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Interview: PDGA Board President on Future of the National Tour, DGPT Relationship, Diversity in Disc Golf

Hear from the leader of the PDGA on the latest from the organization.

Photo: Alyssa Van Lanen – PDGA

It’s been an unprecedented year in disc golf, with big valleys (major tournament cancellations, no National Tour) and surprising highs (a full Disc Golf Pro Tour season, strong growth).

Ultiworld Disc Golf sat down with Justin Menickelli, the President of the Board of Directors for the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), to check in with the state of the organization in 2020 and what to expect in the future.

UWDG: First of all, how is the PDGA doing right now? Obviously this has been a really tumultuous time with COVID-19 impacting events. I know the organization had to cut back on staff. Where are things right now as we head into the fall as tournaments and sanctioning have come back?

JM: Financially, we’re doing well. Membership is up from last year, which, you know, that’s big. We took a big hit on sanctioning and we had to furlough some folks. Luckily, they were able to get unemployment. Luckily, we brought people back on kind of slowly and then brought everybody on and sanctioning opened up again and we’re doing okay.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your membership numbers right now? How is growth been this year, both relative to last year and relative to expectations?

Membership growth relative to our expectations is down, but relative to last year is up. We have more new members this year by percentage than we did last year. So that’s awesome. This is a member organization, and our members have really reached out in a positive way by renewing their memberships and becoming Eagle Club members and Birdie members. The membership has been awesome. The hit that we took was in sanctioning early on, obviously.

That’s come back, not all the way, but that’s come back. So it’s better than we could expect, honestly, at times during the pandemic.

How are things progressing in terms of getting back to a normal schedule for the National Tour and the Majors for 2021?

Justin Menickelli. Photo courtesy: Western Carolina University.

Well, the schedule’s out. So, there you go. If the world returns to normalcy or some state of normalcy next year, then it’s going to be the biggest year ever for disc golf.

We have an awesome National Tour lined up, great Disc Golf Pro Tour, and all the A-tiers and B-tiers and C-tiers that come with those. It’s going to be awesome. We’re ready to go. We’re ready to put both our feet on the gas. We just have to hope that, like I said, the world returns to some kind of normalcy and then we’re great.

If it doesn’t, then I don’t know what to tell you. We’ll have to wait and see.

Do you expect to try to hold the national tour and at least the professional majors in a scenario where we’re kind of in a state like we are today, where we don’t have a real command over the coronavirus?

Well, I mean, I guess the answer is no, because if competitors can’t fly in from places like Finland and other places in Europe, then there are some events that are going to…like Worlds. People are like, “Why can’t you hold Pro Worlds?” If folks can’t get on an airplane safely, if European players can’t fly over here, then there’s certain events that it’s just not — we don’t want an asterisk. I mean, there’s an asterisk next to 2020. Knowing that, we didn’t feel like we could hold Worlds. You know what I mean? Because it’s not Worlds if everybody can’t come.

And so in terms of Worlds, look, I just hope that the world returns to at least something close to what it was and it does so in 2021. Because if it does, like I said, it’s going to be awesome. If it doesn’t, it just depends on the degree.

If it gets worse, which it could, into 2021, then what’s our first — Vegas [the Las Vegas Challenge] — then is Vegas gonna happen? I don’t know. So we’re hoping things get much better.

We’ve heard anecdotally that disc golf is growing amidst the pandemic and more people are playing. Are you seeing signs of that either in your membership numbers or in the data that you have?

Absolutely. I reached out and spoke with retailers, wholesalers, distributors, and manufacturers and asked them about their business during the pandemic, because I think that’s one indication, and they’re doing really well. Their sales in most cases have doubled. Just try to get a Zuca EZ cart. And I mean that seriously: I want one, go find a black one for me.

Well, yeah, you can’t find it! And it’s similar to other industries. There was a piece in the New York Times in, I want to say March, maybe April, about the bike industry, the cycling industry. You couldn’t get a bicycle in New York City or anywhere near New York City. There was a bicycle shortage nationwide.

Same with fly fishing and kayaking and other individual outdoor sports. They’ve all just boomed during the pandemic, because that’s what you’re able to do. And disc golf has absolutely shown signs of that.

