For a long time, the east and west coasts of the U.S.A. were so far apart as to be in separate worlds. It was not until 1869 when, in Promontory, Utah, a golden spike was driven into the ground, completing the first transcontinental railroad, firmly linking the east to the west.
One-hundred-and-forty-five years later, professional Ultimate Disc follows rail travel in uniting the continent—and again, the tracks lead through Utah.
This spring, North America’s first professional Ultimate league, the AUDL, will welcome pro play to the Pacific Northwest. Having launched in the Northeast in 2012 and spread to the Midwest in 2013, AUDL’s 2014 season will feature five new teams in the Western U.S. and Canada: the Vancouver Riptide, the Seattle Raptors, the San Francisco Flamethrowers, the San Jose Spiders, and the Salt Lake City Lions.
For fans of Ultimate, that list of new teams should read as both completely sensible and just slightly odd. Vancouver, Seattle, and the Bay Area have long been hotbeds of Ultimate competition, with 10 of the past 12 USA Ultimate amateur club championship winners hailing from one of those three urban centers.
But Salt Lake City? Utah has never enjoyed a large presence on the national Ultimate scene. Why a team in Salt Lake City? Who will make their roster? And will they be any good?
“Oh yes,” said team owner Jonathan Orlofsky, grinning. “The Lions are coming.”
A Roar of Pride
In his home, surrounded by his family, the Lions founder and owner explains his rationale for launching a pro team in the middle of the mountains—and his vision for the future of Ultimate.
“Most people don’t know it, but Salt Lake City has a huge—and growing—Ultimate population,” Orlofsky said. “We have three of the top 25 high school teams in the nation. In a metro area with a population of under one million, we have 23 competitive high school teams. That’s more than New York, Chicago, San Francisco—anywhere!”
Orlofsky smiled. “That’s what our team is about. Growth. A foundation for the future. We’re aiming to build a dangerous, dominant, homegrown team. And when other people play us, going into the games, they’ll have no idea what to prepare for.”
What about their opponents? Who are they most worried about?
“Vancouver is the first opponent on our schedule. They’ll likely play a similar style to ours, trading heavily on their youth and athleticism, so at the moment, we’re focusing strictly on that game.”
Indeed, past Vancouver teams have often thrived by relying on big-name throwers to put the disc to speedy receivers in deep space; the city is often credited with popularizing, if not outright inventing, the huck-friendly horizontal stack offense so commonly seen today.
But unlike Vancouver, Salt Lake City does not boast a famous Ultimate history—and what’s more, unlike any of the rest of the teams new to the league, Salt Lake City sports no standing geographic rivalries. This begs two questions: one, who’s going to be on this team? And two, isn’t Salt Lake City just pretty... far?
Making the Cut
On paper, at least, the Salt Lake City Lions have existed since 2012, when Orlofsky entered into an agreement with the AUDL to start a team in the mountain west. However, the Lions have yet to play a game, and they’re very much still in the process of coming together.
The team has held just two practices to date—both located at a temperature-controlled indoor facility almost an hour away from their home fields—and they’re still very much in the process of winnowing through their nearly 100 applicants and tryouts.
“We’ve made a strategic decision to focus on athletes first,” noted Orlofsky. “There are some teams in the league that are already earning the reputation of being like the Lakers or the Yankees—teams that are reaching out to make splashy moves and sign established Ultimate stars. We’re not doing that. It’s a tactical choice.”
Veteran field leader Trevor Harper agrees.
“We’ve got a bunch of players who are cannonballs, who can get shoulder-high layout D’s,” said Harper. “It’s exciting, and it will be interesting to see what these young, relatively untested players can do.”
Harper, who founded the U of Utah college team and spent a number of years playing with Chicago’s Machine in the USA Ultimate series, argues that Utah has the potential to win—and the Lions will serve as the first step in showing the rest of the country how good Utah’s brand of homegrown Ultimate can be.
“Provo (Salt Lake City’s intrastate rival) has some 3,000 people in their college league alone,” Harper said. “There’s a lot of talent in this state, but it has always been tough to put a single, competitive men’s team together because of the divide between the cities—to say nothing of the distance from everywhere else. Las Vegas is a six-hour drive, Boulder is eight... and in college, those were our closest tournaments!”
The opponents in the AUDL will still be far away, of course—but the single-game format evens the playing field. After all, the Lions’ opponents will be coming to their den as well.
“The traveling will have a huge impact,” Harper admitted. But of what kind?
“How will it affect us?” He shrugged. “We don’t know yet.”
Spreading the Gospel of Ultimate
Religion looms large in the history of Utah—so much so that some might think Ultimate’s counter-culture roots might have trouble bearing fruit in Salt Lake soil. But Orlofsky disagrees.
"Five point four million people played ultimate in the U.S. last year. That’s more than lacrosse, more than rugby... more than swimming! But people know those sports, even if they don’t play. Right now, ultimate has more of a cult following—it’s loved by the people who play it, but less known outside those circles. We’re out to change that."
The growing youth Ultimate movement in Salt Lake City certainly makes Utah a great place to start—and it doesn’t hurt that Salt Lake City is famous for being passionate about all of its sports teams.
“People love the Jazz; people love the University teams. The Utah football stadium has 60,000 seats, and it sells out every game,” Orlofsky noted.
"But Salt Lake City isn’t limited to high-profile fan-dom. We have a triple-A baseball team that plays 75 home games a year and sees ten thousand fans at every game. Real Salt Lake, the Major League Soccer team, is hugely successful as well. Why? Because Salt Lake City is a sports town, and because our teams make an effort to appeal to youth and families. Our sports teams do fireworks nights and family nights where kids get in free—and we plan to operate that way with the Lions as well."
Orlofsky’s plan includes reaching out to children and high schoolers, both youth league players and those who have never played a competitive game in their lives. Yes, he’s aiming to bring fans out to the games—but for him, it’s about more than mere attendance and numbers.
"When you’re young, that’s when you learn about Ultimate. I got my first taste of the game back in high school, and I was hooked. We were just unorganized kids and we didn’t even know the rules, but once we started to play, it was amazing. I never looked back. Can you imagine what it would be like if that first time you started touching a disc as a teenager, you could do more than just go out and run around with your buddies—you could go to the stadium on a Saturday night and watch the pros play right in front of you? Because at the end of the day, that’s why we’re here. Ultimate is the greatest game there is, and getting that in front of people and letting them experience that firsthand and learn that for themselves – that’s what got me excited about starting this team and being a part of this league in the first place."
The road ahead
“We’re just a different kind of team,” said Orlofsky, and there’s no denying that’s true. Geographically isolated and unknown outside of their hometown, the Lions undoubtedly walk into this AUDL season as the league underdogs. But as it happens, that’s just the way they want it.
“What differentiates the Lions?” asked Trevor Harper. “Our advantage is that nobody knows us. We’re going to be the wild-card team that nobody can prepare for. That gives us the opportunity to walk out and surprise any team that makes the mistake of looking past us.”
Harper admits that it’s unclear how the team will fare this year—but then, that’s part of sports. “We are going up against these meccas of Ultimate, cities that have had established ultimate cultures for years. We would love to unseat some of them. Maybe it’s a dream, as there’s only one bid from our section to the playoffs... but there’s always hope.”
The Lions open their season at home on April 12 against the Vancouver Riptide. They hope to emerge with a victory. But win or lose, one thing is for certain: when the first pull goes up in the air, the Lions will have succeeded in staking the ground to support professional Ultimate all across North America.
And they’ll only be an hour’s drive away from Promontory. Maybe that first disc should be colored shining gold.
Eric Brach is a Correspondent for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via interview.