Is America ready for professional Ultimate Frisbee?
Photograph by Andrew Davis/USA Ultimate.
Get ready, America. At 3 p.m. this Saturday, pro sports in this country will change forever when the Rhode Island Rampage take on the Connecticut Constitution. Yes, we are just a few days away from the dawn of professional Ultimate Frisbee.
When the formation of the American Ultimate Disc League was first announced, I thought it was a joke. Everything from the X in the name of the Detroit Mechanix to the location of the championship game—Pontiac, Mich.’s 80,000-seat Silverdome—felt wrong. But the league’s press releases, announcing the locations of the eight teams and the 15-week regular season, made it clear that the AUDL wasn’t joking around. “Louisville looks legit,” wrote one poster on the rec.sport.disc newsgroup, noting that “you can become an unpaid intern if you work long hours and weekends to support the team."
It’s not totally crazy for Ultimate to go pro. In 2010, 4.7 million Americans played the sport at least once—almost triple the number who played a game of lacrosse, a sport with three professional leagues. More than 1.5 million people play Ultimate at least 13 times a year, and those devotees tend to spend money on the sport. There are at least eight companies that specialize in Ultimate apparel, mainly sweat-wicking jerseys and trucker hats.
I am among the horde of men and women who played competitive Ultimate in college. I woke up for 6 a.m. practices and shelled out thousands of dollars for rental cars and cross-continent flights. I own Ultimate DVDs and stacks of 175-gram Discraft Ultimate discs. Like most Ultimate players, I consider it a serious sport filled with serious athletes. The trouble is, no one else does.
Despite 40 years of history, and more participants in America than fast-pitch softball and ice hockey combined, it’s impossible to find a news story that treats Ultimate as anything but a curiosity. Every piece of Ultimate journalism must include both a detailed explanation of how the game is played and a testimonial from either the writer or the subject that it’s not just for shoeless hippies anymore. Since I’ve already offered my testimonial, here’s my explanation of game play: Ultimate is like football, but without contact or refs. Also, the ball is a Frisbee.
There is some evidence that Ultimate’s image is changing. Brodie Smith, a two-time college champion at the University of Florida, makes the Frisbee look kind of cool. His popular YouTube channel features instructional videos and clips of trick shots. In one video, he flings a disc from a bridge and his friend leaps out of a speedboat to catch it. It has more than 5 million views. Most remarkably, Smith has managed to make a living by being really awesome at Ultimate. Like getting Derek Jeter to run batting practice for your softball team, you can hire Smith for about $20 a head (plus expenses) to instruct your Ultimate squad. He’s been flown to Australia, Ireland, and Italy.
Smith could be the AUDL’s salvation. Not only is he one of the few big names in Ultimate to sign on with the league—he moved from Florida to Indiana to play for the Indianapolis AlleyCats—Smith has also taken the new league’s side in the sport’s oldest debate: Should top-level Ultimate use referees, or should players continue to make their own calls?
Traditionally, Ultimate has been governed by a concept known as “Spirit of the Game.” Spirit dictates that the players make all the calls and that only legitimate calls are made. If there’s an irresolvable dispute, teams resort to the classic playground solution, the do-over. Put into baseball terms, imagine if balls and strikes were decided by the catcher and batter. A pitch is thrown; the batter calls ball while the catcher swears it was a strike. A discussion begins in which the trajectory of the throw is discussed at length, and both teams eventually agree to let the pitcher throw again. The equivalent Frisbee scenario has occurred in every Ultimate game ever played. Trust me.
These on-field debates can be painful to watch, and they leave non-playing spectators confused about what the hell is going on. The AUDL’s solution: Ditch spirit in favor of dudes with whistles.
The league’s founder and president, Josh Moore, believes the lack of refs is keeping the sport from being taken seriously. He compares watching Ultimate to standing courtside for a game of pick-up basketball. In a refereed game, he says, the action will move faster and players will be able to focus on playing. Brodie Smith agrees: “I love the idea of refs because I no longer have to focus on making calls. I can play as hard as I can and when the whistle blows the whistle blows.”
These views are far from universal. In recreational play, where the stakes are low and teams sometimes assign each other “spirit scores” as a means of shaming jerks, spirit is an unquestioned pillar of the sport. But even at the elite club level some players believe refs are not the answer. They started playing precisely because the sport was self-governed, and they don’t want the game to change now.
In Ultimate, an intentional foul—say, grabbing a player’s arm to thwart a scoring throw—is considered an egregious offense. With refs on the field, some predict a win-at-all-costs future filled with basketball-style fouling and penalty-drawing, soccer-esque dives. They might be right. In 2006, four all-star teams participated in a weekend experiment in refereed Ultimate at a popular West Coast tournament. In a long post on rec.sport.disc, Ben Wiggins, a veteran competitive Ultimate player, wrote that he found himself actively encouraging his teammates to foul, something he hoped he’d never do in a real game of Ultimate.