The Sport Of Ultimate Is At A Crossroads

Rarely do you find a game so intertwined with its culture like ultimate. Frisbee, disc — whatever you may call it, a simple piece of plastic has spawned one of the most popular sports in the country. So what’s holding it back from toppling the Big Four?

(Photo via USA Ultimate YouTube channel / Photo Illustration by Nathan Graber-Lipperman)

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In October, USA Ultimate, the governing body of ultimate in the United States, held its National Championships in San Diego. Club teams from all across the country — including stalwarts like San Francisco Revolver, Boston Brute Squad, and Seattle Mixtape — punched their tickets to Southern California through strong qualification play at their regional tournaments.

But you probably had no idea all this was going on. Why should you?

For most people, the term “ultimate” means…well, not much. To some, it’s equivalent to tossing a Frisbee on the beach while jamming out to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. To others, it simply serves to confuse. Are they talking about the upcoming UFC fight? Or is it the new Super Smash Bros. they keep referring to when they mention this powerful Ring of Fire unit?

In short, ultimate is hardly in the mainstream. When presenting the sport to a broader audience, outlets often feel the need to delineate and explain away the sport as if it’s something only played on Mars. Part of the problem is the confusion regarding the name of the sport itself. “Frisbees” are, in fact, a trademarked toy created by Wham-O in 1957; though this protection means we’re supposed to refer to the sport as just “ultimate” and that plastic thing as a “disc,” the word frisbee has become so synonymous with both that no one really bothers to police it.

And yet, according to USA Ultimate:

“Ultimate is played in more than 80 countries by an estimated 7 million of men and women, girls and boys. The international governing body, WFDF (World Flying Disc Federation), represents 59 member associations in 56 countries.”

But what if ultimate does become more popular? With a greater amount of athletes turning their attention to tossing discs instead of swinging baseball bats, it’ll become increasingly difficult for the Average Joe to play the sport at the highest level — or so the logic goes.

And that, right there, is where the conversation starts.

I first watched an ESPN broadcast of ultimate back in 2014. Like most people, I had picked up a crude, rudimentary version of the sport in gym class and at summer camps. So it was pretty cool to see that same plastic disc flying around the field during a professional production, courtesy of the good folks over in Bristol.

The way broadcaster Evan Lepler — the “Voice of Ultimate,” though there admittedly isn’t much competition — talked about the guys on the field, it felt like you were watching a traditional sporting event. And some of those guys he showered with praise, such as Jimmy Mickle and Jon Nethercutt, are among the top players in the world today.

Mostly, though, I was overwhelmed. Why do they keep stopping play to stand around and talk? What are those guys in the orange there for? And why the hell do they keep referring to the team representing UNC as “Darkside” and not the Tar Heels?

I didn’t really have those questions answered until I started playing for my university. As it turns out, college teams tend to boast ludicrous team names, sometimes even literally. The men’s club from Arkansas goes by “Ludicrous Speed”; their logo is a flying Winnebago, both a nice touch and a nod to the Mel Brooks’ classic, Spaceballs. Since ultimate is not recognized as a varsity sport, it’s necessary for college teams to differentiate themselves from their school’s official mascot.

In regards to the boys in orange, nope, they aren’t referees. They’re “observers.” Observers don’t actively make calls; rather, they settle debates between players. Don’t sleep on the one and only Mitch Dengler, too, a legendary figure — and somewhat of a laughing-with-you-not-at-you meme — within the community.

Also, yeah, you read that right. Ultimate is self-officiated. When you think you’re fouled or that someone traveled — among other things — you call it out and play stops. Players are expected to talk about what they think happened and come to a consensus before play resumes; this can take anywhere from a couple of seconds to upwards of five, sometimes even ten minutes.

Seriously.

Nonetheless, USA Ultimate insists that “Spirit of the Game,” as they’ve dubbed it, is an essential aspect of the sport. This idea that players should have the capability to determine the outcome of each and every call in an honest and respectful fashion currently resides at the core of ultimate itself.

These conversations are often extremely hard to follow, especially if you aren’t familiar with the rules of the sport. On the ESPN broadcasts, they often mic up the observers, which can sometimes shed light on what’s going on. But if you’re watching in person from the sidelines, discussions can be downright confusing. Sometimes it’s even difficult for the people actually playing the game to understand what’s going on.

