The good news is there’s not a Birkenstock in sight. No nose rings, dreadlocks, patchouli, or hacky sacks, either. And definitely no bandanna-wearing dogs.
Nothing the common person associates with Frisbee playing is on display at the U.S. Open Ultimate Championships. Instead, there are hyper-fit athletes with ripped physiques dripping with sweat, engaged in intense competition, discussing strategy for the next game, lashing ice bags to sore spots on their bodies — and that’s just the women. If it weren’t for the flying discs, this could be any elite athletic competition. I may have expected a bit of campy pleasure from an Ultimate tournament, but the only clichéd types here are some local gentry who slip, barefoot, onto the field between games for a quick throw and catch.
The Open takes place Independence Day weekend at a soccer complex on the outskirts of Raleigh, N.C. The Open is like the Daytona 500 — a major competition that begins a long schedule of events for elite club Frisbee players. After a series of tournaments that have been organized and sanctioned by the sport’s governing body, USA Ultimate (USAU), the season culminates with the National Championships in October.
The network is attempting to give Ultimate a more recognized presence as a sport for real athletes and not "hippie douchebags."
This is the first year of the so-called Triple Crown Tour, an attempt by USAU to bring order to what has always been chaos. Previously, club teams across the country played schedules of wildly varying strengths. Some tournaments matched top-notch teams of relatively equal ability, while others included both talented clubs as well as more ramshackle, ad hoc aggregations. That made determining the best teams tricky, involving guesswork and second-hand reporting. With the new setup, which includes four tiers — Pro, Elite, Select, and Classic (think major leagues down to single-A ball), and relegation for teams that can’t hack it at their current level — discipline hopefully has been imposed on the game from the top down.
This belated bit of organization is a major reason ESPN has brought its cameras to the Open. The network is attempting to give Ultimate a more recognized presence as a sport for real athletes and not "hippie douchebags," as one player describes the common perception of his game. The network broadcast semifinals and finals from all three of the divisions in action, men’s, women’s and mixed, albeit only on its online entity, ESPN3. Still, their presence lends the sport an imprimatur that has eluded Ultimate before — if it’s on ESPN, in any capacity, it must be big time. And indeed, now that the Bristol-based behemoth is in business with Ultimate, incredible diving catches and layout pass breakups have started to crop up on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays and other highlight montages.
My expectations for the holiday weekend included being very sweaty and being bored stiff. The scalding heat ensured that the first part came true, but the games were often riveting. The tournament ended with a breathtaking men’s final, won in the sport’s version of sudden-death overtime (called "double game point") by San Francisco-based club Revolver over Boston’s Ironside. Revolver’s superstar, Beau Kittredge, described by another player as "unquestionably the one guy in our sport who could be an NFL wide receiver," went over a pair of defenders for the winning grab. Revolver, along with women’s champs Fury (also from San Francisco) and mixed division winner Odyssée of Montreal took home winner-take-all prizes of $2,000, or about enough to cover their travel costs from the Bay Area and Quebec.
Exciting action, media heavyweights, international recognition — seemingly Ultimate has reached a breakthrough moment.
The entertaining start to the initial Triple Crown Tour, which followed a heavily attended "Learn to Play" clinic in downtown Raleigh on the Fourth of July, capped an eventful month for the sport. The Ultimate community is still abuzz over the June announcement that the game, under the auspices of the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF, or as it is charmingly called, "Wiff-Diff"), has gained official recognition by the International Olympic Committee. While that does not mean disc-throwers will grace the Olympic Village any time soon, it is an important step in growing Ultimate and exposing it to as many people as possible, fundamental goals of USAU CEO Dr. Tom Crawford.
Exciting action, media heavyweights, international recognition — seemingly Ultimate has reached a breakthrough moment, or at least gained a beachhead in the sports culture. As Revolver coach and former player Mike Payne told me, 2013 is shaping up as "finally one of these years I can be proud of what I do in my off hours."
