Can a sport made for amateurs make it in the pros?
Author Adam K. Raymond Illustration Wesley Bedrosian
To the uninitiated, ultimate is a confusing sport. The flying disc is familiar, but no one calls it a Frisbee (mostly because Wham-O trademarked the name). The field is the same surface used for soccer or football, but the movement is scattered, the rhythm herky-jerky and the strategy indecipherable. The short, safe passes that advance the disc downfield are tame. For the most part, the catches look easy. In addition to confusing, it’s tempting to call the game boring. I almost did.
But then, earlier this year at Indiana’s Kuntz Stadium, near downtown Indianapolis, with 90 seconds remaining in the first half of a professional ultimate game between the hometown AlleyCats and Chicago’s Windy City Wildfire, Luke Broderick saw something no one else did. Fellow AlleyCat Travis Carpenter was streaking toward the end zone. Broderick snapped a pass into the air. It sailed over a scrum of players powerless to intercept it, curled from the middle of the field to the sideline and looked on its way to a lonely landing. But Carpenter continued to sprint and, a second before the disc hit the dirt, he dove, snatching it inches from the ground and sliding five yards across the grass and into the end zone. As he lay there, limbs spread out like a skydiver’s, the crowd erupted. That wasn’t boring at all.
“Those are the plays the fans really appreciate,” says Josh Moore, 33, an accountant responsible for the pairing of the words “professional” and “ultimate.”
Moore’s vision was realized in April of last year, when the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) played its first match. Like all new professional sports leagues, the AUDL faced challenges, including a contentious lawsuit, failing franchises and the departure of its inaugural championship team, which left after the close of the 2012 season to start a rival league called Major League Ultimate (MLU). Today, a sport that just two and a half years ago was only played for fun has two pro leagues, 20 pro teams and millions of dollars riding on its success. While detractors argue that the game was never meant to go beyond shirtless college students passing time between classes, the most ardent believers say it’s poised to become America’s next great spectator sport. And the key, says Moore, is having the uninitiated witness spectacular plays like Carpenter’s. “It’s the equivalent of a slam dunk,” he says.
Like many sports, ultimate has fuzzy origins. What’s certain is that a group of enterprising New Jersey high school kids first wrote down the rules in 1968—just 10 years after Wham-O introduced the Frisbee to the world. The game’s objective was familiar (score by getting the disc into the end zone) and the techniques involved elements of football (throwing), soccer (team movement) and basketball (a ban on traveling). For all that, the game’s prestige didn’t rise much higher than that of hopscotch.
That changed in 1972, when Rutgers and Princeton squared off in the first intercollegiate game on a patch of blacktop at Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus. Today, there are roughly 7 million people worldwide who play the game, including television’s Bill Nye the Science Guy.
But until the AUDL launched last year, no one watched. The first step for Moore was showing the potential of the sport to prospective owners, who paid up to $20,000 for a team, according to one observer.
“Some people thought it was a scam,” says Moore, adding that even those who didn’t were skeptical. “They had images in their mind of econ majors throwing the Frisbee around the quad. Until they saw it, they didn’t really know what it was.”
Actually watching a game is what convinced AlleyCats president Thom Held to join the league. He first learned of the AUDL from his brother, who read an ad for prospective owners online. “The first thing I asked him is if he had bumped his head,” Held says. “Then I went to a tournament. I saw some athletic plays and said, ‘This will work.’ If it can excite me, a 53-year-old who grew up watching baseball, football, basketball and hockey, it should be much easier to convince younger people.”
Along with Held, seven other owners got in on the ground floor of the AUDL, and Moore began concentrating on rule changes that would make the free-flowing game more fan-friendly. Rather than playing to a set score, AUDL teams are beholden to a clock. Moore also widened the field and, most significantly, added referees.
By April of last year, with rules set and teams in place, the AUDL was ready for opening day. The next six months were a whirlwind, equal parts glory and tumult. While some teams drew attendance figures in the thousands, others struggled to hit triple digits. By midseason, the Connecticut Constitution was forfeiting games as it battled the league in court over a proposed expansion team that the owners said would encroach on its territory. Then, in October, just two months after winning the inaugural AUDL championship, Philadelphia Spinners owner Jeff Snader shocked the ultimate world: His team was leaving the AUDL to start its own league.
“The beginning of all this sparked a vision, and I wanted to see the Spinners get to that vision,” Snader said after the announcement, according to Ultiworld, a website that covers ultimate news. “The only way to do that was to take them in a new direction.”
That was a nice way of saying he thought the AUDL was poorly run. “The lawsuit and the drama that came with it led Jeff to consider that he had a great team and was in a league that was getting in its own way,” says Ultiworld editor in chief Charlie Eisenhood. “I think he saw a league that wasn’t a stable operation and thought he could do a better job.”
The result was a new league with centralized ownership, the opposite of the hands-off, team-owned AUDL model. “In the AUDL, you buy a franchise and you earn money based on your sales. In the MLU, you invest in the league,” Eisenhood says.
Competing leagues that force each other to innovate might be good for fans, says Moore, but he adds that he ultimately regrets the split, and in the off-season he addressed many of the problems that led Snader to leave—chiefly, himself.
“I didn’t want to be the reason the AUDL failed,” he says, explaining his decision to sell a majority stake of the league and reduce his role to board member.
As of opening day 2013, America had two professional ultimate leagues. On the surface, they are rivals, competing for players, fans and the scarce sponsorship dollars from the few companies that see value in the game. But their overarching goal remains the same: turn the common sports fan into a paying customer.
“For ultimate, it’s not ‘If you build it they will come.’ We have to get out and show people,” says Moore. That’s why he wanted team owners with strong roots in their communities.
MLU is betting more on digital distribution. Each week, one of its games is streamed live in high definition. Every so often, those highlights land on ESPN’s “SportsCenter”—a cause for celebration in both leagues.
“It legitimizes us both,” Moore says.
More important, it gets the game in front of fans, especially young fans, who Held thinks should be the game’s target market. “We need to build our base off of 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds, kids who will grow up and know ultimate as a pro sport, kids who will grow up playing it,” Held says.
By the look of the crowd at Kuntz Stadium, he’s succeeding at this. Preteens and teenagers cluster in groups during the game, cheering on their favorite players. But if their presence in the stands indicates marketing success, their ability to play on the field during halftime (as adult fans sit bored in the bleachers) is a sign of how far this pro sport still has to go.
ADAM K. RAYMOND is a writer based in Oakand, Calif. He recently added ultimate to the long list of sports that he’s better at watching than playing.