Every single one of the companies that I spoke with was like, ‘yes, we can’t keep stuff in stock. This is double what this month was last year. Wow. We’re out of putting baskets; we’re out of popular discs. The manufacturers can’t make them fast enough.

Innova moved some employees around and sent some to Rancho [Cucamonga] to work in manufacturing, to just crank out more discs. [Dynamic Discs CEO] Jeremy Rusco hired some folks. They’re just absolutely crushing it. I think that’s a strong indicator.

What are your thoughts on what the Disc Golf Pro Tour has been able to do this year?

I think the Pro Tour has been awesome. I think it really has. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend any events in person, so I watched it all live and in post production. And I do occasionally talk with [DGPT CEO] Jeff [Spring] and, yeah, I think it’s awesome.

I think they’re doing a great job. I think he’s the person for that job; he’s on it. And it shows: I think they’re doing really well. I love it.

Has what’s happened this year — in terms of the Pro Tour stepping up and there being no National Tour this year, unfortunately — created discussions internally about the PDGA handing over more of the professional scene to the Disc Golf Pro Tour and winding down the National Tour in the future?

So, we at the PDGA always have discussions about the Disc Golf Pro Tour and what their influence and impact is on professional players and viewers of disc golf on YouTube and so forth. We always talk about the DGPT, and they always talk with us. We talk to Jeff Spring all the time.

I think the National Tour is definitely going to exist for the foreseeable future because it’s pretty awesome too. You know, a couple of years ago when the Pro Tour really came on the scene and, of course, we had the National Tour, folks were asking me, ‘What do you think? Is this a competing tour?’

I was like, I don’t think so at all. I mean, just look at Paul McBeth’s schedule. He’s playing all the National Tour events and all the Pro Tour events and Worlds and that’s about it. There’s no competition. You can play both. Sprinkle in a few majors like USDGC. When I look at it now on paper in front of me, the combination of the tours, it just brings a huge smile to my face. That’s an awesome tour. And you could call it an NT or a DGPT or whatever. They’re awesome events, run by awesome people.

I don’t think anybody would dispute that the events on the overall combined elite series are great. And I think there’s probably some events on the National Tour that the Pro Tour would love to have.

I guess the question that has come up is whether or not the PDGA should invest resources in trying to do the marketing around the National Tour and all of the time and energy and money that that takes, compared to reallocating that time and money into other things that the PDGA is doing, whether that’s majors or youth development or all of the other things that the PDGA does. Is that something that’s being discussed? In theory, the National Tour events could be assimilated into the Pro Tour and you’d still have those events. It just wouldn’t be on the PDGA to have to spend time and money on them.

Do you agree with that assessment that the PDGA could save time and money by not focusing on the National Tour? Obviously not next year, but in 2022 or beyond?

Could we save time and money? You know, maybe, maybe not. The National Tour generates revenue. And then of course we take that revenue and we put it right back into the tour. And so to answer your question, I guess, we have to decide how much is the NT generating? How much are we spending?

[PDGA Director of Operations] Mike Downes doesn’t come cheap. And there’s a reason for that because Mike Downes is amazing. And so if you’re a National Tour event, you’re going to get Mike Downes there, and we’ve got to pay him. And he is worth every penny and more than we’re paying him.

You know what I mean? It takes manpower, right? I guess you’re saying, do we want to spend the manpower? The answer right now is yes. We want to spend the manpower on the National Tour. Absolutely. But that question is revisited every year and several times a year.

Are there plans to live stream events on the National Tour next year?

There will be events that will be livestreamed on the National Tour. I don’t have in front of me which events will be livestreamed. I don’t know who’s going to do it.

As you know, livestreaming vs. post-production is the cool disc golf topic of the week, every week. Just go on Facebook. People love to debate that. Some people love live. It seems like not a ton of people are in love with live as it is right now, but some are.

And then some people swear by post-production. I think there’s a lot of people who really like post production. They just want it faster. What if you could get post-production, like same day post-production. I bet if we put out same day post-production that was of the quality that we have come to expect from post-production, I guarantee you could go on Facebook and people would be raving on how fast it came out and how awesome Big Sexy are. Or whoever their favorites are. They’ll just rave about their favorites again, and they’ll get it faster. That’s something to consider for sure.

People love post-production. Some people love live.

Is there an established plan for a fourth major in the near future?

