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Disc golf tournament hopes to herald COVID recovery

The Northern Ontario Disc Golf Tournament is expected to draw up to 200 players to Thunder Bay at the end of July.

THUNDER BAY – The first major sports championship played in Thunder Bay since the pandemic began will involve a sport still in its infancy in the city.

Organizers hope the two-day Northern Ontario Disc Golf Championship planned for July 31 will help restore confidence in post-COVID travel, as well as boosting the profile of the growing sport locally.

The championship is a Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) sanctioned A-tier tournament expected to draw some of the nation’s top players, along with amateurs.

Chris Ozolins, executive director of the Ontario Disc Sports Association, was in Thunder Bay over the weekend conducting site visits of three local disc golf courses along with two other organizers, Cara Hovius and Jeff MacKeigan.

Ozolins said participation in the sport has more than doubled since 2014 in Ontario, and he hopes the championship will spur even more interest from Thunder Bay-area residents – and draw players from elsewhere to visit what he called a “hidden gem.”

The Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC) has bet on the success of the event, approving $10,000 in financial support from its Municipal Accommodation Tax (MAT) fund.

The agency claimed in a release that investment will generate an estimated return on investment for the local economy of $12.96 for each dollar spent.

With 170 to 200 players expected to participate, coming from as far afield as British Columbia and Nova Scotia, the CEDC pegs the event’s economic impact at around $130,000.

Perhaps more importantly, said tourism development officer John Cameron, it can showcase the city’s resurgent ability to host major events.  

“I think this is just a way to kick-start a sport tourism event that brings visitors from out of town, and just shows they have confidence to travel again,” he said. “It’s going to have a big impact on our local hotel and motel industry that’s been hit hard by the pandemic.”

The CEDC has been working with organizers on the event for the past six months, developing COVID-19 contingency plans in view of the shifting pandemic situation and public health restrictions.

With COVID numbers down in the area and the vaccine rollout beating initial targets, organizers are hopeful Ontario will have moved to Step 3 in its reopening framework by the time of the event, under which larger gatherings will be permitted.

“We recognize that the COVID situation is evolving, but we’re hopeful the ongoing vaccine roll-out and the limited case counts in Thunder Bay will help to further mitigate any risk covered by our COVID contingency plans,” said Ozolins.

Players themselves will be outdoors in groups of four, following rules similar to those for golf, limiting COVID risks. It’s the ability to accommodate spectators, and the social events outside of the games that are more dependent on the loosening of restrictions.

“During the week leading up to the event, we are planning a disc golf festival-like atmosphere that will celebrate the sport of disc golf and will include additional events and activities such as flex starts, doubles events, and a board game night,” said Hovius.

Along with MacKeigan, she conducted site visits at three local courses to identify improvements needed to host the event.  

The event is confirmed to take place at the Dragon Hills and Bayview golf courses, both of which also host disc golf courses. Organizers are still awaiting confirmation from the City of Thunder Bay on the ability to use the Birch Point disc golf course at Boulevard Lake.

The Northern Ontario championship has been held in Thunder Bay since 2019, starting with a small group of around 30 mostly local participants. Last year, when local COVID-19 cases plunged during the summer, the event drew 59 participants.

This year’s expanded event has the potential to grow interest significantly, Cameron believes.

“Disc golf is new, it’s something exciting,” he said. “It’s something we wouldn’t normally think about – it’s not one of your traditional sports. I think it’s going to be a real eye-opener.”

Cameron’s goal is to see the city eventually host a national championship, after demonstrating its capacity to put on a PDGA event this year.

Successfully pulling off the Northern Ontario championship will also bode well for the city’s hopes to host the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in January of 2022.

“The fact that we can maybe host a very successful championship event earlier on this summer is going to show that Thunder Bay is a safe place to visit, and that we have all the measures and protocols in place so that visitors can confidently come here and have a great time,” he said.

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