When asking my family what they thought about the games they got to watch me play at the 2018 College Nationals, calling their responses ambivalent would be a nice way to put it. To be fair, it was upwards of 90 degrees all weekend, yet their main complaint revolved around the perplexity of each and every play.

Even my brother, who grew up playing in the same pickup culture as me, didn’t know what the hell was going on.

In some people’s minds, the solution to all of this was to create a professional league prioritizing entertainment value over all else. Enter the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), the oft-maligned entity founded in 2012.

Everything about the AUDL is intriguing…in theory. 23 teams compete in 4 divisions and travel across the country; players receive customized jerseys, cleats, and gear, along with a modest salary. It’s all funded by the owners of each individual team.

Plus, the league recently formed a partnership with Stadium Sports Network. “This multi-year agreement,” they write on their crowdfunding pitch, “provides the opportunity to reach traditional fans over air, cable, and online.” They go on to highlight their social media presence, too, pointing out their 250,000 Facebook fans, 40,000 Twitter followers, and 15 million highlight views annually across all channels.

So why do many within the community hate it with such fervor? For starters, Spirit of the Game is replaced by actual referees in the AUDL, which can be perceived as a good thing — except for the fact that they make a bunch of calls that no one really understands. Also, the field is both longer and wider, making it incredibly difficult to play defense for long periods of time. When you have the best throwers in the world hucking deep shots with pinpoint accuracy on every other point, it may be fun for the viewer, but it certainly isn’t for the player getting roasted on a regular basis. Finally, the commitment and travel time add up, as the traditional tournament is tossed aside for individual home and away matchups between two teams.

Essentially, for players, the AUDL’s game is just not nearly as enjoyable as the traditional version. Plus, the product isn’t really anything special, either. Games drag on with 12 minute quarters, as opposed to the standard ultimate procedure of playing to a specific number (usually 15). They might make good highlight videos, but every time I’ve turned on an AUDL stream, I’ve logged off within 20 minutes. It’s simply painful to watch.

Oh, yeah, that modest salary I mentioned? Yeah, it comes out to something around $25 a game.

Therefore, most ultimate people see the club division as the highest level of the sport, not the AUDL. Sure, you have to pay for all of your jerseys and travel fees, and the controversy surrounding Spirit of the Game isn’t going away anytime soon. But it’s ultimate in its purest form, the way it always has been. To these people, the AUDL is simply the unacknowledged new kid on the block.

Yet try and follow the club division and tell me how the whole ship functions. Try to navigate the USA Ultimate website. I dare you. Then try finding a way to watch an actual game, and report back on what you saw and what you understood.

In the foreseeable future, it’ll always be a zero-sum game between the two. What the AUDL lacks in likability, it makes up for in visibility. Still, though, if ultimate isn’t very watchable, then why is it so popular?

As someone who played every sport imaginable as a kid running around in the yard, I’d argue that there may not be a game more inherently fun than ultimate.

Don’t believe me? Toss a disc in your gym bag and find the closest game of pickup. You’ll be hooked almost immediately.

At least, that’s what happened for me. I started playing in middle school, and I knew a decent amount of the rules and strategy when I showed up to college. This, in fact, is where most people learn to play the game. Pretty much every school across the country has at least one team, whether it be guys, girls, or both. Some also have developmental “B” teams; some even have “C” teams.

When you start showing up to practice with your college team, though, you’re not just meeting a group of people to sweat with. You’re immersing yourself into a weirdly close and unique culture — rather, counterculture.

Sure, these are people you spend your whole weekends with. The first time I walked into our hotel room at a tournament and realized we’d be squeezing six guys across the space was pretty eye-opening, to say the least. I’ve heard about some teams that pack 12 teammates together like a can of sardines. You eat every meal together, you drive eight hours in a van together, and you win and lose together. It’s only natural that these people become some of your best friends.

But somehow, the community runs deeper than that. Questions as simple as “Did you see we were on ESPN?” — referring to whatever ultimate highlight most recently popped up on TV— or as complicated as “How do you feel about the strike?” — referring to the AUDL boycott focused on gender equity— are the kinds of conversation points that will pop up when talking on the sidelines at a game of pickup.

