Cash Line [An Ultiworld Disc Golf Newsletter] - Issue #1

Cash Line [An Ultiworld Disc Golf Newsletter] - Issue #1
By Charlie Eisenhood • Issue #1 • View online
Good morning:
This is the first edition of a new Ultiworld Disc Golf subscriber-only monthly email newsletter, Cash Line, that will focus on the business of disc golf, with insider knowledge and original reporting.
It’s an exciting time for the business of disc golf. The last 15 years has seen an explosion of activity in the industry, moving from just two major players – Innova and Discraft – to a wide assortment of manufacturers, media companies, bag makers, apparel companies, and more. And, despite the global economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, optimism about disc golf’s future may be higher than ever right now in 2020.
There are plenty of anecdotal reports about new players joining the sport in droves, and manufacturers and retailers have said they’ve seen record demand for products in recent weeks. Even the PDGA, which shut down event sanctioning – easily the biggest driver of memberships – for over two months, had more active members at the beginning of June than they did one year prior.
This newsletter will seek to keep you informed about the latest news and trends in the disc golf industry. Let’s jump in. 
In today’s issue, a look inside the phenomenon that is the Sexton Firebird, a check in with the sports agent that helped negotiate Paul McBeth’s Discraft deal, and a dive into the accelerating success of the Disc Golf Network and what it means for the future of disc golf media.

The Latest
Sexton Firebirds on Fire
Photo: Keith Steinmeyer.
Photo: Keith Steinmeyer.
Six years ago, Nate Sexton decided to go for it.
He quit his part-time job and emailed his sponsor, Innova, and said he was going to play 30 tournaments in the 2014 season and commit to full-time disc golf. “I want to make the Star Team,” he told them.
To that point, he’d dominated the local Oregon scene and thoroughly established himself as one of the best players in the world, but he’d dialed back his participation in recent years, dropping from playing 19 tournaments in 2011 to 12 in 2012 and then 11 in 2013. With his wife entering medical school and a move to North Carolina in the works, he decided to ramp things up.
Little did he know that it would be the start of a massive career shift.
He played well in 2014, finishing 15th at Worlds and 5th at USDGC, and accomplished his goal of getting bumped up to Innova’s Star Team, the company’s highest support tier for their sponsored athletes.
That promotion meant that Sexton got to choose a signature Tour Series disc. Since 2005, he’d been bagging KC 11x glow Firebirds, but the new run of 12x Firebirds were very overstable, too much so even for a powerful forehand thrower like Sexton.
“I’m looking for an every day fairway driver with reliable fade but that’s not going to break your arm off,” he told Innova, and asked for his signature disc to be a Firebird in their new color glow plastic with “a little bit of dome, a little bit of flex,” more in the style of the 11x.
Thus was born the Sexton Firebird, a disc that has taken on a life of its own and transformed Nate’s career.
Sexton loved the disc right away – “It’s without a doubt my favorite disc I’ve ever thrown,” he says – but nobody, even Nate, could have foreseen its explosion in popularity, to the point where particular rare and prized versions of the disc have sold at auction for over $1000. An over 2000 person Facebook group for Nate Sexton collectors is thriving – as are the prices for Sexton Firebirds. 
Keith Steinmeyer is an avid Sexton Firebird collector: he’s got nearly 100 of them. He says that the discs are made to be collectable. “I geek out about it just like I did with basketball cards when I was a kid,” he said.
But what exactly has made them such a phenomenon? It’s not a putter. It’s not a distance driver. It’s a very specific mold that was truly designed to be maximally useful for Nate Sexton and his forehand. It’s not a beginner’s disc.
“If you had to pick a super popular mold, would you just off the cuff pick the Firebird?” asked Innova Marketing Director Jeff Panis. “No, you wouldn’t!”
“I can’t point to one specific thing that makes the magic of the Firebird, and specifically the Sexton Firebird, so big,” he said.
The Rise of Nate Sexton
Following his 2014 season and promotion to the Star Team, Sexton got a message. It was from world #1 and three-time defending world champion Paul McBeth, telling him about the brand new RV he had just bought and did he want to come on tour with him?
