Ultimate Frisbee: America's Newest Professional Sport?

Eric BrachCorrespondent IMay 4, 2012

Ultimate Frisbee: America's Newest Professional Sport?

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    It’s been discussed on news programs, on ESPN, and even on Jimmy Fallon—if you’ve still not heard about it, you’re probably not paying attention. 

    The newest professional sport in the USA is one loaded with drug use stigma... but not because of juicing. It’s a sport that has trouble getting a TV contract in place despite being more popular, and played more often among Americans, than any sport other besides baseball, basketball, football or soccer—but it’s not ice hockey.

    And it’s a sport that’s born and bred in America and has generations of heritage in this country, but it’s not lacrosse.

    Any idea what it is?

    Give up?

    It’s Ultimate Frisbee

THE LINEAGE

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    One of the more interesting aspects of the history of ultimate Frisbee is the sheer breadth of misconceptions that shroud its past. The sport is half a century old, though most people wouldn’t know it. The game comes not from the sun-drenched shores of California, but from the cold northeast, having been dreamed up in a parking lot in New Jersey. Ask a bystander at random, and they’d likely guess that it was made up by stoned, slacker college kids, but that’s wrong, too: it was invented by nerdy, bookish high school kids whose studies precluded varsity sports. And though some might scoff that it bears no connection to mainstream popular sport, they’d be mistaken: the first intercollegiate ultimate game was held between Rutgers and Princeton, one hundred years to the day after the inaugural intercollegiate football match – and between the same teams.

    And what’s more, just like football, America now boasts the only pro league in the sport.

The League

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    Called the AUDL—American Ultimate Disc League; “Frisbee” is a patented trademark of Wham-O—this new professional league boasts eight teams scattered across the northeast, with plans to expand its reach to the south by 2013 and the west coast the year after that.

    And while the notion might conjure up images of a field full of dogs and barefoot hippies as immortalized in Jeremy Piven’s PCU, that couldn’t be further from reality.

    The Philadelphia team plays its games in 75,000+ seat Franklin Field. The Detroit squad calls the Pontiac Silverdome its home. This is a real pro league, with sponsors, uniforms, webcast games and paying fans—who are shelling out their hard-earned money to watch ultimate.

The Athlete

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    The one true facet of people’s conceptions of ultimate is the one that links the sport to college.

    Most players do pick up the sport there—generally, it’s star high school athletes in track, cross country, football, and soccer who, either reluctant or unable to meet the all-consuming demands of playing a varsity sport full-time in college, switch to intramural or intercollegiate ultimate Frisbee as a substitute.

    But don’t be fooled into thinking these guys are scrubs—they’re the real deal. Teams held NFL-style combines this winter to test 40-yd dash speed, standing maximum jump height, shuttle run ability and similar components of tryouts’ athletic skill sets before settling on rosters.

    And what ability some of these players have. At its top level, the game demands maximum physical effort, including what is known in the game as the “layout”—the full-horizontal extension of the body in an attempt to catch or deflect the disc, with no regard for the ground impact to come.

    Think about a cornerback full-out diving to stop a pass... see the athleticism and how he totally sells out his body to knock down the ball... and then, strip him of all his pads and his helmet before he hits the turf at full force.

    That’s a layout, and it’s expected of these players every day.

The Game

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    Ultimate is played on a field roughly the same size as a football field (the end zones are slightly bigger). Players, seven to a side, advance the Frisbee between teammates through constant passing—think basketball, but without the dribble—while defenders attempt to deflect or intercept those passes.

    Throwing a completed pass to a teammate in the end zone is a score. Throwing an incomplete, out of bounds, deflected or intercepted pass causes an instant turnover. There are no downs in this sport; instead, think of the fast movement and possession changes of hockey.

    Ultimate is nominally a non-contact sport, but then again, so is basketball. Fouls happen, and committing a foul results in a yardage penalty for the other team. As with most sports, multiple or egregious fouls can lead to ejection.

Next Steps

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    The raw talent and fast pace apparent in this pro videos should be enough to get past any biases held by even the most obtuse skeptic.

    But as great as the game is to watch on highlight reels, it's even better live.

    Game schedules and links for streaming can be found at TheAUDL.com. If you’re near Philly, Buffalo, Hartford, Providence, Detroit, Indianapolis, Columbus or Louisville, you might just want to pony up the cash on an spring or summer weekend to check out the games for yourself from a seat right near the action. 

    And yes, gents... this sport does boast cheerleaders.

    Now there's really no excuse.