Q and A with industry insider Brian Sullivan of Discraft
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the name Brian Sullivan was synonymous with disc golf media. He founded and ran the magazine-style website disclife.com, hosted television’s Disc TV, served a term on the PDGA
board of directors, and created the weekly PDGA Radio podcast before the term podcast had even been coined. But that all changed in 2005, when he went behind the scenes and joined the staff at Discraft to help the company grow in pace with the disc sports it serves. More than a decade later, I asked him for some perspective on where Discraft has been, and where it’s headed along with plenty of other insights.
1) How did Discraft get its start?
In the mid-1970’s, Discraft founders Jim Kenner and Gail McColl (McColl far left is freestyling and Kenner to the right of her) were each touring Canada on Freestyle teams, putting on shows and demos. In 1974 they helped to create the first judged Freestyle Tournament, and Jim wondered why they couldn’t get better discs for the event. Jim once told a disc sports historian that “the discs is those days were manufactured to be toys, and we wanted high performance sports equipment to keep up with the increasing skills of the players.” In 1978 he created the Sky-Pro, an all-purpose flier, and the following year the Discraft company was born in southeast Michigan. A disc that would affect the sporting lives of millions was waiting just around the corner: In 1981, Discraft released the UltraStar ultimate disc, which would go on to unseat a long-popular Wham-O disc to become the first official disc of the Ultimate Players Association (now USA Ultimate) in 1991, a position it has retained for the nearly 30 years from then to now. The reason for that longevity is as simple as Discraft’s slogan: quality and consistency. Despite the dozens of ultimate discs that various companies have introduced over the years, the world’s seven million ultimate players continue to use the Discraft UltraStar virtually exclusively, and we work extremely hard to continue to earn their trust with each and every disc. Discraft moved into disc golf in 1983 with the release of the Sky-Streak and the Phantom. These were also the first discs to be crafted out of the emerging new varieties of engineered polymer plastics. They were durable for the time, flew great, and were an immediate hit among the small but growing ranks of disc golfers. Of course, many Discraft disc golf molds have been introduced since then, most notably the Buzzz midrange, the disc that has a place in more disc golfer’s bags around the world than any other. Sadly, co-founder Gail McColl passed away earlier this year. Through her playing career Gail earned six Canadian Women's disc golf titles, the 1976 World Freestyle title and won the Women’s Disc Golf title at the 1978 World Frisbee Championships. She was inducted into the Disc Golf Hall of Fame in 2015. Jim Kenner retains his title as Discraft President, and today is deservedly semi-retired. A World Freestyle champion, Kenner has joined Dan "Stork" Roddick to become only the second individual to be inducted into both the Ultimate and Disc Golf Halls of Fame. 2) What sets Discraft apart from other companies? I think there are a number of things separate Discraft from other disc sports manufacturers, but here’s the primary one: it begins with decades of commitment to the science and engineering of disc flight. Look, anyone can learn plastic injection molding. Most disc golf companies simply grab a Discraft or Innova disc, copy it into a CAD drawing, add a tiny tweak, turn that into a mold, manufacture overseas and sell them to players at premium prices. They all have a Challenger copy, they all have a Buzzz, they all have a Nuke. Discraft, led by Jim Kenner, has been using science and engineering since the 1970s to study the physics of flight and evolve the flying disc into what it is today. This fact -- along with high manufacturing standards -- is what puts consistency as the number one reason why Discraft is valued by our customers and what sets us apart. We understand how to make a quality flying disc, and how to manufacture it to be consistent from run to run, year after year. The downside of this commitment to science-based manufacturing has been showing in recent years, and frankly we’re frustrated by it: Joe and Jill Teepad in the general marketplace don’t necessarily care. So while much of our spending goes into development and testing equipment, R&D using highly educated professional employees and manufacturing with a US workforce and production costs, many of the new disc companies are able to cut out the majority of these costs by copying molds and manufacturing overseas. They charge just as much for their discs as Discraft does, giving them