“We were friends but I didn’t have his phone number or anything,” said Sexton. Innova suggested that the two go on tour together, though, so they gave it a shot.
Sexton started getting more press, including an Ultiworld Disc Golf profile of him that April. That fall, an even bigger break: his first appearance as a commentator on the Jomez Pro YouTube channel, covering the second round of the Hall of Fame Classic.
The goofy intro didn’t hide his natural broadcasting talent for long: he got more and more commentary duties before joining up with Jeremy “Big Jerm” Koling to form the “Big Sexy” duo in April 2017, which catapulted him into stardom as a personality, not just a disc golfer.
“The fact that people feel like they get to know me through my commentary is immensely helpful,” said Sexton, who has also been a frequent presence on Central Coast Disc Golf’s channel as a commentator and player, doing things like the Starter Pack Challenge and Champs v. Chumps.
“I think that stuff is vital to building your brand, especially if you’re not McBething it, winning every tournament around the world,” he said.
And perhaps that’s where we start to see why the Sexton Firebird has blown up. Nate is both an elite disc golfer (a prerequisite) and an approachable, friendly guy. His sharp wit crackles in the commentary booth, and it makes him feel like a friend.
“He’s both an enigma and not so much of an enigma,” said Panis. “He’s a professional that brings talent, humility, and engagement: he is obviously a fan favorite. He also came up together with Paul McBeth and was able to understand, through the lens of coming up with Paul, some of the things that it took to carry influence in disc golf. He knows how to do it his own way. And I think that the Firebird and Nate succeed in tandem.”
And you hear a lot about wanting to support Nate from big Firebird collectors. “Nate’s an awesome dude,” said Steinmeyer. “He’s stayed with the same company. He’s consistent. He’s got a great personality.”
Ryan Griffin is one of the administrators of the Sexton Collectors Facebook group and is widely known to have one of the most valuable collections of Sexton Firebirds on the planet. Among his collection of hundreds are over 50 of the 2015 models, the first run of the disc (and the most valuable).
A friend gave him a pair of 2015 rainbow stamped Sexton Firebirds five years ago. “I love the way it threw, I loved the way it felt,” said Griffin. “The small give to it. It handles torque very well. It handles power very well. I didn’t even know who Nate Sexton was before I got his disc.”
“Since then, I have become a Sexton fan due to the way Nate Sexton conducts himself,” he added. “His professionalism. The way he gives time to his fans. His commentary. How down to earth he is.”
The Rise of the Sexton Firebird
It’s not that there’s just a robust collectors market for the Sexton Firebird, a devoted group of intense fans. The disc is incredibly popular, one of the great success stories of the Tour Series model, where sales directly support sponsored players. 
“Nate helped bring more awareness to Tour Series in general,” said Panis. “Tour Series really started to evolve as Nate’s Firebird came on the market.”
Sales of the Sexton Firebird now make up over 50% of Sexton’s disc golf related income. “I was cashing the checks, and as the royalty checks were coming in, it was like, ‘Wow,’” he said.
“It doesn’t make sense that a beginner would have a Firebird in their bag,” said Panis. “But I’ve sort of thought about it a bit deeper. And the Firebird might just be one of the best all-around utility discs that exists in disc golf.”
For beginners, it can serve as a reliably overstable disc for a tight corner. For intermediate players, it’s a disc that can help them learn to develop a forehand. And for pros, it’s a go-to for forehands and headwinds.
It’s also extremely durable. “I have still yet to see anyone report a broken or cracked Sexton Firebird,” said Griffin.
Sexton estimates that there could be over 100,000 Sexton Firebirds flying around courses. “He stretches into audiences and places that even Innova hasn’t even tapped into,” said Panis. “People probably discover Innova through the Sexton Firebird.”
That success – and of course his 2017 USDGC victory – has translated into Sexton getting a substantial contract with Innova through 2021 that he signed after the 2018 season. Neither Sexton nor Innova would reveal the details of the arrangement, but it’s said to be one of the largest guaranteed deals in the sport.
“It’s so cool to see on Instagram getting aces and getting excited about throwing the Firebird,” said Sexton. “I can’t thank all the fans and people supporting me enough. It’s been a life-changing thing.”
