The Cost of Touring: A Fuller Picture [Pt. 1]Posted by On 8th April 2021


Estimating the cost of being a touring disc golf professional.

The parking lot at the 2018 Beaver State Fling. Photo: Alyssa Van Lanen – PDGA.

Well, now you’ve done it. You told your parents you were going to follow your dream of being a professional disc golfer. Your defense is that they weren’t nearly specific enough when they said you needed a job if you wanted to stay in their house. So let’s use the back of this now-useless college application envelope to estimate what the actual cost of a touring season is. Since we’re still early in the tour, let’s see how much you need saved up to make this possible. Fortunately, you planned well and have a quick trigger finger and/or your rating is sufficient to be in an early flight, so you’re able to click your way into any tournament you really need.

Ultiworld Disc Golf’s recent article referencing Jordan Kim and James Conrad’s experience as vanlifers — and the affordability of that lifestyle — got me thinking about how to quantify the actual cost of a full touring season, since as Bennett noted, “Kim’s breakdown doesn’t capture the entire financial commitment needed to live the van life, such as payments on the vehicle and maintenance (or food, of course), but it does cover what a disc golfer’s cost per night or event may look like.” A quick perusal of DGPT and National Tour registration pages suggests that there’s something on the order of 80-100 MPO and FPO players planning some form of continuous tour in 2021. Some, like 2020 Ezra Aderhold (who’s upgraded to Discraft RV status for 2021), live in their cars with minimal modification. The next level of touring luxury is converting a van or having an RV/trailer. Some who can afford it or have other home considerations instead choose to fly into big events, ostensibly renting a car and room in most cases.

All of those travel styles have further choices of cost and convenience–staying in hotels or rentals vs. with friends or a host family vs. camping (or in your vehicle). Eating out regularly vs. doing all of your own cooking. Following the full tour vs. deviating to other events.

So in order to come up with a reasonable estimate of how much a season of touring would cost, here are some assumptions I’ve made:

  • This is not all-inclusive. Use it as an authoritative guide for your savings account/2022 fund at your own peril. These costs are pretty much specific to touring. Many things (car insurance, health insurance1, phone bills, hygiene items, clothes and shoes, etc.) are pretty much the same regardless of what you’re doing. I genuinely don’t know how much other people spend on these, and they vary enough that I don’t feel good about assigning a stock value.
    • Vehicle maintenance is assumed to be a touring cost, but a case could be made to subtract out what an “average” driver would do in a year for gas and then the associated upkeep of oil changes, new tires, etc.
    • I didn’t include a gym membership or similar for showering. Go jump in a lake. Flop around a bit and we’ll call it doing your laundry too.
  • The hypothetical players involved don’t have any expenses (mortgage/rent, utilities, etc) at home, but have a home base they could go back to for no cost during or after the season as necessary. The vehicles involved are fully paid off and in good working condition. For the purposes of this study, I selected Baltimore, MD, as the starting and ending location.
    • “No expenses” is a pretty big simplifying assumption, so it would be reasonable to add several thousand dollars to all cases (or, if you’d like to try to enhance the model, go ahead) to cover the non-touring months and various recurring payments throughout the year.
    •  Admittedly, this is a US-centric study; the many excellent European players begin at an even greater disadvantage by needing to take trans-Atlantic flights just to start the US segment of a tour, and then need to school up on geography, obtain a touring vehicle and lodging accommodations, and be prepared to not go home at all for several months.
  • I used the USDA Food Plans Cost of Food publication for January 2021 to estimate a monthly cost for food. To keep it simple, everyone gets the moderate-cost plan for age 19-50. For men, this is $314.80; for women this is $267.20. If you go to Europe, you get a $200 addition for that month because no one, even a penurious disc golfer, goes to Europe wanting only PB&J. At $9-10 a day, this is buying and cooking grocery store food for nearly every meal2–dining out or eating prepared foods would be a significant addition.
  • Plan to follow the tour and play every weekend.
    • Some players might go chasing a honeypot payout off-tour or perhaps skip the west coast swing to reduce driving time, or go home for a couple weeks in the middle of the year. Nah dog. We’re all in. It’s also really hard to know the actual upside of events without seeing payout tables or registration lists.
    • For the most part, the choice for each weekend was pretty self-explanatory. The exceptions were July 9-11 and July 16-18, when there are three competing A-tiers in Wisconsin, Michigan, and either Iowa or Indiana. I chose one with the highest advertised added cash, and one where I could stay with a friend nearby.
    • You could tack on a couple early or late events in your home area if you wanted to, but that’s a less universal “touring pro” schedule.
    • There has been a recent addition of the Throw Pink Women’s Disc Golf Championships in Rock Hill, SC, October 6-9. Without additional information, I can’t speculate on entry fees or resulting payout potential. So it’s mapped but only a lodging cost for that week is included.
  • Entry fees are sourced from DGScene + 2% for various fees. Tournaments that don’t have registration posted yet were estimated from equivalent events. When applicable, 1 Euro = 1.21 USD3.
  • Many sponsored players get entry fees paid for, travel stipends, or performance bonuses. This study assumes a player doesn’t have access to any of those things.

