UPDATE: Since this blog was written, we’ve seen a big announcement from Discraft that Paul McBeth, 4 times world champion, has moved from Innova to Discraft as his sponsor. I applaud that bold step in adding one of the most respected professional players in disc golf history to their team. I will watch with great interest to see how it helps to boost the brand in the coming years. Go Discraft!
Original Blog Post:
I’ve been a fan of Discraft ever since I started disc golfing several years ago. It is partly nostalgia because that was the first brand of disc golf discs that I saw on a store shelf and I bought them out of curiosity about the sport. Those first couple of discs started a journey for my oldest son and I that has led to many hours of enjoyment and eventual careers related to the sport. I kept certain Discraft disc models in my bag for most of those years, including one of my favorite all-time mid-range discs, the Buzzz OS, my go-to understable mid-range, the Meteor, and the old-school fairway drivers the XS and XL, among others. But now that I work in the disc golf industry and get to experience the ups and downs of different brands and the awareness that other players have of those brands, I have been able to see that Discraft has struggled to keep up with the crowd, becoming overshadowed even by some strong newcomers.
It seems that Discraft became content through the years, knowing that they were one of the first to cater to the sport of disc golf, and they figured that they’d always be respected for that. In my opinion, they deserve to be respected for that, and they continue to make a great product. But at some point, that complacency seems to have turned against them. While they currently rule the team sport of Ultimate with their Ultra Star disc, I see fewer and fewer disc golfers that are loyal to the brand when it comes to disc golf. It goes to show that initial reputation doesn’t amount to longevity unless the brand continues to vie for relevance in the market, keeping up with marketing trends, listening to the demands of the consumers, and conforming to trends when it becomes apparent that those trends have become a driving factor for sales.
Let’s take a quick look at a graph from Infinite Discs, a large online disc retailer, and see where the top 50 best-selling discs fall by brand. The names of the discs on the graph have simply been replaced by the brand name, from highest seller on the left to the the lower sellers on the right. These are the top 50 selling discs, so there are obviously many hundreds of models that don’t show up on this chart. I post this to show the presence of different brands among the top sellers. While Discraft was right there with Innova as one of the first disc golf brands in the world, how frequent does one brand appear compared to the other in this chart representing September 2017 – September 2018?
I will go ahead and reveal that the sixth spot on the graph is a Discraft Buzzz mid-range disc. The other Discraft spot is number 38 with the Zone putt-and-approach disc. Innova holds 24 of those 50 spots. Interestingly, Discmania has six spots, Infinite Discs has two, and Hyzerbomb has one, and those brands are manufactured by Innova. Trilogy’s three brands hold eleven of those spots, and MVP / Axiom holds three spots.
Several years ago, Discraft began to lose the war for professional players, and while I have no knowledge of their dealings with pros or the level of importance that they placed on those players, they really became a brand with only a player or two that stood out of the crowed, like Nate Doss who has stuck with the brand through thick and thin. However, when looking at older “Team Discraft” champions, the list contains several players who left Discraft to represent other brands, like Eric McCabe, Paige Pierce, or Sarah Hokom. Valarie Jenkins has returned to Discraft from Innova to join her husband, Nate Doss on their team roster. But when looking at a current list of the 15 top-ranked male players in the world, only Nate Doss represents Discraft while others are represented by Latitude 64, Innova, Prodigy, Discmania, and others. Here is that list as of 9/28/18 :
1 Paul McBeth – Innova **
2 Richard Wysocki – Latitude 64 **
3 Nathan Doss – Discraft (played only 3 National Tour events in 2018)
4 Gregg Barsby – Innova
5 Paul Ulibarri – Prodigy
6 Cale Leiviska – Prodigy
7 Chris Dickerson – Prodigy
8 Matthew Orum – Latitude 64
9 Seppo Paju – Prodigy
10 Nathan Sexton – Innova
11 Cameron Colglazier – Prodigy
12 Kevin Jones – Prodiscus
13 Philo Brathwaite – Innova
14 Simon Lizotte – Discmania
15 Calvin Heimburg – Innova
(** Since this list was published, the top two players have switched sponsorship brands.)
The same holds true for the women players, where only Valarie Jenkins appears as a Discraft player while other brands like Innova, Dynamic Discs, and Prodigy are well represented. It is difficult to look relevant as a brand if the best players in the world aren’t throwing your discs, and your top ranked player only plays three national tour events.
