Success: Hobby a business for flying disc jockey

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Tossing a Frisbee has gone from casual fun, to organised sport, to money-spinner.

Bob Gentil now profits from a game he's been involved with for 30 years. Photo / Natalie Slade
Bob Gentil now profits from a game he's been involved with for 30 years. Photo / Natalie Slade

It's a fair bet many business readers won't have heard of the sport of Frisbee golf. Yet at Waitangi weekend, the 34th annual Frisbee golf championships will be held at Spa Park in Taupo.

Spa Park is one of this country's 16 Frisbee golf courses and is sanctioned by the international Professional Disc Golf Association, which boasts more than 11,000 pro players worldwide.

Officially, it's called disc golf because of commercial issues with Wham-O, the company that makes the Frisbee. But as businessman and Frisbee golfer Bob Gentil says, everyone can imagine how Frisbee golf might be played - but disc golf? That's not so easy to imagine. Most players call it Frisbee golf.

Gentil, New Zealand's second highest ranking Frisbee golf player, says the sport is big business. The top echelon of players earn more than US$100,000 ($124,000) from prize money and sponsorship on the international circuit, he says, and there is a solid business around providing the equipment needed to play the game.

Such is its popularity, there are computer game versions of the sport. If Frisbee golf can achieve enough momentum to go mainstream, then broadcasting revenue comes into the picture.

Gentil should know about Frisbee golf's business potential. He's been involved as a player and Frisbee importer since the sport's inception in New Zealand in the mid-1970s and, more recently, as a promoter of golf Frisbees manufactured by local company Aotearoa Flying Discs.

Quite how lucrative it is, is a sensitive issue for him. He's copped some flak from local players for turning a profit from the game he spent 30 years developing. But then, capitalism is a dirtier word in flying disc circles than it is among the golfing fraternity. Unlike the plus-fours game, most Frisbee golf courses are free to play.

But there is money in it. Frisbee golf players pack up to 20 discs to play: "A golfer carries Frisbees like a caddie carries clubs," says Gentil. "I carry a golf bag with three or four drivers, some designed to fly a long way and fly to the left [or the right], some mid-range [left or right] and then a putter, which is a rounded disc but they are more bevel-edged smaller diameter discs.

"It's played exactly the same way you play ball golf; instead of hitting a ball round a course, you throw Frisbees," he explains. "You throw from behind a tee and wherever you land, you mark with a mini-marker or you can leave that disc on the ground if you're going to use another disc and your foot has to be 300mm behind that and you finish [by throwing the disc] into chains and it drops into a basket."

Some discs go missing during play, which is why Frisbee golf is "a manufacturer's dream," he says.

Gentil speaks in the mellifluous tones of an experienced broadcaster. He cut his teeth at Radio Hauraki during the pirate radio days, eventually moving on to the breakfast show at ZM. But even back then, "everybody knew me as Bob Frisbee Gentil".

His commercial involvement started when he was approached by Lincoln Toys to endorse its range of discs.

His percentage cut of sales convinced him of the sport's commercial potential. Gentil started importing Innova brand discs for local players "and that's just grown and grown and now I am the Innova agent for New Zealand and import thousands".

"I was passionate about it and I did it because I wanted people to have the gear and go out there and throw but it became an accidental business," he says. Now it's become so big that he has moved out of the garage and into a purpose-built warehouse at the end of the family driveway.

He also markets Aotearoa Flying Discs, which are of international quality but which he can sell more cheaply than the Innova product. "I looked at the New Zealand ones and I thought I had to be involved," he says. He exports local discs, and says is "probably the go-to site in Australasia".

The business has become a respectable small enterprise, albeit one that will never provide an adequate return on the investment Gentil has made over the decades.

Gentil doesn't mind because he loves the game: "What do I like about disc golf? It's simple; it's the flight of a piece of plastic through the air and that's all it is."

- NZ Herald

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