The binary choices of touring options I selected are elucidated in this table:

Primary Division Tour Location Lodging Preference Travel Vehicle
MPO US events only Camping Only Car (MPG: 40 highway/30 city)
FPO US + Europe events Indoor/Outdoor Cat Van (MPG: 18 highway/15 city)
  • Primary Division is self-explanatory. Some FPO entry fees are a little less than MPO, so the net difference is about $1000 over the course of a full season. This comes into play more in part 2, where I’ll try to estimate how well you have to play to break even on tour on tournament winnings alone.
  • Tour Location denotes whether the entire tour is based in the US4 or whether the player chooses to take a four-week trip to Europe centered around the European Open Major. If you take the four-week trip, you drive from Utah to Chicago, park your vehicle for free, and fly to Europe. I found some flights representative of the cost for the round trip, as well as flights between Finland and Norway. It might make more logistical sense to fly out of Minneapolis, but those flights were more expensive and less direct, so call it a wash. While you’re overseas, you rent a room, rather than camp.
  • Lodging Preference is perhaps the greatest variable in how much it costs to tour. Jordan and James state that they spent an average of $7.02/night in 2020, but this included both camping and some room rentals. Let’s say you’re as good as they are at finding free/cheap spots, and that’s your nightly cost.
    • Camping Only is simply that, $7.02 a night times the entire season’s worth of days unless you can stay with a host for $0. If you go through the effort of touring in a van, let’s also assume that you’ll only camp for $7.02 or stay somewhere for free.
    • An Indoor/Outdoor Cat will instead prioritize as follows:
      • Camp on nights not preceding a tournament round. Before every tournament round, you don’t gamble on the weather, so you find a place to stay indoors, even if it costs more.
      • Stay with friends for $50/visit. I’ve gone through my rolodex of real humans I know near these events and assumed that all of them would just love to have my disc golf shoes and bag muddying up their carpet for a week at a time. I’ll assume that most hypothetical players would be able to find some friends near some of the tour stops.
      • Get a hotel room or AirBnB. Let’s assume that this is an average cost of $80/night.5
  •  Travel Vehicle is a pretty simple binary choice: you’re either in a car (which gets 40 mpg on the highway and 30 on surface roads) or a Van (18 highway/15 surface roads).
    • EIA.gov says $2.40/gallon nationwide average for 2021 as of 2/18/21.
    • I used Google Maps to find mileage between stops, using a known course when possible, but a few miles here and there is pretty irrelevant long-term.
    • While at a tournament, I assumed 50 miles of surface road driving during the event, or the actual travel distance if I knew I’d be staying with a friend or at home for an event. In a couple cases, I manually changed the formula to use highway mpg rather than surface road mpg.
    • When Google Maps said the route had a toll, I looked it up on tollguru.com using a Maryland EZPass.
    • I’m not even going to hazard a guess at further cases for an RV, trailer, or fly-in/out lifestyle.
    • This is the bare minimum–side trips for sightseeing, additional practice round days, or a less on-tour tournament would add additional mileage. This turns out not to be a significant contribution to the total cost, though.

The US + Europe touring map, with the US-only swing shown in dark blue and the European option shown in red. Click to expand.
  • Assume that a car or van in good working order only needs an oil change and tire rotation every 5000 miles, and would need new tires every 30,000 miles or so. Turns out that’s about 5 oil changes and a new set of tires pretty much by the end of the touring season. Let’s say that for the year it’s about $500 to get that done on a car and $750 on a van. Yes, you can do those things yourself, but having a little maintenance slush money available is just a good idea.
  • Since many players travel together for part or all of the year, I’ve also tried to estimate how to split the touring cost with a travel partner. Essentially, each player is responsible for their own entry fees and flights (if applicable) but they split all other expenses (lodging, gas, tolls, maintenance). This seems like a great deal if you can find someone you can stand continuously for 37 straight weeks, since in addition to the cost savings, it makes the long hauls between some tour stops a lot more palatable, and the players’ brains and bodies a lot fresher when they arrive at their next stop.
  • One further thought before getting into results is that the choice of a car or van encompasses a very wide range of cost and utility. A small, fuel-efficient car in 2021 dollars is in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $20,000 new. An SUV starts to push $30,000 new. Some quick searching suggests that new vans get into the $35,000+ range, and then the practical thing to do is to customize it. Jordan estimated that James has put $5,000 (and assuredly many hours) of modifications into his van, but a low-end estimate for utility would be $1500-2000. A van is also likely to incur higher maintenance costs than a car. Buying used would certainly reduce any of those purchase costs, but a functional vehicle remains a big assumption, since it’s both a prerequisite cost, means of transportation, and, for some, a home.

