Can Ultimate Frisbee go mainstream?

While it's evolved over the past few years, Ultimate may ultimately be an outsider sport -- and that's OK

Topics: The Classical, Sports, ultimate frisbee, essays, games, ,

Can Ultimate Frisbee go mainstream? (Credit: Dariush M/Shutterstock.com)
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The Classical“You used to be an ultimate player, now you’re just a guy who plays ultimate.” I was out at ultimate frisbee spring league, which is played at the Parade Grounds in Prospect Park, complaining to my teammate Dan about some ache or pain or other. It was something a teammate had said to him, and it stung. It’s a fine line, of course, but with the dawn of the professional ultimate era — the second seasons of America’s two professional Ultimate Frisbee leagues are now past their respective halfway points — this painful distinction is only going to get more pronounced, and the question of what ultimate frisbee is will only get more complicated.

By the time I stopped traveling to my usual ten or so tournaments per year, I was growing tired of what I saw as a change in the way the game had been played. At the higher levels of the game — there was no pro league, then, so this was a matter of the more competitive tournaments — the way people played had changed, subtly but unmistakably. The trend was towards what-can-I-get-away-with, and away from the idealistic standard — which is actually in the formal rules of the game, added ten years after its inception — of the “spirit of the game.” Particularly among younger players the defense had become aggressive and oddly physical; the idea of “incidental contact” was closer to the banging that occurs in basketball than what I had been taught in the early 90′s.

Of course, salty veteran NFL players complain about this, too. But Ultimate, all jokes about its crunchy origins aside, was designed to be different. You wouldn’t hack people on every single play, not because there were consequences like fouling out — there weren’t — but because those were the rules, and there was a mutual respect for them and for the other players. It sounds hippy-dippy and goofy — and this is Ultimate we’re talking about — but it worked for an astonishingly long time. But by the time I got out of top-level play the default seemed to be to jump into an opponent and smack his hands and arms, an implicit shift from “I was going for it” to “I might’ve been able to get it, but I’m gonna force you to make the call.” Maybe refs and foul limits would cap this in a positive way. But that’s not Ultimate, really. So, then: what is Ultimate?



***

One of Ultimate Frisbee’s first dynasties came in the early ‘90s, during a run of college championships by the Eastern Carolina Irates. They were led by a guy named Mike Gerics, who then coached UNC-Wilmington. He was the driving force behind the club and college teams from that city; there was a lot of chatter about their ’new’ style of play.

What was new about it was that the Irates would basically just foul the shit out of you and then complain when you made a call, forcing opponents to either call everything and get bent out of shape, or deal with it out of a martyr-ish faith in the “spirit of the game.” The Irates were great, but playing against them was the first time I ever wished for refs, some overriding authority that would hold these assholes and their aggro style of play to account. The very fact that I wanted this, of course, was a contravention of a lot of what makes Ultimate what it is.

Ultimate is, fundamentally and in its actual bylaws, a pickup sport. In a pickup game — hoops, soccer, whatever — you don’t hack the shit out of people. You don’t not-foul people, either, but there’s a certain self-governing thing at work, there. You play to the game, what the market will bear. Are people fouling and not calling it? Are they calling picks? Are they pushing off and bumping on the mark? You go with it, whatever the case may be. You have to know the rules, but you also know that everyone in the game has agreed to play by them. Thou Shalt Not Be A Dick is the prime directive, the one supreme commandment. It works, but it works both because everyone is implicitly obeying the same rule, and because it’s just a pickup game.

There are a bunch of behavioral lessons buried in all this. With referees policing the rules of a sport, the tendency is to push up to and beyond those rules; if you get whistled, you get whistled, but if you don’t you get away with it. No one flops in hopes of earning offensive foul calls in pickup hoops. It’s a great way to get laughed off the court.

The difference, with Ultimate, is that it was designed from its inception to function in this sort of self-regulating, don’t-be-an-asshole pickup-rules way. All of the salient points for amateurism and for professionalism have been made, at length, by people much more closely connected to the game than myself. But the fact remains that this game was never quite built for hard and fast rules.

***

The best thing I’ve read on this subject, “The Disease of We”, was written by a man named Ken Dobyns, a legend in the sport. He wrote at length about the falsely nostalgic idea of assuming there is an all-inclusive “We” and that “We” contains the same thoughts, motivations, and memories for everyone who has played the sport, everyone who plays the sport, and everyone who will play the sport. We have no problem accepting the fact that the NBA has four 12-minute quarters, allows for six fouls and no more, and has a slightly deeper three-point line than the college game. It’s a game and a business; they make the rules, and we and everyone playing the game know them.

Within every amateur activity there are hierarchies of skill, talent, and effort. Most of this is self-organizing; more effort can sometimes overcome a lack of talent or skill, but overall these are natural meritocracies. It works, more or less well, in the way markets do. This is true throughout the worlds of art, craft, and sport. There are platforms like ETSY that give voice and audience to the previously audience-less craftsperson; there is YouTube to give audience to the backyard wrestler jumping from his garage onto his opponent. But some things win and some things don’t, and there are reasons for that. This is at the heart of the liminal possessiveness we ascribe, parodically if not inaccurately, to Pitchfork-ian they-were-better-when-nobody-but-me-liked-them worldviews. Each Ultimate player has his or her own vision and conception of the sport; all of them, in their individuated way, are sacred.

