WhenWhen Paul McBeth first started playing in professional disc golf tournaments, he’d crisscross California in his father’s 1978 Dodge Ramcharger. His dad had mostly used it to rock-crawl in the desert outskirts of Los Angeles. The top of the SUV was sawed off and the side windows were smashed out. The doors were so dented they looked like topographic maps. The windshield was scarred, and the gas pedal was missing. When storm clouds gathered, Paul kicked a metal bar to the floor as he tried to outrun the rain.
His next few cars weren’t much nicer. When he was 19, he found out a friend was planning to dump an Infiniti I30 in the scrapyard and offered to pay him $500 for it. McBeth drove it from L.A. to Kansas City for the 2009 Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) world championships and almost all the way back. It blew a gasket 30 minutes from his house. Then there was his Ford Thunderbird that overheated every half-hour on the highway, and his camper van that he thought would save him money on hotels but ended up costing him at the gas pump.
Finally, in 2011, after winning $4,000 for taking first place at the Memorial Championship in Scottsdale, Arizona, McBeth had saved enough money to buy a new car. He wanted a Jeep Patriot. The problem was the paperwork. “Under occupation, I put ‘professional athlete,’” McBeth says. “I guess they didn’t believe me because they wouldn’t let me finance it. I ended up having to buy the car with cash.”
In the decade since, McBeth’s disc golf career has soared. He’s won the PDGA world championship five times and the United States Disc Golf championship twice. In 2010, the PDGA championship’s total purse was $33,782; at this week’s event, the men’s winnings are expected to be upward of $150,000. McBeth has earned more than half a million dollars from his performances. He is, undoubtedly, the most accomplished disc golfer in the world.
But except to a subset of hardcore frisbee fans, his more impressive accomplishments have come away from the course. In February, disc golf manufacturer Discraft announced it had extended McBeth’s endorsement deal to a guaranteed $10 million over 10 years. McBeth also has sponsors for other disc golf gear, such as grip equipment and bags, and owns part of a company called Foundation Disc Golf that produces both products and content. He has deals outside of disc golf equipment too, with the likes of Adidas and Celsius energy drink. According to 2019 data from the athlete marketing platform Opendorse, only about 70 athletes in the world make at least a million dollars a year in endorsement deals. McBeth’s endorsement income from Discraft alone puts him on par with Bears linebacker Khalil Mack, Jazz guard Mike Conley Jr., and Astros pitcher Justin Verlander.
“Under occupation, I put ‘professional athlete.’ I guess they didn’t believe me because they wouldn’t let me finance it. I ended up having to buy the car with cash.” —Paul McBeth
McBeth has carved out a lucrative career in a niche sport, in part as an athlete and in part as an influencer. He isn’t alone in using this blueprint. Competitors in sports ranging from bowling to lacrosse have been able to amass riches by building their brands—and growing the games they love along the way.
“I think about it as a three-step funnel,” says Li Jin, the founder of the digital marketing platform Atelier Ventures who coined the term “Passion Economy” to describe how influencers monetize social media. The first step is to attract a big audience on a known platform, like Instagram or Twitter. The second is to bring them to a platform the influencer owns, such as a newsletter or podcast. The final step is to turn people into paying customers. “That,” she says, “is how influencers turn social capital into financial capital.”
McBeth agreed to that $10 million deal in July 2020 after hosting a paintball party for his 30th birthday. A couple of months later, he signed the paperwork at Discraft’s headquarters in Michigan. In November, he shared a series of stories with his 150,000-plus Instagram followers. The first showed a trailer from a car dealership in Michigan. The second and third showed glamorous shots of his latest car purchase: a McLaren 570S Spider. The luxury convertible—which starts at more than $200,000—has switchblade doors and a retractable roof.
Even in a niche sport, it’s good to be the GOAT.
Paul McBeth Courtesy of Lauren Lakeberg/LEL Photography
ByBy now you may have started browsing for disc golf gear in another tab. But before you complete your order, you first need to figure out how to get anyone’s attention. Not long ago, niche sports cracked the national consciousness only as punch lines. In a now-iconic Seinfeld episode, George Costanza gets a severance package from the Yankees—enough to sustain him for an entire summer—and tells Jerry he’s going to learn to play frolf.