Plus, frisbee people don’t just keep up with each after school runs its course. Oftentimes, future married couples meet each other for the first time while out on the pitch. Alumni networks run deep. These are lifelong connections you make through a mutual love of tossing a piece of plastic.

It’s a strange community filled to the brim with all sorts of characters, yet you’ll be hard-pressed to find a group more dedicated and passionate. The team I play for, NUT — Northwestern Men’s Ultimate Team — practices three, four times a week, with a regular lifting regimen. We post pictures in our Slack after tossing to try and motivate each other to practice our throws, even when the cold ̶C̶h̶i̶c̶a̶g̶o̶ Evanston wind drops the temperature below freezing. Sure, it isn’t a varsity, NCAA-level sport, but we work hard and hope to reap the benefits when the games come around.

And those games can be grueling. Since we pay for most of the sport out of our pocket, instead of scheduling individual games against other teams, we travel to tournaments all across the country that usually feature upwards of 20 clubs. Last year, we flew to Tampa and Austin (as well as drove to Charlotte) in order to square off against the best competition possible. You play three, four, sometimes five games in a day over the course of a weekend; quite often, the teams with more depth and a greater level of fitness are the ones still competing when bracket play rolls around on Sunday.

Sounds crazy, right? Nonetheless, it’d be difficult to find a more tight-knit group than NUT on our campus (with the women’s counterpart, Gungho, being a possible exception). After the second day of Missouri Loves Company — one of the country’s largest preseason tournaments held in Columbia, MO — got cancelled, my van spontaneously decided to stop in St. Louis for several hours to break up the eight-hour trek back to campus. We rented electric scooters and rode around the Arch, ate some St. Louis barbecue, and visited the City Museum, a ten-story indoor playground that we were way too big for but still enjoyed nevertheless.

We arrived back in Evanston around 8 PM. In addition to playing four great games on Saturday, how many college kids can say they had a weekend like that?

I’ve never played at the club level or professionally in the AUDL, but I choose to believe that the college game is the pinnacle of ultimate.

After all, the sport is enshrouded in a purely fun culture. It’s not uncommon to see teams throwing inner tubes and other inflatable objects around a goal-scorer (looking at you, Washington). Sidelines are chock-full of spirited cheers; trading quips with the opposing team is an encouraged practice. You could even do something as radical as bring back McDonald’s old purple mascot, Grimace, like us:

Whoever snapped this picture deserve a raise. What a beautiful shot.

I think most college players are comfortable with this niche. We can treat the sport seriously by holding practices and staying in shape, and we can also have lots of fun while playing an inherently silly game. After all, the thing is called “ultimate.” The term “sudden death,” which refers to the last point in most sports where a game is all tied up, is thrown out the window and replaced by the utterly-ridiculous “universe point.”

Sure, the competition found at the club level is intense as is, but we’d be fooling ourselves if we said it was on par with other professional/Olympic-caliber sports. Besides, the community starts to face an existential crisis perfectly summed up in a conversation I had with one of NUT’s 2018 captains: “If ultimate becomes more legitimate, then people like you and me can’t play at this level.”

So yes, we could promote ultimate as the safe, heir apparent to football, propping up the AUDL and improving its visibility to the point where kids grow up with a disc in hand. By building it from the ground up, the game would naturally grow more competitive and more mainstream. It may take a long time, but in 50 years — if climate change hasn’t done us in by then — why wouldn’t we be able to talk about the AUDL championship game in the same vein as we now talk about the Super Bowl?

Fun fact: you can see me in my gray bucket hat at 0:16, 1:47, and 2:14, respectively. Not that I’m actually, ya know, on the field during any of these highlights. Regardless, I still love this video and have see it at least 100x.

But what if the ones who care so deeply about the sport and its culture don’t want to see that timeline unfold? The path of least resistance means letting ultimate slowly marinate in its current glory. People may never treat it seriously; we’ll still have to answer a whole slew of questions as to why a group of lanky dudes and gals wearing cool gear are traveling together in the airport, or endure comments as to why ESPNU is showing a sport that only belongs on ESPN 8: The Ocho. Yet if you work hard and practice your throws, someday, you yourself could be competing on the national stage.

Even if no one’s watching.

Nathan Graber-Lipperman is a frisbee nerd and Northwestern sophomore studying journalism. You can follow him on Twitter here and check out more of his work on his website, UNPLUGG’D.

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