Is America Ready for Professional Ultimate Frisbee?

The stadium scene.
April 11 2012 2:36 PM

Disc-y Business

Is America ready for professional Ultimate Frisbee?

Men's Ultimate Frisbee.
The American Ultimate Disc League will provide another outlet for college players seen here

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.

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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.

But even if referees don’t throw the game into an existential crisis, the AUDL still might not get off the ground. With the exception of Brodie Smith, the league has mostly failed to attract the world’s best Ultimate players. That’s because, for most of the sport’s elite, the amateur game is still more alluring.

Since 1979, the sport’s American governing body USA Ultimate has held a yearly tournament called the Club Championships. Qualifying for this tournament—and, for the best of the best, winning it—is widely regarded as the pinnacle of the sport, not only in North America but in the world. Jack Marsh, co-captain of the club team Pride of New York, decided against playing in the AUDL because he worried it would cut down on preparation for his club team. Another elite-level player, Brandon Malecek, told me the captains of his Boston-based club team Ironside, were actively discouraging players from putting time into the new league, lest they be distracted from their goal of winning the Club Championships. Malecek, a confessed Ultimate fanatic (he played in 28 full weekend tournaments in 2007), signed with the Rampage anyway.

Even so, Malecek isn’t expecting too much from the AUDL in its first season—he told me the level of play would be “similar to a second- or third-tier club team.” Part of the reason is geography. Columbus, Buffalo, and Indianapolis, to name three more cities with AUDL teams, are not Ultimate hotbeds like San Francisco, Boston, and Vancouver. (Moore says the league’s initial layout was designed to minimize travel time.) Another potential pitfall is money: Players aren’t necessarily going to be getting any. According to Moore, many of the team’s owners plan to set up a profit-sharing scheme in the event of, well, profits. In the meantime, going “pro” in Ultimate will get you a ride to the game, accommodation when required, and some free equipment—which, as an Ultimate player, I must admit doesn’t sound bad.

Moore seems remarkably confident in the league’s success. He has plans to double the AUDL’s size next year, and franchises in more Ultimate-friendly territory, like Chicago and New York, have already been sold. (You can buy a pro Ultimate team for about $2,500, he says.) In the next three years, he would like the league to go nationwide with a total of 48 teams. That would make the AUDL 1.5 times the size of the NFL.

If these plans sound wildly optimistic, that’s because they probably are. Greg Heltzer, a D.C.-based Ultimate player, was curious about how many fans the AUDL expected to show up for each game. He emailed Moore and was sent a pitch outlining, among other things, hypothetical per-game attendance of 1,000 fans paying $5 each. Moore suggested (via the emailed pitch) that owners could hit this target by, for instance, giving away a free car. Concessions sales would add to their profits.

Heltzer wasn’t buying it. Even when the best teams play, Ultimate games rarely draw hundreds of spectators. Last summer, a team of college all-stars toured the United States and Canada battling top club teams. At $5 a ticket (nearly one-third of the games were free) the tour drew about 400 fans per stop—and this was to see the best of the best, in Ultimate country. By comparison, catching an AUDL game will run you anywhere from $6 in Buffalo to $20 if you live in Detroit—$14 more than the cheapest Pistons-Timberwolves ticket to be had on StubHub. Given these numbers, the league may have trouble attracting a couple hundred fans per game, never mind filling the Silverdome.

If the AUDL survives its inaugural season, it will face even greater competition in 2013 from a retooled club series. Competitive Ultimate is traditionally played on weekends, tournament-style. USA Ultimate plans to increase the volume of such tournaments, creating a PGA Tour-style season of summer and fall events featuring the nation’s top teams.

USA Ultimate also has a credible answer to the sport’s refereeing conundrum. To make the game more spectator-friendly, the organization has created a system in which trained and certified observers communicate on-field decisions to fans and step in to make calls when the players’ discussions drag on. Observers can also eject players who repeatedly break the rules. Spiking a disc at an opponent upon scoring—this happens, albeit infrequently—will get you kicked out of an observed Ultimate game. (Thankfully, regular celebration spiking is still allowed.)

The organization’s changes have already helped the game inch into the mainstream. The men’s and women’s final of the sport’s college championships are now broadcast on the CBS Sports Network, accompanied by professional commentary. For its part, the AUDL plans to stream commentated games pay-per-view style from the league’s website. You can watch Brodie Smith and the Indianapolis AlleyCats take on the Columbus Cranes this weekend for $9.95. (With four 12-minute quarters and a 15-minute halftime—the exact same timing as NBA basketball—a game of pro Ultimate, memorable or not, will probably last about two hours.)

Despite Josh Moore’s predictions of an Ultimate empire that stretches from coast to coast, it’s only fair to set the bar low for the AUDL. This is, after all, the first season of a new league featuring an oft-mocked sport. For Smith, expansion is less important than avoiding extinction. “The goal is to just complete the season,” says Ultimate’s best-known player. “If that occurs, I think it’s a success.”

Daniel Lametti is a Montreal-based writer and neuroscientist.

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