“You mean golf?” Jerry asks.
“Frisbee golf, Jerry,” George responds. “Golf with a frisbee!”
In the 2004 comedy Dodgeball, Vince Vaughn’s group of misfits face off against Ben Stiller’s crew of hulking weightlifters on a fictional channel called ESPN 8: The Ocho. The parody network became such a cultural phenomenon that in 2017 ESPN launched an annual “Ocho TV” day, featuring events like the National Stone Skipping Competition and World Sign Spinning Championship. (How sign spinning became an international competition before stone skipping is a mystery best explored in a separate story.) But those so-called joke sports have had the last laugh. From 2017 to 2019, ESPN’s the Ocho ratings climbed year over year. Last May, a deadlift world record attempt drew more than 300,000 viewers—the network’s most-watched program of the day.
For many niche sports, television is still seen as the ultimate status symbol. Some leagues have gone so far as to buy air time for their biggest events. Last year, Dynamic Discs paid the CBS Sports Network “in excess of six figures” to broadcast their disc golf tournament. This stands in contrast to networks’ relationships with the more prominent sports leagues. In March, the NFL secured $113 billion from its television partners for the rights to air football games over the next 11 years.
But television isn’t the only way to command mass attention. For smaller sports and their stars, social media provides access to massive audiences without traditional gatekeepers. “To millions of kids, TikTok and YouTube are mainstream entertainment. They don’t watch TV,” says Taylor Lorenz, who covers social media, Gen Z, and influencers for The New York Times. “Sometimes you need to get onto TV to get credibility with boomer CEOs. But for individuals, you can often monetize better on your social media.”
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The surest path to profitability is to go viral. And the kings of the viral clip are the dudes from Dude Perfect. What began as a series of stunts by college roommates at Texas A&M has turned into the most popular sports channel on YouTube. Dude Perfect has nearly twice as many subscribers (56 million) as four major U.S. sports leagues—the NBA (16.7 million), NFL (7.8 million), MLB (3.0 million), and NHL (1.6 million)—combined. Its water bottle flips and ping-pong tricks have reshaped what constitutes athletic accomplishment online. And its influence echoes across the niche sports landscape. (The dudes declined to be interviewed for this story.)
McBeth is friends and business partners with Brodie Smith, a former ultimate player who became internet famous for his frisbee trick shots and has collaborated on three videos with Dude Perfect. Smith, who boasts more than 2 million YouTube subscribers and almost a million Instagram and Twitter followers, instantly became the world’s most famous disc golf player when he turned pro in late 2019. Smith has documented his journey into the sport, and has learned the finer points of the game from McBeth. In exchange, Smith has schooled McBeth on the finer points of internet fame. “Brodie has made everyone in disc golf up their YouTube game,” McBeth says. “He’s inspired me a lot. We used to try to find the time to post videos when we could. Now we make the time. It’s become a priority.”
Jason Belmonte, the most accomplished professional bowler in the world, has collaborated on two videos with Dude Perfect. The first—which shows him whizzing bowling balls past the dudes’ heads and breaking flying plates with bowling pins—has accumulated almost 100 million views. According to Aux Mode, a digital service that projects the value of YouTube videos, 100 million views translates to about $400,000 of revenue. The popularity of a channel and its engagement rate can increase the value of those videos even further.
“Some people in my fan base can recite every single stunt I performed in those videos but don’t know how many titles I’ve won,” says Belmonte, who’s captured 25 Professional Bowlers Association titles, including a record 13 major championships. “Entertainment is king right now. Whether you’re bowling around a dude’s head or doing the world’s longest strike, entertainment is what sticks in people’s minds.”
Until television rights deals increase enough to start funding substantial salaries in niche sports, social media is the best way for these athletes to earn a living. Life-changing money is out there, but they do have to earn it.
new source: the ringer