So why are so many people eager to fundamentally change the game?
* * *
The disc arcs high out over the Swan River in Perth, Australia, having been hurled forehand style from a bridge by a bro in a baseball cap. With floppy bits of hair poking out on either side, he looks a little like a more athletic Krusty the Clown. For roughly an incredible 175 yards it slices through the air, before settling into a hover, and then slowly dropping toward the water. Suddenly, a jetboat, one of those Down Under toys that can reach nearly 200 miles per hour and spin 360 degrees within their own wakes, cruises alongside.
No, he’s not gonna … Holy Shit!! A crazy dude jumps out of the boat, goes full extension, grabs the disc with a lefty backhand, and splashes heavily into the water.
Yes! And it counts!!
The man in the cap who engineered this astonishing piece of video is Brodie Smith, foremost Frisbee trick shot maker on the web. When Smith put this particular video online in late 2011, it swiftly attained that all-important Internet buzzword, viral. It has been viewed more than 5.5 million times on YouTube, and has aired on ESPN, Good Morning America and Discovery Channels around the world.
"When people ask me ‘What do you do?’" Smith says, "I answer, ‘Have you ever seen something where someone threw a disc off a bridge to a guy in a boat?’ They often say ‘Yeah, that was insane!’ I say, ‘That was me.’" (It may not be clear to the questioners that they are talking to the disc thrower, and not the guy whose remarkable catch makes the video epic, Derek Herron, a member of the Australian trick shot group known as How Ridiculous, but that’s quibbling).
Rather than work in a vacuum, Smith wisely attached himself to established trick shot collectives, ones that astonish with a more established piece of sporting equipment, a basketball. How Ridiculous and its stateside equivalent, Dude Perfect, are hoops trick shot artistes who have large followings on the web. Smith "battles" them online, replicating and surpassing the roundball magic with a Frisbee.
The videos are addicting. As Smith whips a no-look Frisbee bomb 40 yards into a small net, or swishes a Frisbee while throwing it behind his head while also jumping on a trampoline, or skitters a Frisbee along a wall for 30 yards and then into a trash can, or knocks down cricket stumps from a football field away, he is bringing Frisbee, and, he hopes, Ultimate, to eyeballs and demographics that the sport’s power structure would wet itself to get in front of. It’s likely that more people have watched Smith on YouTube than have ever watched a full game of Ultimate as a spectator since the game was invented.
I meet Smith at a Starbucks in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., a small beach town near Jacksonville, where he is recovering from a torn meniscus while living with mom ("It works," he says of the arrangement). Tall (6’4) and rangy, with a long handsome face adorned with sideburns and facial scruff, Smith could easily pass for a baseball or basketball player stopping in for a latte after practice. His injury has kept him off the Ultimate field, but that hasn’t slowed his income, since he makes a healthy living off advertising from his trick shot videos, personal appearances and clinics, and a line of equipment and apparel. By most accounts, he is the highest paid performer in Frisbee history.
Smith is weary, having returned from completing his most recent opus in Alabama the day before, this one with another trick shot crew called Legendary Shots, then staying up editing the video late into the night. Smith is particularly proud of a new trick where he spins a disc high in the air and whacks it with a baseball bat into a basketball hoop. If it all sounds like Smith and his cohorts are killing time while working an endless shift at Dick’s Sporting Goods, well, that is precisely the vibe — and the audience — they are going for.
It would be easy to write Smith off as the USAU’s equivalent to basketball’s And 1, fun if frivolous, except for the fact that Smith is also one of the world’s best players of Ultimate. It’s as if Kevin Durant had a YouTube channel devoted to his visits to Rucker Park. "He’s as naturally talented as anyone who has ever played," says Dylan Tunnell, a top player in his own right. Smith was on a pair of national championship teams at the University of Florida, and helped lead his elite club team, Doublewide of Austin, Texas, to the national title in 2012. Capable of pinpoint 80-yard passes and galloping down long bombs on the receiving end, Smith should be one of the faces of the Triple Crown Tour, and a regular on ESPN.