Well, there’s an established draft of an established plan. There’s a draft. So it’s a work in progress right now, for sure. I think it’s a cool idea, but it’s still a work in progress.

When would you foresee a fourth major coming on to the calendar?

I think it could be as soon as the year after next, maybe 2022. That seems like a reasonable timeline. [Board member] Nate Heinold, as you know, is spearheading that effort.

One of the things that’s been talked a lot about this year and a lot in the last couple of weeks is getting more racial and gender diversity in disc golf. What’s the PDGA’s plan to try to increase the sport’s racial and gender diversity? And is that a priority for the organization?

To answer your last question, it is absolutely a priority for the organization. In fact, we are not making any substantive changes to our strategic plan, moving forward, with the exception of addressing black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and the fact that they are underrepresented in the sport of disc golf and our membership. That is the only new initiative, the only new strategic priority that we are adding to our list. And we’re moving it to the top of the list.

One of the things that I proposed was a grant project, which would involve us reaching out to our members, putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak, and putting real money to this.

We’re still working on that, but we’re developing a new grant. The other thing that I’m going to propose — here’s the scoop, because the board doesn’t even know this yet, but I’m sure they know it’s coming — at our next meeting in October is that we form a task force to address these issues. And we would appoint folks — ask, beg folks to please help us as a sport and as an organization and become a part of this task force.

We are, as always, we are diligent and in constant communication about these issues and other issues.

What are your plans to address the gender disparity in disc golf, something that’s been a little bit more focused on by the PDGA over the last few years than racial diversity?

It has. And we have not done a tremendous job. We’ve moved the needle a smidge, and we have to do better.

So one of the things that we did, which seems recent, although it’s now been over a year — we’re on COVID time now, right? — one of the things we did is we hired Des Reading away from EDGE, so to speak. Not really away from EDGE, but you know what I mean.

We hired Des and we said, ‘OK, Des, we want to work on our mission in terms of youth and education, and we want to use this gender issue in that women and girls are grossly underrepresented in the sport of disc golf.’ We have to use that information to inform all of our decision making when it comes to youth and education.

And so we need to reach out to girls in public and private elementary schools and junior high and high schools, because girls become women, and we want women and girls playing disc golf. And so, EDGE is doing their thing, which is awesome. We’re going to use this to inform our decision making when it comes to youth and education stuff.

And that’s one thing that we’re doing. And other things that we’re doing–you talked about maybe the Pro Tour kind of taking over the National Tour — well, we don’t want to give up [the] US Women’s [Disc Golf Championship]. US women’s is our event, and I think it’s gotten better and better over the years.

It’s certainly gotten bigger. And even better. And I think that there’s other exciting things going on with women in disc golf on the professional level, and the amateur level. Because at US Women’s, there are pros and ams. And we don’t want to give that up. We want that to be just the greatest disc golf event anywhere, and we want to do a good job publicizing that and promoting that.

So we’re kind of going at it from the bottom up and the top down, and we’re just going to keep at it.

Let’s talk a little bit about USDGC, which sort of dovetails off of what you were just talking about. The tournament, alongside the women’s national championship, has announced a big media plan, but the only way to access that media within two weeks of the event is to pay at least $19.99 in order to watch. Is it appropriate for a major to be able to fully paywall content for two weeks, given that this is not only a major, but the only major of the year in 2020?

It’s appropriate if it works. If people buy into it, if people pay for the service, then I think they’re going to say it was certainly appropriate for them. I mean, I think people will do it. I think people will purchase. I think there’ll be some viewership loss, for sure, but I think people are willing to pay for that.

Do you think the PDGA has a responsibility to have more say in the way that a major like USDGC is disseminated?

Well, USDGC is not our thing, right? It’s a major, and it’s an awesome event, one of the biggest and best events out there.

But it’s run by the folks in Rock Hill. And it just so happens that this year is just unique in that they’re running a concurrent women’s event. That’s not usually the case. In fact, you notice the name is different and it’s because it’s not actually US Women’s. And, you know, there’s good and bad about that. I think running it concurrent with the men’s tournament — I think some of that is good. I love to watch FPO, love to watch FPO lead card, second card. Just like the men for me.

Unless it’s someone I know, a friend who’s on the fifth card of MPO, then I’m not watching the fifth card. But if it’s the lead card of men or women, I love watching the first two cards, men and women. I’d rather watch the lead card of FPO than the third card or maybe even the chase card of some tournaments in MPO.