much larger discretionary budgets that can be used for marketing, high profile pro player sponsorships, and development of every accessory known to disc golf (also all manufactured overseas, of course). We have certainly come to understand how music legends were feeling when the era of music sampling began and suddenly their work was being used to turn relative hacks into stars. But there is an upside to this for us. Having been around as long as we have, it’s been all about slow and steady growth. As a result, we have no debt. We own our buildings, we own our machines, we don’t have to take out a loan when it’s time to order more plastic or invest in new technology. I can’t image how the accountants at some of these newcomers are getting any sleep, staring up at mountains of debt, because there is no way their income is even remotely matching their spending. One ugly lawsuit, one weak insurance policy or one bad public relations blunder and (snaps his fingers), they’re gone, bankrupt. Jim Kenner built Discraft on a rock, we can weather any storm. 6) What is a starter pack for players new to Discraft? New players: Driver: Avenger SS. Great distance, forgiving, easy to control, useful in a wide variety of situation. Rolls like a dream too. Mid: Buzzz. No better golf disc exists. Putter: Roach or Magnet, depending on which grip you prefer. Trick/utility: Stratus driver. Look up the old video that Mike Randolph made using the Stratus. The disc is magic. Experienced players: Driver: Nuke. A lot of my colleagues would argue for Crank or Thrasher or Force for good reasons, but Nuke has proven itself to deliver outstanding distance to the widest possible swath of players. Mid: Buzzz Putter: Challenger or Banger GT, again depending on your grip preference. Trick/utility: Zone putter. Another magic disc that serves most often as a driver. 8) Personally, what's your favorite disc?
Gah. Guess I would have to say Buzzz, but I’ve been throwing our new mini line up a ton lately. So much fun to rip one of those things 300 feet accurately. 9) Again, personally, what's your favorite course?
I’ve played all over the world, but I always feel most at home at Flip City in Michigan. Unfortunately old injuries (shoulder, elbow) keep my rounds limited these days. 10) What is your take on disc golf sponsorships these days?
Player sponsorship used to be a family atmosphere, when the relationship between manufacturers and teams was fiercely and equally loyal. We would often keep players on for many years after they started slowing down competitively, and conversely the players would say no thanks to offers from other brands. Lots of our players – Nate Doss is the perfect example – still value and share this aesthetic. I can’t imagine how many offers to move to a different team he has gotten over the years, but Nate has said no to every single one. He’s a Discraft guy, end of story. And he’ll have an honored place on Team Discraft for as long as he likes. Today the industry has entered what I call the gunslinger era of player sponsorship, when players are jumping from brand to brand every year or two. Bigger money sponsorships don’t buy loyalty to a brand and don’t buy success for a brand. When Prodigy first appeared, they paid relatively big bucks to lure many of our top players away who then helped to promote that new brand. And yes, they got a lot of attention from it and a lot of players tried Prodigy discs, but many found the plastic to be wildly inconsistent. Two years later they were a mess, and most of the players bailed when their contracts were done. We were talking recently with a high profile player who told us that he expected his sponsor to help build his personal brand. We understand that it is very difficult to make a living as a professional disc golfer, but that is the statement of a gunslinger. We politely declined to offer a sponsorship. At this point Discraft is still focused on building our team as a family. New additions need to demonstrate that they are already passionate about the quality and performance of our discs. We know how much (or how little) overall industry sales are, and have no intention of getting into bidding wars for two year contracts with certain top-rated pros who will simply start the bidding again at the contract’s conclusion. But we are glad that many of our competitors are willing to do so, because the debt they are racking up isn’t sustainable, and Discraft has every intention of being around for the next 40 years.
I wanted to say thank you to Brian and the entire Discraft team for letting me interview him, using these amazing pictures, and getting such great insights on the process and procedures of Discraft. If you would like to check out Discraft you can visit discraft.com to see more about them. [if !supportLineBreakNewLine] [endif]