Instead, he is at the forefront of a breakaway faction of Ultimate players who want to grow the game in a manner far different from USAU. And surprisingly, given the fact that at first glance Smith appears to be a free spirit, he wants Ultimate to get more buttoned-down, more rules-oriented, and mainly, more profitable.
* * *
there is a loud and growing segment of players who feel this aspect of the game is holding it back, and want referees to lend credibility to the proceedings.
At the heart of the dispute is the deceptively simple phrase "Spirit of the Game," which in Ultimate terms means a sense of ethics and sportsmanship best reflected by the fact the matches are self-officiated. Players call their own fouls, point out infractions, and police and pace the game themselves. The "Spirit of the Game" (in caps!) is even referenced in Ultimate’s "Official Rules."
But there is a loud and growing segment of players who feel this aspect of the game is holding it back, and want referees to lend credibility to the proceedings, especially among casual fans who need to be drawn to the sport. Smith, who has a booming voice to go with his "Duuude" inflection, is the face of this movement.
"I’d much rather have real refs," he says. "It’s easier for fans to understand, and they set a much faster pace — they make the call right away, you pick up the disc and go. There’s no arguing or figuring who called what. And you don’t have to worry about your opponent making a call that may be borderline."
At the U.S. Open, as with other USAU events, a hybrid system is used, with "observers" making line calls and settling disputes that the players can’t decide among themselves. However, they only get involved when necessary, and referee proponents like Smith feel the observer system only highlights the need for the real thing.
For the most part, the players’ honesty is refreshing, especially when a defender immediately raises his hand to call a foul on himself for whacking the wrist of a thrower, which happens often. On the other hand, Smith’s point became clear during one match at the Open, when two players fighting over a floating disc collided in the end zone. The defender appeared to bump the attacker with his body, but only after swatting away the pass cleanly up high. The attacker claimed the equivalent of football’s pass interference, however. Ideally, the defender would call a foul on him or herself, or the attacker would agree after discussion that the bump was incidental contact. Or, as sometimes happens, albeit usually during less important games, they could call for a "do-over," returning to the spot of the original throw and carrying on. Instead, they turned to the nearest observer, who despite being partially screened from the play called interference. The attacking team got the point, an important call in a tight match.
Next to me in the stands, an elderly man grumbled in a Carolina accent, "That’s bull-shee-yit." He clearly wasn’t feeling the spirit of the game.
* * *
Recently, two professional Ultimate leagues have sprouted up, both featuring referees. Before his injury, Smith suited up for the Windy City Wildfire of the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), a 12-team collection with individually owned franchises in major cities of the Northeast and Midwest, including New York, Philly, D.C., Detroit and Chicago. Major League Ultimate (MLU) follows a different model, one that, despite the referees, seems to stem from the sports counter-cultural roots. The MLU owns all its teams collectively, and allocates players to the various squads, which is why a determined individualist like Smith prefers the AUDL. Ultimate’s spiritual home is the Pacific Northwest, and MLU caters to that, with four teams based there, along with four in the Boston-D.C. corridor.
Besides refs, the pro game has other differences, many geared toward potential television viewers (though there are no broadcast contracts yet) and the resulting need to make the game easier to understand. Club Frisbee has confusing timing and scoring rules, so the pro game simplified matters — four 12-minute quarters, whoever scores the most wins (in USAU, the first team to 15 points wins). The fields are longer and wider, using existing football fields and their lines, providing a familiar backdrop and making it easier for casual fans to translate the action to a familiar scale — a 50-yard toss and catch, either in Ultimate or in football, can be equally exciting. Players can only hold the disc for seven seconds, as opposed to 10 in the amateur game, double-teams are allowed, and no goofy attire is permitted — only team uniforms. (In 2009, the University of Oregon’s Ultimate team, then ranked third in the nation and a favorite to win the national championship, had its season cut short after the school discovered they had played Oregon State wearing nothing at all).
it is the referees, and what their presence means, that cause the most friction.
