Tourism Winnipeg routinely touts the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, The Forks and Assiniboine Park as must-sees for anybody visiting the city.
The way things have been going lately, the marketing board may want to add an Exchange District shop specializing in UFOs — that’s über-popular, flying objects — to its list of can’t-miss tourist attractions.
Jason The (pronounced Tay) is the founder of Disc Republic, 50 Princess St. The 18-month-old enterprise is devoted almost entirely to disc golf, a fast-growing activity that calls on participants to aim Frisbee-type projectiles at faraway targets, using rules similar to conventional golf. As one of the largest stores of its kind in Canada, Disc Republic, which also carries a small selection of items associated with the disc team sport Ultimate, routinely draws parties from across the country and beyond who inform The that his operation is the reason they’re visiting Winnipeg in the first place.
"Online sales are a huge part of what we do, and to date, we’ve shipped items as far as Australia, New Zealand and Estonia," The says, touring a visitor past a rainbow-coloured menagerie of plastic saucers sorted onto multiple display racks by size, weight and shade. "Still, lots of people prefer to hold a disc in their hands before buying it, and make a special trip to the city to check us out for themselves."
The, 40, studied computer science at the University of Manitoba from 2000 to 2005. While there, he and a few pals habitually headed to the "quad" — a green space near the campus’s Duckworth Centre – during their spares, to get some exercise by tossing a Frisbee back and forth.
One day a friend of theirs who played in an organized Ultimate league joined in. On their way back to class, he told The his team was always looking for new players; perhaps he’d be interested? He was, and fell in love with the sport immediately. Before long, he was playing as many as five nights a week on four different teams.
That pattern continued for the next 15 years; at least, whenever The, who also runs his own IT firm, wasn’t criss-crossing the globe as a professional video-gamer. In 2005, he won a silver medal for Canada at that year’s World Cyber Games, staged in Singapore.
Three years ago, one of The’s Ultimate teammates commented that the two of them weren’t getting any younger, and perhaps it was time to move on to a sport that would be a little less strenuous on their bodies. They decided to try their hand at disc golf, which has been around in one form or another since the 1960s, and headed to St. Boniface’s Happyland Park, home of Winnipeg’s longest-running disc golf course.
"At the start, I was really terrible, but being the competitive person that I am, I worked hard at improving my skills which, in turn, allowed me to enjoy the game more," says The who, like most novices, began with a single disc before steadily adding to his arsenal. He currently carries 24 discs, but that’s only because his bag can’t fit any more than that.
The problem was, when The took up the sport, there wasn’t anywhere in Winnipeg one could go to buy disc golf gear; specifically, discs labelled as drivers, mid-rangers and putters, each of which is employed depending how far away from a target a player is, or how windy the conditions are. (The same as golf, "holes" are hundreds of yards in length, and "shots" are played from where the disc lands following each preceding throw.)
He was shopping online for discs in July 2020 when he had an idea: because his expertise is software development, and because the websites he was staring at were "ancient" by his standards, why not set up his own web-based operation, by importing discs from leading manufacturers, and distributing them out of the two-storey Princess Street building that was already housing his IT biz?
Billed as "Canada’s Disc Golf Store," Disc Republic opened as an online entity in the fall of 2020. By then because of the pandemic, most of his IT staff were working from home, so he began filling up their vacated, second-floor offices with discs, along with related merchandise, such as branded apparel, laser rangefinders, retrievers (in case a disc lands in a tree or in the drink)… even regulation-size, disc golf baskets for anybody who wanted to practice putting in the comfort of their own backyard.
In December of that year, one of his main-floor tenants, a funeral preparation service, chose not to re-lease the space. That was when he moved the entirety of his inventory, currently about 50,000 discs, downstairs. Soon thereafter, Disc Republic went from being a web store to a bricks-and-mortar, retail location that, as we mentioned earlier, began welcoming callers from every corner of the globe.
There are a number of things that make disc golf attractive, The says. First of all, it’s economical. While some of the close to 7,000 courses in the United States and Canada charge a nominal fee to play, all five layouts in Winnipeg are free to utilize. Secondly, disc golf, like its ball-and-club counterpart, is what he calls a life sport. One of his regular customers is someone in his late 30s whose weekend foursome is made up of his 10- and 12-year-old sons and his 70-year-old father.
Get proficient enough and disc golf can also be lucrative, he says. Last fall, a tournament in Charlotte, N.C. offered a purse of $250,000, with $30,000 of that going to the victor. Better still, American Paul McBeth, a five-time world disc golf champ, recently signed a 10-year endorsement deal with Discraft, a Michigan-based manufacturer, that will net him a cool US$10 million.
OK, maybe The doesn’t have that kind of dough to throw around, but his store is sponsoring several events in the coming months, including a beginners’ tournament at La Barriere Park scheduled for June 25, as well as one in Melville, Sask. on Sept. 17 that will pit Manitoba disc golfers against their Saskatchewan counterparts, Banjo Bowl-style.
"I have a warehouse a couple blocks away where we keep some of the larger items, like three-metre-tall training nets," he says. "My ultimate goal would be to have everything in one space, with enough room for people to be able to try discs out, before buying."
Even though his store has been up and running for close to a year-and-a-half, The still considers it a bit of a well-kept secret, at least here at home.
"There have been times we took online orders from Winnipeggers who had no idea we’re a local business," he says.
"They’d choose shipping as an option, and in order to save them a few bucks, we’d call to let them know we’re right downtown, if they preferred to pop by in person. ‘What pleasant surprise,’ they’d say."
For more information, go to www.discrepublic.ca
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.