Here is a look at the cost breakdown:

MPO Player, Traveling Solo

Travel Decisions Additional Cost Total Cost
Camping Only, Car $13,500
Add Europe +$3,900 $17,400
Add Van +$2,100 $15,600
Add Van + Europe +$5,600 $19,100
Add Lodging +$6,300 $19,800
Add Lodging + Europe +$9,600 $23,100

FPO Player, Traveling Solo

Travel Decisions Additional Cost Total Cost
Camping Only, Car $11,700
Add Europe +$4,900 $16,600
Add Van +$2,000 $13,700
Add Van + Europe +$6,600 $18,300
Add Lodging +$6,300 $18,000
Add Lodging + Europe +$10,500 $22,200

The following charts aggregate the costs for MPO and FPO players visually, first by all expenses, and then by excluding entry fees (which are more of a fixed cost) to illustrate how choices of touring vehicle, overnight stays, and going to Europe are real cost drivers for one’s tour.

Below is a look at the per-person cost for players traveling together:

2 MPO Players Traveling Together

Travel Decisions Additional Cost Total Cost
Camping Only, Car $11,900
Add Europe +$3,000 $14,900
Add Van +$1,000 $12,900
Add Van + Europe +$3,900 $15,800
Add Lodging +$3,200 $15,100
Add Lodging + Europe +$5,900 $17,800

2 FPO Players Traveling Together

Travel Decisions Additional Cost Total Cost
Camping Only, Car $10,100
Add Europe +$4,000 $14,100
Add Van +$1,000 $11,100
Add Van + Europe +$4,900 $15,000
Add Lodging +$3,100 $13,200
Add Lodging + Europe +$6,800 $16,900

MPO + FPO Players Traveling Together

Travel Decisions Additional Cost Total Cost
Camping Only, Car $11,000
Add Europe +$3,400 $14,400
Add Van +$1,000 $12,000
Add Van + Europe +$4,300 $15,300
Add Lodging +$3,100 $14,100
Add Lodging + Europe +$6,300 $17,300

Conclusions

The least expensive touring option involves traveling in a car and camping at every opportunity. No surprise there. Doing so results in a baseline cost near $11,700-$13,500 traveling solo, or $10,000-$12,000 each with a touring partner. A van adds $2,000 more for a solo traveler, or $1,000 each with a touring partner, with the majority of the cost on gas but a relative savings over staying in hotels or AirBnBs. A month-long trip to Europe adds in the neighborhood of $3,000-$5,000, depending on the player’s primary division and whether they have a touring partner to split lodging costs for the month. Deluxe lodging — getting a hotel or AirBnB before every tournament round — is a huge cost driver; that alone is over $6,000 if you’re solo, or $3,000 each with a touring partner.

One thing that I found a little bit surprising is that the cost of gas is actually not that bad — only about $1550 in a car or $3350 in a van. However, using a nationwide average isn’t necessarily the best assumption: several weeks in California and Oregon would be far more expensive than $2.40/gallon. Fortunately, the oil production industry is notoriously stable, so there’s little risk of fuel costs jumping unexpectedly.

It looks like no matter how you slice it, it would take at least a couple years of touring to offset the higher up-front van cost with savings on lodging. Another consideration regarding the relative cheapness of prioritizing camping may be that women, even in groups, may feel less personally safe when camping. This creates an implicit cost wherein women may need to seek out hotels or other lodging more frequently.

Entry fees are the biggest “fixed” cost to every player — it’s $6,000-$8,000, depending on the primary division and whether one stays in the US or travels to Europe. So, for players negotiating with a sponsor, having them pay for entry fees is a huge deal–it puts you a lot closer to breaking even on the big events, since it’s now pretty standard for NT, PT, and Major entry fees to be $250 or so, and those now comprise the majority of the professional touring season.

As noted earlier, it might make more financial sense for a player to deviate from the tour or perhaps stay around their home area for part of the year. Even playing B-tiers at $50-75 or A-tiers at $100-$150 is a smaller entry fee hole to dig out of than at Elite Series events, particularly if lodging and travel is substantially reduced and the performance threshold for cashing is less. That calculation is dependent on a player’s home area but also whether they have sponsors who want them on tour and the benefits of exposure that one great performance on a live-streamed or large post-produced channel could elicit.

Finally, I’d like to reiterate that life circumstances that allow a player the ability to choose to tour require quite a bit of privilege, both financially and socially. A player with no savings, no vehicle, outstanding debts, or family members in need of care at home simply would never be able to drop everything and play professionally without outside help. The minimum price tag of known expenses for a season is well over $10,000, so players with no or low-level sponsorships are really betting on themselves by going full-time–hence why first-time touring players anecdotally tend to be either just out of high school or making a push after saving up for a few years. The price tag of touring is manageable, but it takes some fortuitous life conditions, backed up by a great deal of talent and focus, in order to be sustainable beyond one season.

Coming up in part 2: what does it take to break even?

  1. Andrew Fish

    Andrew Fish (he/him/his) plays out of Baltimore, MD, and is sponsored by Discraft and Upper Park Disc Golf. Fish’s day job as a civil engineer means that he tours sparingly, but keeps a busy schedule in the mid-Atlantic. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter at @fish58320 for occasional deep dives into the unintended consequences of sports growth, course design, and not-yet-disproven claims that he is the Thumbermaster.

TAGGED: Budget, Budgeting, The Cost of Touring, Touring, Van Life

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