Disc Golf’s International Governance Still in Flux

PDGA, WFDF relationship has been historically bumpy

The disc golf pandemic boom hasn’t been confined to North America: countries around the world have seen enormous growth in participation, especially across Europe and in Australia. And the organization that governs the sport worldwide is…well, it depends on who you ask.

“The PDGA is the international governing body of disc golf,” writes the Professional Disc Golf Association in its 2020 international program guide, which outlines the PDGA’s international growth plans and programs, the benefits of becoming a PDGA international member, and event protocols.

“The World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) is the international sports federation responsible for world governance of flying disc (frisbee) sports, including ultimate, beach ultimate, disc golf, freestyle, guts, and individual events,” WFDF states on its website.

In the disc golf world, most people would point to the PDGA as the organization that is focused on developing the sport internationally. But in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee and other global sports entities, WFDF is the arbiter of all things Flying Disc, including disc golf.

What sets up as an obvious partnership has actually been defined by periods of conflict. The PDGA has entered into WFDF membership multiple times throughout the past two decades, most recently in 2014, before dropping out. In 2016, the PDGA ended its formal relationship with WFDF.

“We didn’t feel like the benefits WFDF provided the PDGA, which were very minimal, weren’t worth the roadblocks and challenges that they were putting up to our international growth,” said former PDGA Executive Director Brian Graham, who presided over the organization at the time.

The PDGA was paying $5000 a year in membership dues to WFDF but felt that it wasn’t seeing WFDF focus on developing disc golf internationally. Things came to a head when the PDGA tried to get its European country members to pay a few hundred dollars each to support the EuroTour but WFDF intervened, saying that the PDGA didn’t have the authority to take membership fees from countries.

We saw that as interfering in our internal affairs,” said PDGA International Director Brian Hoeniger. The PDGA board voted 7-0 to leave WFDF.

Today, there is again increasing cooperation between the two bodies despite the lack of a formal relationship. “Essentially, we have an uncomfortable but satisfactory compromise at the moment,” said Dan “Stork” Roddick, a disc golf (PDGA #3) and ultimate Hall of Famer who helped found WFDF in the 1980s and has served as the Director of Special Projects at the PDGA since 1999.

WFDF runs the World Team Disc Golf Championships, which are sanctioned by the PDGA, and is working to try to get disc golf featured as an exhibition sport in the 2022 World Games1, a quadrennial international sports competition for non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama, with an eye on establishing disc golf as a regular member of the Games starting in 2025 in China. Ultimate frisbee has long been featured at the World Games, and disc golf appeared once, in 2001 in Japan, before being discontinued.

WFDF has also established its own disc golf committee, which had before been operated by the PDGA. Charlie Mead, the chair of the committee, has formed a working relationship with PDGA Executive Director Joe Chargualaf.

“Charlie’s really been trying to work with those who are interested to find a way to promote disc golf international development within the framework that sport is involved in,” said WFDF President Robert “Nob” Rauch.

That’s relatively new for WFDF, which, after disc sports began to grow apart in the ’90s and 2000s, almost exclusively focused on ultimate’s international growth. Meanwhile, the PDGA went from having a handful of foreign players at the US-based World Championships in the mid 2000s to 363 international events by 2015. That number tripled to over 1000 events by 2019, and the PDGA now has 10,000 members outside of the US and Canada.

That speaks to another crucial difference between the organizations: the PDGA is member-focused; WFDF is country-focused. The latter is important because the international sports community expects to deal with a single entity with country-based membership.

“The organization that’s going to get the sport in the Olympics is not the PDGA, it’s WFDF,” said Rauch.

Inside WFDF, there is real optimism that ultimate frisbee will have an opportunity to get into the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. But ultimate frisbee is just the discipline that would be involved in the Games: the sport of Flying Disc would be on the program. A positive experience could open the door for disc golf to have a future in the Games, as it would be simply adding an additional discipline under the umbrella of Flying Disc, much like Athletics encompasses track events, marathon, and long jump.

WFDF also complies with often complicated rules about international sport governance, including drug testing measures through the World Anti-Doping Agency, that the PDGA has avoided.

Given disc golf’s growth trajectory, the Olympics may not be a high priority for the sport, and WFDF readily acknowledges that the PDGA is doing a great job developing the sport internationally. Still, Rauch hopes that they can further establish a relationship that won’t leave the IOC asking questions about which group governs international disc golf.

“I don’t think the mandate of WFDF really conflicts with what the PDGA is trying to do,” he said. “I think they could use us to lever what they’re trying to do.”

Although the PDGA is growing quickly worldwide, establishing formal country-level sports governing body recognition is an arduous task, and WFDF casts a much wider net as they have focused on it in order to establish IOC recognition.

“We have a much larger country infrastructure around the world,” said Rauch. “We have 91 formal members and are working with another two dozen right now to be able to have the corporate organization, bylaws, boards, and, in many countries, official recognition. Having to recreate that from scratch takes a really long time. It’s really hard to do.”

Inside the PDGA, there are champions for a deeper connection with WFDF. Graham, Hoeniger, and Roddick all stumped for WFDF membership even when the PDGA board was indifferent.

“It’s tough enough with the position we are in in the world of sport,” said Roddick. “Let’s take advantage of our shared history and try to work together the best we can.”

For now, the two organizations are slowly working to establish stronger informal ties, which could lead to a renewed partnership in the future. For that to happen, WFDF will need to provide more tangible benefits to the PDGA than they have in the past. The will to hammer out a deal is there.

“For now, I think the couple is back and living together,” said Roddick. “The kids are fairly happy. And let’s see what happens down the line.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that WFDF had 86 member countries. The organization in fact has 91 member countries.

  1. They were postponed from their normal calendar slot 2021 due to COVID-19 and the Olympics postponement 

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the publisher of Ultiworld Disc Golf. You can contact him at [email protected].

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