So I think people will be into it.

This is a longstanding decision at this point, but do you think that a manufacturer like Innova should be able to have control over one of the sport’s three professional majors in the USDGC?

Yeah, I just don’t have much of an issue with it, I guess. Innova’s pouring a lot of money into this event. In fact, they’ve done it for 20 years, right? Yeah. About 20, I think. And so, you know, ‘Hey, just keep pouring money into it.’

And then, you know, all of our majors have a big sponsor. Glass Blown Open is not a major, but it’s a big event. Glass Blown is kind of Dynamic Discs’ thing. And it’s awesome too. And it’s awesome in kind of a different way. Each manufacturer has its own event or events and, you know, they’re pouring money and resources into those events. I think it’s great.

One of the things that we talked about on The Upshot podcast over the winter was the current state of tournament organizing and the rules around payouts. Do you think that there should be a different structure to tournament fee and payout structuresĀ  to allow tournament directors to haveĀ  more decisio- making power about how the money that comes into the tournament is spent, giving back or not to players as either cash prizes or players packs?

The structure and rules around tournaments and payouts — it’s safe to say that they’re constantly being updated. Not necessarily changed in a way, but mostly what I’m talking about is automation.

You know, we spend a good bit of money on technology at the PDGA and we have great tournament management software, and it’s about to get better. And so it’s going to be easier to run events and have recommended payouts or, in some cases, required payouts or what have you: it’s going to be more automated. And we have — I’ve said this a hundred times — we have the best technology folks in the business of disc golf and maybe anywhere. They’re great. And so they’re constantly working on stuff and they need information from Big Dog [Andrew Sweeton] and Mike Downes, and they’ll sometimes turn to the board, and then we’ll turn to the TDs.

In every other meeting, we’re talking about some kind of tournament situation. Nate Heinold runs a lot of tournaments and Sully [Mike Sullivan] runs a lot of tournament — he runs a lot of C tiers and B tiers. And so we’ve got folks on the board running tournaments, and they’re always talking about structure and payout and things like that. So we’re on it for sure.

Do you have plans to livestream your summit that’s coming up? I think a lot of invested people are interested in being able to follow along with some of the decision making that happens at the big annual fall summit for the PDGA. Are there plans to publicize that more than you do now?

We don’t have any plans to livestream, but we always talk about live streaming and the pros and consĀ  Terry Miller offered to do it years ago, I’d say over five years ago. There are pros and cons and I think what’ll end up happening eventually is we’ll probably livestream or maybe record it. Maybe post-produced, maybe livestreamed. I don’t know, but we’ll probably do a portion of it, I think, in the future.

What would you say the biggest priorities for the PDGA are heading into 2021?

Well heading into 2021 our priorities right now are risk management, really.Ā  We’ve prioritized our suggestions and, in some cases, requirements around COVID, and those are still fresh in our mind. So we’re looking forward to the National Tour next year, and to bring back Worlds in the locations where they were going to be.

And we’ve talked about the BIPOC initiatives that we’re working on. They are super important heading into next year. But, it’s pretty much business as usual, honestly.

For it to be business as usual, do you see that as a good situation considering where we were seven months ago?

Yeah. It’s business as usual and business is good. I mean, the PDGA is doing well. Our members are able to get out there and play events again. And, like I said, the manufacturers are doing really well. Business is pretty much booming. And I think everybody in some regards is holding their breath. The PDGA, we’ve been on an uptick. Every year since I’ve been on the board, we’ve had more members, more events, right?

You just have to look at our what’s on our website. You don’t have to dig too deep. We’ve had more members, more events, more revenue, more programs, more technology, more staff.

It’s been great. I think we’re still heading upward, luckily. I mean, talk to the folks that USA Ultimate, like I’ve been doing. I mean, they’re hurting over there and as an ex ultimate player that saddens me. So we’re either blessed or lucky or both, depending on your perspective.

Are there plans to deepen the partnership with the Disc Golf Pro Tour?

I think that we have, and I think we will continue to do that. And kudos to Jeff Spring for that. Jeff Spring came to the PDGA Summit a while back. And, most of us knew him anyway, but he really did a great job presenting. And that was the start for the board of what’s been a great relationship.