***

With the American Ultimate Disc League and Major League Ultimate entering their second year, and the USAU Triple Crown Championship series becoming a more solid reality with each passing year, there is a critical mass of enthusiasm and professionalism around the sport at the moment. Highlights from ultimate games have cracked the Sportscenter Top 10 multiple times; Good Morning America host Josh Elliott, an alumnus of UC-Santa Barbara — home to the 12-time champ Black Tide — has made references to Ultimate throughout his tenure. The game is no secret; the question is what the game will be, as more people come to know it.

The problem of scaling up, of marketing, and of making something “professional” is a difficult process. It’s also one that will anger the diehards who believe any change is bad, and proffer an excuse to every veteran prone to talking about how much better things were “in my day,” when “we played ultimate drunk and high and we wore skirts and we didn’t keep score and everyone had a big orgy afterwards and it was the most amazing display of sportsmanship and human kindness you ever did see.” I’m not exactly quoting myself, there, but I’m not exactly not quoting myself.

Anyway, these complaints all end the same way: “Now it’s just a bunch of jocks playing grab-ass and hazing and bullying their opponents like every other sport.”

But is it, really? People in my MFA program said the same things about the business of art, but the pursuit of remuneration doesn’t negate or minimize work that doesn’t minimize itself in that pursuit, here and there and everywhere. Do ’real’ surfers look down on Kelly Slater because he makes money from their passion? And how does this relate to 26-year-olds traveling to tournaments and working real jobs? The word amateur’s Latin root, “amo,” means love. That seems worth mentioning.

But it seems most mentioning because of ultimate’s slow but unmistakable transition into something governed by a force other than love. USAUltimate, the sport’s governing body in the United States, just inked a long term deal with ESPN to air college games — at least 23 games from the championship series will run this spring, with undisclosed terms for the future. Viewers drive ad dollars, and ad dollars will drive sponsorships. The same could be true with the Triple Crown series for club level teams in the fall.

The good thing about all of this is that it means there are varied lines of interest, and this will drive competition. Dr. J played in the ABA, Herschel Walker played in the USFL, and right now there are elite level ultimate players deciding whether to stay with their club team, go pro in one direction or another, or simply go ahead and become a dentist because there’s more money in it.

And there is. Club players typically receive a stipend of $25 per game; semi-pro teams will spend $4,000 to $6,000 a year on travel and equipment, which at least gives players an opportunity to travel with their teams for free after a week spent at 9-to-5’s. An unofficial estimate from the AUDL says that last season they averaged about 500 people in attendance per game at a ticket price of roughly $12. Add it all up. See if it sounds like a profitable professional league to you.

***

Smashing Magazine published a guide to successful logos a few years ago. There are simple rules to follow to make sure that you have the right mark for yourself and your audience, and that you will look professional. Ultimate Frisbee has long been a DIY sport, priding itself on that very ethos. Simply having logos challenges this.

The number one mistake the magazine cites are logos “designed by an amateur.” I’m a graphic designer, and I recently reviewed all 20 of the logos for the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) and Major League Ultimate (MLU) for a site called Sludge Ultimate.

What I found was that not just the logos, but the overall branding was amateurish in the overwhelming majority of instances.  In addition to that the forward face of these teams and the leagues, and their websites, were still, mere days from the start of official competition, littered with broken links; a goodly number were technically “under construction”, and “coming soon.”

This means they should really get to know more people who do graphic design, but it also means that these teams likely do not have a professional-quality product ready. The XFL, to take a loud recent-ish instance, was goofy but it certainly looked like a polished package. It helped that the brand maestros behind WWE built the XFL, of course; it hurt that the teams played lousy, hard-to-watch football. If professional ultimate is the highest possible level of the sport, that’s good; if it seems amateurish, it won’t matter.

One thing that professional ultimate does have is a built-in fanbase. Unlike the trampoline hoops league of the early aughts, or Jai Alai in the ‘60′s, Ultimate isn’t a sport being invented for TV or a weird hybrid developed for and before focus groups. It is a sport that has been around since 1967, with over 5 million players in the US, and a worldwide governing body, the World Flying Disc Association, that received provisional recognition by the IOC in May.

Although the big four sports have a chokehold on our televisions, the meteoric rise of MMA proves — if not necessarily in an uncomplicated way — that it is possible for outsider sports to achieve sustained success in this country. There also doesn’t need to be the “I’ve got a girlfriend in Canada”-like desperation of evangelical stateside soccer fans who claim that everyone should love their sport because it is the most popular game in the world, the GNP of Brazil drops by 2/3 during the summer every four years, and so on. It doesn’t serve Ultimate well to go around touting itself as, well, the ultimate sport. But there’s no reason to sell the sport short, either.

Ultimate is not a sport unlike any other. It is, in fact, a sport a lot like other sports; that’s the appeal. We run, we leap, we chase, we defend, we score, we strategize, we feel the wear and tear on body and on soul, and become familiar with the joy that comes with a good play, and the downer that comes from an opportunity lost. Ultimate is many things to many of us, and will remain so in its amateur and professional incarnations. What Ultimate is not is the perfect sport, or the ideal sport, or the sport to save all sports; it doesn’t serve ourselves or the game we love to tout it as, well, the ultimate sport. But it works, and has worked for years. Whether it can be more than what it is, and has been, is a question without an answer just yet.

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