The Future of the Sexton Firebird
There’s no sign of the market slowing down for the Sexton Firebird. At the Las Vegas Challenge, Innova released a very limited run of 2020 LVC Sexton Firebirds. 
Ola Kolle, a collector from Norway, was the first in line at 7:30 AM waiting for the shop to open at 9. He came to the US to play in both LVC and the Memorial, and he was thrilled to get the chance to get his hands on some rare Sexton Firebirds during the trip.
“I have been collecting for a couple of years, and my goal has been to get one of every foil,” he said.
He bought a batch of the 2020 LVC Sexton Firebirds for $20 a pop. Now, they sell on the secondary market for over $800.
The 2020 Las Vegas Challenge Sexton Firebirds. Photo: Ola Kolle.
The 2020 Las Vegas Challenge Sexton Firebirds. Photo: Ola Kolle.
“I have in my period as a collector only sold one Sexton,” said Kolle. “It was one of the LVCs, and that disc alone funded my whole trip (plane and rental car) from Norway to California.” (There’s a joke inside the collector community about the LVCs that Steinmeyer described: “Does anyone actually know how they fly?” Nobody is throwing them for fear of reducing their value!)
Could we be seeing the peak of a bubble? For now, demand continues to outstrip supply, even as far more discs have been produced in the last two years. Even 2020 Sexton Firebirds are selling above retail price on eBay. And the strong collector community has made the market for rare versions ever stronger.
“We have spent a lot of money selecting these Firebirds, aggressively,” said Griffin. “From the very, very beginning. You’ll see the six or seven of us [Facebook page administrators], typically, at the forefront of a lot of the auctions. The administrators have done a great service to Nate Sexton in increasing the value of his Tour Series discs.”
And don’t underestimate how much of the disc’s success is due to buyers looking to support Nate in his career.
“If I was gonna be a pro disc golfer, I’d be Nate Sexton,” said Steinmeyer. “He’s married; I recently got married. He’s a great advocate for the game. He’s an easy guy to root for.”
Nate Sexton at USDGC. Photo: Eino Ansio - Disc Golf World Tour.
Nate Sexton at USDGC. Photo: Eino Ansio - Disc Golf World Tour.
Is Disc Golf Ready for Sports Agents?
Perhaps you remember back at the beginning of 2018, when there was a splashy announcement about the formation of the DGI Group, a disc golf sports agency.
Following the collapse of his radio broadcasting company in 2016, Sam Hassell decided to pursue disc golf marketing as an agent for professional players. He pitched himself to top pros and landed some notable clients, including Paul McBeth, who had been looking for an agent for some time but struggled to find someone knowledgeable enough about disc golf to promote him.
Sam Hassell.
Sam Hassell.
“I’ve always believed that agents should be involved in our sport, because it’s a more professional look for our sport,” said McBeth.
It was fortuitous timing for Hassell, as McBeth was entering the final year of his contract with Innova in 2018 and looking to shop around.
Early in the summer of 2018, Discraft popped up as a possible destination with mutual interest.
“Paul asked me what I thought about it,” said Hassell. “And I said, ‘Well, yea, I think we should absolutely pursue it and find out if they’re serious and see how serious they are.”
Hassell started talking with Discraft representatives; traveled to Michigan to tour the company’s facilities; and asked questions about plastics, designs, molds, operations, and their family approach to business.
“It wasn’t just about the size of the check, but rather what they are going to do to support the relationship,” said Hassell.
Having an agent handle those conversations made it easier for McBeth to stay focused on his game.
“It was very beneficial to have someone like Sam, because I was still in the middle of my year,” said McBeth. “I didn’t want to talk to Discraft because I would have to tiptoe around things.”
At the same time that Hassell was talking frequently with Discraft, Innova was pushing to talk directly with McBeth. Disagreement between the East Coast and West Coast Innova camps made negotiations more difficult.
We all know what happened: McBeth signed a four year deal with Discraft worth over $1,000,000 guaranteed – and it will likely far exceed that number by the end of the contract in 2022.
