Growing the sport, one stream at a time

July 25, 2023

Because of its low cost of entry and inherent social-distancing properties, disc golf exploded in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, through their video production company Gatekeeper Media, UArts classmates and collaborators Derek Scull BFA ’13 (Communication) and Chris German BFA ’13 (Multimedia) stand on the leading edge of popularizing the once-niche sport.

For the uninitiated, disc golf follows similar rules to traditional golf. Across 18 holes, players attempt to land their discs—smaller, more aerodynamic versions of your typical Frisbee—in a metal basket with dangling chains in the fewest number of attempts. It’s really no surprise that the sport’s casual player base has exploded in recent years, since the overwhelming majority of the country’s nearly 10,000 courses are free to access. Philadelphia hosts one of the oldest courses, designed in 1977 by “Steady” Ed Headrick, inventor of the Frisbee and disc golf’s targets.

As the sport has evolved, so, too, has the interest in following its professional side, which is where Scull and German have established themselves as preeminent content producers. Friends since they met while students at UArts, the duo started Philadelphia-based Gatekeeper Media in 2017 to provide video services to nonprofits and other commercial clients. They didn’t become avid disc golfers after graduation, but now, their network of camera operators crisscross the country, following the sport’s professionals as they compete in multi-day tournaments for an ever-swelling purse of prize money.

Though funds have poured into the sport recently, disc golf still maintains its patina of independence and grassroots effort. The average professional player and crews from Gatekeeper’s peer companies mostly travel—and sleep—in built-out vans as they head from tournament to tournament. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they can count on the hospitality of their fans for a place to crash or shower.

“When we first started,” Scull said, “it was just me and Chris sleeping in a Honda Odyssey in Walmart parking lots. It felt like we were on a skateboard tour or something.”

“Some days, it’s a two-hour drive; other days it’s 20, depending on where we’re going,” added German, who, now married and with a small family, does rely on commercial flights much more than in Gatekeeper’s early days.

This spring and summer alone, Gatekeeper has been present at tournaments in Nevada, Texas, Arkansas, Oregon and even Sweden, and it won’t stop until December when professional disc golf’s season officially concludes. The company’s post-production coverage, almost always presented the morning following an event, is delivered on YouTube to more than 137,000 subscribers and through the Disc Golf Pro Tour’s streaming platform.

That coverage—a mix of drone flyovers of each hole, scenic b-roll, quick checks of what discs the pros are playing with that day and shot-by-shot footage—is a hectic undertaking, according to German. As the players reach the halfway point of their round, he collects the memory cards from four separate cameras and begins the editing process, ensuring it’s ready for their hired commentators to add input later that night. Once everything is assembled, German crosses his fingers for stable internet, never a given in the woods or the mountains, and uploads the fully polished footage for Gatekeeper’s followers to devour the next morning.

“Once, I was in the mountains with zero internet,” German recalled. “So, to upload the videos, I was on the hotspot in the car, in a parking lot at a grocery store. I sat in that car for three hours to get it uploaded, because that was the only internet that we had.”

In all of its work, Gatekeeper’s core mission is to nurture the sport as it continues to grow, and grown it has. One could rightfully argue that disc golf is poised to shed its obscure status, now that several of its best professional players have signed multimillion-dollar contracts with disc manufacturers and augment their income with sponsorship deals. Even celebrities like Kristofer Hivju, who starred in HBO’s Game of Thrones, and Emmy-winning TV host and chef Andrew Zimmern are vocal ambassadors. In fact, one of Gatekeeper’s more popular videos is an interview it filmed with Zimmern, who credits the sport with saving his life as he recovered from addiction.

Firmly established in the U.S., Gatekeeper is now turning its eyes on further exploring live coverage and advancing international disc golf, Scull said. So far, they’ve covered championships and professional tours in Australia and Sweden and have plans to be present at events in the Netherlands and South Africa. As Gatekeeper’s reach has grown, Scull said, they’ve seen their content go viral in places like India, which ranks in the top five countries that tune in to Gatekeeper’s coverage regularly.

“It goes to show that some of our efforts are helping grow the sport and show it to new audiences. I’m really excited to work with more international groups, because these are players who would never get highlighted unless they came to America,” Scull said. “I think the more worldwide inclusion, the better. And hopefully, one day, we can see the sport in the Olympics.”