But that was not the only factor contributing to the slide from the disc golf spotlight for Discraft. They also didn’t conform when it came to the rise of the flight rating system, holding to their own simplified, yet oddly confusing single-number system. Innova may have invented the four-digit flight rating chart, but that chart was quickly accepted as the best way to know exactly how a disc flies. Thus, serious disc golfers who wanted to know how a disc would compliment their game, whether good players or not, began looking very closely at those flight numbers. Newcomers like the “Trilogy” brands of Latitude 64, Dynamic Discs, and Westside, quickly adopted the same numbering system because it helped players better decide which molds were best for their game. Even small brands fell in line, using those flight ratings, but Discraft stubbornly held back. Not everybody jumped onto the numbering system. MVP and their sister brands resisted for a while, but likewise found themselves unable to make much of a dent in the professional disc golf scene even though their brand took off with the amateurs and collectors. Vibram tried to invent their own flight rating system which nobody really understood until the day they announced their complete withdrawal from the disc golf market in early 2018.
Eventually, everybody started to fall in line when both MVP and Discraft decided to take the flight number system seriously, finally understanding that the consumers decide what they want and that is what you should deliver. In 2018, Discraft started using the widely understood system and their newest stamps featured the flight numbers. MVP did the same, possibly in an attempt to push harder into the advanced and professional market rather than lose momentum like Discraft had. Oddly enough, by the time those changes were made, MVP (when tallied with their spin-off brands Axiom and Streamline) had already surpassed Discraft in sales among some of the biggest retailers in the market, and they’d only entered the market in 2010 while Discraft had been around since 1979.
Discraft didn’t take advantage of the social media explosion where other brands have consistently provided content, touting new products on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and any place they could get some attention. Discraft may have used some of those promotional venues, but seemed unable to gather followers like its competitors. As of September 28, 2018, Discraft had 19.8K followers on Twitter as compared to Innova’s 34.6K followers. On Facebook, Discraft had 79,802 followers while Dynamic Discs had 90,463 and Innova had 108,532 followers. Looking at Instagram at the same date, Discraft had 14.7K followers while Dynamic Discs has 44.6K followers and Innova has 67.1K followers.
Innova runs a pro shop that sells thousands upon thousands of professional signature discs at a premium price and has built a collector market where the value of the discs seems to go up and up with time. However, Discraft hasn’t been able to leverage their special plastic blends to create the same kind of pro disc market or collector hype. While the majority of players are not necessarily the kind of people who spend $20 or more on a single disc, there is a big enough marketplace of people who assign value to professional signature discs that it would seem worth consideration. But more importantly, it helps to reinforce the image that professionals throw the discs. Discraft has instead used their special plastic blends to support their big sponsored tournament event, The Ledgestone Open. But which gets more attention– a single professional event, or a slew or professional players who show up at every professional tournament event and regularly show up on the lead cards? Again, it is a matter of creating an image among the disc buying public. Discraft has released a few signature editions recently, but hasn’t seen the response that Innova or Discmania enjoys, fetching top dollar and selling out in a matter of days.
While my commentary here has a critical tone when it comes to certain aspects of Discraft’s business model over the last few years, I don’t want to sound like a hater, because I certainly am not. I am a big fan of the brand who wants to see Discraft re-establish itself as a major player in the market. I want to see more professionals throwing the brand. I want to see more fans collecting Discraft discs besides only the Buzzz, which is their only disc that manages to hold a spot among best-sellers year after year. They’ve got great molds, great plastic blends, and a proud history to carry them forward. Their future as one of the major brands will depend on how much they can renew their push through social media and lift their image among players in tournaments both small and large, using pros as well as amateur players to represent the brand well. They’re on the right path by conforming to the universally embraced flight rating system, and they have some great aesthetic appeal with new artistic approaches to their discs, and they need to keep it up.
I’m cheering for Discraft to come back to the forefront. When it comes to brands, I don’t believe that any brand must “lose” or “die off” for the other to succeed. I am often disturbed by a view of competition and capitalism as a dog-eat-dog mentality where somebody can only say that they succeed if they completely annihilate their competitor. I have a personal belief that competition fuels innovation and allows everybody to elevate their game. When a player wins a tournament, it is because they played the game the best at that particular event. It doesn’t mean that they eliminated their competition or that they won’t lose at the next tournament. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The real way to view competition is as a healthy, invigorating, and motivating catalyst to keep playing your best. That is what I hope for Discraft, as well as for other manufacturers. With disc golf growing the way it has been, there is room for everybody to grow and prosper when it comes to brands. I would like to see Discraft take back their place as one of those leading brands, rather becoming a brand with little more than historical significance.