Now for [PDGA Executive Director] Joe Chargualaf, he’s been in constant communication with Jeff Spring for years and already has a well-established relationship that’s absolutely going to deepen, for sure.

And what does that mean in practice?

I don’t know what the future holds in practice. I don’t know what that means in practice. It means that we’re talking to each other and that we like each other. And that’s good, right?

What it means in practice is that we, collectively, the PDGA and the DGPT, we are going to do whatever is best for the sport of disc golf and for the people that love and play the sport of disc golf.

I have a genuine friendship with Jeff Spring. We both ride mountain bikes. We’re both from the Northeast. He’s from Vermont, and I’m from the Adirondacks of New York. I used to ski Smuggs in the winter. We have a great relationship and Jeff Spring has a great relationship was with Joe Chargualaf.

I keep saying things are so good, they’re so good, we have it so good. We do! Jeff Spring, he’s a great guy. And if Jeff Spring wasn’t a great guy or there’s someone else in there who wasn’t such a great person that we didn’t know and respect and talk to all the time, well, then, I don’t know, then things might be bad. But that’s not the case.

You’re talking about how everything is going really well, which is just great to hear — it was looking like it might not be going so well when we were back in the depths of April. But for the PDGA to come out of it, be able to rehire staff, and now see membership increase is such a positive sign. What would you say is not going well or needs to improve?

Well, the two things that we’ve talked about. We need to better serve underrepresented populations within the sport of disc golf, because, you know, once you turn a group of folks onto disc golf, let’s say there’s 10 people. I mean, it doesn’t matter what their background, men or women, it doesn’t matter. Eight of those folks are going to get hooked on disc golf, right? Because that’s what happens to everybody. Maybe six of them will be hooked on disc golf, and maybe two of them will play in a tournament, be hooked enough to play in tournaments.

So maybe we only get one or two members out of it, whatever. If you turn enough people on to disc golf, they will start playing because you and I both know how awesome it is. It’s awesome.

It’s like when people first start playing ultimate too. This is a similar thing. People play ultimate. They go to like weekly pickup or whatever, and they play. And maybe they played soccer and they go to ultimate, some laid back ultimate club Sunday afternoon thing. And they’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is awesome.’

And you know, Stork [Dan Roddick] would tell you it’s the magic of that flying saucer you’re throwing around, not the fact that it’s disc golf. Ultimately, it’s all about the disc. That’s what’s Roddick would tell you and he might be right.

And so we just have to turn people onto the magic. Honestly, we just have to do a better job of outreach and people will play.

What’s it been like going through this year as the head of the PDGA? Give me a brief overview of starting the year and then COVID hits. And now it’s the end of September.

Yeah, pretty stressful. On the phone, like I am now, in some weeks, like 10 to 15 hours a week or more, being in constant communication with the board and the executive director and the staff, like even more than before, more than before the pandemic. Stressed out. I deeply care and everybody at the PDGA that I know deeply cares about the organization and the sport. And so when things aren’t going well, we’re all a little unnerved . When there’s a global pandemic, the whole world’s unnerved and we were the same way, myself included, but I feel better today than I did yesterday and I felt better yesterday than I did the day before.

Any final thoughts, as you head into the final quarter of 2020?

I am very excited for the tournament that they’re playing in Rock Hill, and I am very excited for next year for sure. I’ve got my fingers crossed and my toes crossed and I’m super excited. I saw the tour schedule for next year kind of laid out in front of me in graphic form — the map of the US, the European Open and stuff. I saw thoseĀ  maps and I think my heart rate went up a little.

Folks going over overseas for a tournament or two, and then the European players. I started to watch some of the Finnish women come over here and play, and Estonian, Kristin Tat tar, and they are ballers. Like they are awesome. Those women can play; they can throw. And some of them are young and are going to be good for a long time and are only going to get better. And that to me is pretty awesome.

We’ve got to have them back over here playing in this country. Because they’re super exciting. And so I’m looking forward to the competition again really heating up next year. I know Nate Sexton, who I consider a friend, is playing USDGC, but he hasn’t played much at all in a while and I want to see him on some sort of tour.

Justin, thanks a lot for your time and best of luck to you and your family as school restarts.

Thank you! I appreciate that. Talk soon.

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