“The size of the deal was a huge statement for disc golf,” said Hassell. “And it will help everyone in the sport. That was the thing, more than anything else, that gave me satisfaction.”
Also satisfying: Hassell got a 20% cut of the deal, the industry standard percentage for an endorsement deal.
“We’re worth more than the number of discs that we sell with our names on it,” said McBeth. “I think Sam opened up [Discraft’s] eyes to that. And mine too.”
“Even if never signs another deal, this should be viewed as a success,” he added.
Perhaps that last idea was more prescient than McBeth realized. After the record-setting contract Hassell negotiated, things have slowed considerably. He’s moved into other projects, now working full time as a business consultant.
Even though he is still pursuing sponsorship efforts, “the money just wasn’t there as it needed to be.”
Hassell has had talks with several large companies outside of disc golf, but he has yet to close a sale.
“The deal with Discraft was a wonderful deal, and did a lot to change the game for the sport and for professional disc golfers, but it wasn’t an outside corporation coming in with substantial sponsorship dollars,” he said. “That’s a code we’re still trying to crack.”
Hassell said that the relatively low number PDGA membership numbers compared to other sports makes it difficult to convince would-be sponsors that there’s enough of a market to warrant spending marketing dollars in the sport. US Lacrosse, for example, has over 450,000 members. The PDGA had 53,000 in 2019.
As much as the McBeth deal transformed the disc manufacturer sponsorship model, there is much work still to be done to reach beyond the confines of disc golf. Sports agents will eventually be a part of disc golf, but perhaps Hassell was ahead of his time.
“We need a giant leap forward,” he said. “We’ve made one with Paul. But we need another giant leap forward in disc golf.”
Disc Golf Network Success Is Changing the Media -- And Fast
At the start of the year, Jeff Spring, the CEO of the Disc Golf Pro Tour, was quietly hoping to reach 1,500 subscribers for the Tour’s new livestreaming platform, the Disc Golf Network (DGN).
Despite a pandemic shutting down the sport and the Tour for over three months, demand for watching early-round live coverage of DGPT events has blown away even optimistic expectations.
The Disc Golf Network has over 12,000 subscribers as of this writing, eight times the low-end goal and four times the stretch goal of 3,000 for the end of the year.
That’s up from 6,500 at the start of the pandemic shutdown in mid-March. The DGPT now expects to reach 15,000 subscribers by season’s end.
“I think there’s excitement – the revelation that pushing past our current model to network broadcast is fairly unnecessary,” said Spring.
Although he sees getting regular national television exposure would be good for the marketing of the Tour, he no longer feels like there’s pressure to land a TV partnership.
“There’s no need to force that topic, from our perspective,” he said. “We can wait for the right deals and the right approach and prioritize what we’re doing right now because it’s working.”
Of course, the DGPT will get a small taste of cable television exposure with the upcoming CBS Sports Network appearance, though that deal was negotiated entirely by Dynamic Discs, not the Pro Tour.
Think about what this could mean for the future, though. The Pro Tour is generating at least $54,000 in revenue a month from subscription fees – and that’s assuming every subscriber is getting the 50% off PDGA member discount. The actual number is probably somewhere in the $70-90K range.
To be sure, there are many fees and costs associated with the broadcast – from the OTT platform carriage fees to the personnel costs to the transmission – but the amount of money coming in is enough to change the economics of the entire DGPT media landscape.
The Tour will now have far more leverage in negotiations with post-production companies seeking to film and distribute DGPT rounds. With stronger incentives to keep lead card coverage exclusive to DGN, it’s easy to imagine changes to the wide availability of next-day coverage on YouTube.
For years, Jomez has been the 800 pound gorilla of disc golf media. The PDGA and DGPT have needed Jomez, probably more than Jomez has needed them. Though they’re certainly not going anywhere, the success of DGN’s live coverage is shifting the power balance.
***
Thanks so much for reading. This is a new format, so I’d definitely appreciate your feedback on this first issue and what you’d like to see in future ones.
You can reply directly to this email to get in touch with me.
Cheers,
Charlie Eisenhood
Publisher of Ultiworld Disc Golf
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Charlie Eisenhood
By Charlie Eisenhood

The business of disc golf.

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