the Dynamic team, is coming off an injury, but the data suggests it could be in Dynamic's interest to use a portion of those freed-up funds on keeping Risley.
It’s the same story with Gilbert. Much like Barela, the 1012-rated Canadian young gun has elite level distance that he occasionally has a hard time keeping in check. Gilbert is only on Innova’s Crew team, but with numbers like these, it might be worth Innova’s while to lock him into a long-term deal now.
Just like in the Open section above, we have two tables looking at the rate of lead/chase cards made and pure total of lead/chase cards made by the Open Women field in 2019 at events that used UDisc Live. Here, we narrowed it to the top 20 given the smaller size of the Open Women field.
Rate of making lead and chase cards:
|Vanessa Van Dyken||17.5%||42.5%|
Total number of lead and chase cards made:
|Vanessa Van Dyken||7||10|
Again, we'll start by taking a moment to reflect on the top of these lists. Allen made the lead card of an event she played 81% of the time. That’s roughly 10% more often than Paige Pierce and the highest mark by any player this season in either division. As far as getting eyes on products goes, Allen was a gold mine in 2019.
Henna Blomroos, who recently announced she was parting ways with former sponsor Prodiscus, also stands out as a very important name. Before Paige Pierce announced her decision to leave Dynamic, Blomroos had the highest lead card percentage of any unclaimed player by far, making the lead card two-thirds of the time she had the chance. Eveliina Salonen, another Finnish superstar and one of Blomroos’ closest friends, is already on team Innova, and locking up another potential superstar in Blomroos would put Innova’s stamp on the future of the Open Women division.
Note that Blomroos and Salonen made a higher percentage of lead cards than Jennifer Allen, Innova’s highest ranked American. The issue with the trio of Blomroos, Salonen, and Allen is that they don’t play all the big events. Unless Innova wants to see its Open Women market share taken by other brands, they should figure out a way to make it financially viable to either sign Blomroos and bring her and Salonen stateside more often or help Jennifer Allen hit events outside the Southwest corner of the country.
One potentially important macro piece of analysis from the Open Women data: Because Open Women fields are smaller, there’s a lot more potential to break onto a lead card. In Open, there were only three players able to make lead cards at a rate of 33% or higher. In Open Women, that number went all the way up to 12.
This is another potential inefficiency in the current market. There are way more men sponsored than women on tour, but based on this metric, if a sponsor cares about getting their players on coverage, sponsoring Open Women players is likely marginally more valuable than sponsoring Open players right now.
The Bottom Line
Round coverage is the most-watched disc golf media in existence. That means that, at least until resources develop, if you’re not making a lead or chase card, you will rarely get seen playing disc golf. In most cases, sponsors simply won't get as much advertising value for players who aren't making coverage. And because of that, it's important not just to pay attention to ratings and tour points, but how often players are making it onto lead and chase cards at big events covered by popular disc golf media outlets.
But as important as screen time is, there are a lot more factors that go into what makes players valuable. Read our other entries in the Moneydisc series to dive even deeper into this fascinating topic:
Read: Moneydisc, Pt. 2: The Value Of Fans
Read: Moneydisc, Special Edition: The Value Of Paige Pierce
Note: The stat tables only included players who had nine or more chances to make lead or chase cards after the first rounds of tournaments that used UDisc Live.