But it is the referees, and what their presence means, that cause the most friction. Smith sees them as a natural part of sport. "Most people I talk to want the refs," he says. "Other athletes I talk to get turned off by their absence. When you get in a very competitive situation, it’s tough to keep that spirit alive. And I find it much better to walk away from a bad call griping about ‘those damn refs’ rather than ‘that damn other team’— that erodes community spirit faster than having refs does.
"We all play pickup hoops," he continues, "and know how tough it is when your opponent makes bad calls. Now imagine a national championship is on the line, and one of those calls blows it for you."
Traditionalists don’t see it that way at all. "Refs don’t guarantee anything," says Tunnell. "Look at the recent atrocious calls in baseball. The (soccer) World Cup always has bad calls. There are blown calls at the highest levels of sport." Tunnell also sees self-officiating as a crucial element in setting the sport apart. "Many people within the sport — not just Brodie — say we will never be a mainstream sport with that idealistic attitude," he says. "I strongly disagree with that. I think it is a drawing card. Ultimate isn’t going to save the world or anything, but it does offer a nice alternative to the cutthroat competition you find in other sports." Crawford, the head of USAU, which wants nothing to do with refs, adds, "In a lot of sports the athletes are so competitive they aren’t even nice to each other. You don’t see that in our community."
* * *
Ah, the community. You can’t talk to any Ultimate player — at any level — without getting an earful about "the community." How welcoming it is. How different it is from other sports. How everyone, in the end, puts Ultimate first, rather than winning.
You can’t talk to any Ultimate player — at any level — without getting an earful about "the community."
After a while, it starts to sound a bit cultish. When I mention that word to Smith, he booms, "It is a cult! I’m very different from the people in that cult. And USAU doesn’t like that I bring in people from outside the cult.
"We are arrogant as a community, very cliquish as a sport," he adds, shaking his head at the vibe he gets at Ultimate events, one he feels uses the phrase "Spirit of the Game" as a subtle statement that can be easily translated to "We’re better than you." In an ironic twist, Ultimate spreads its arms wide for newcomers, but is quick to brand insiders who speak their minds as heretics. Especially ones like Smith, who was already viewed as suspect for being, as he says, "emotional and intense" during games.
Tunnell represents the opposite camp, a great player who respects the game and is beloved within the sport. Tunnell is the product of an Atlanta-area high school Ultimate powerhouse (yes, there is such a thing) called The Paideia School, a private institution that prizes nonconformity and unconventional thinking. Ultimate has traditionally attracted precisely that personality. To this unorthodox athlete, referees represent convention and commodification, making Ultimate no different from the mainstream sports they rejected en route to Frisbee.
"[Self-officiating] increases the character and quality of the game through interaction with your opponent," says Gwen Ambler, captain of the Seattle-based club team Riot and one of the top women players in the world. "You get to actually view them as people and competitors, rather than just someone to be beaten. The joy of play disappears when players are coached to bend the system or how to gain an advantage over the rules."
Ambler is tall and long-limbed, with penetrating gray eyes that radiate intelligence. Away from Frisbee, she is an HIV researcher at the University of Washington, and is universally respected by her peers of both sexes. She represents many of her less well-spoken advocates of Ultimate’s future when she points out the path taken by the pro leagues may not be sustainable.
"Ultimate players all say, ‘We need to be taken seriously,’ and in their minds, that merely means copying the NFL. It’s a naive and uninformed perspective. The sports marketplace is saturated — oversaturated — and Ultimate is trying to carve out a niche for itself. The self-officiating aspect of the game does that." Indeed, according to Crawford, a key element of the recent recognition by ESPN and the IOC was the lack of refs. "There’s no diving or flopping or any of that baloney you see in other sports," he points out.
Pro Frisbee: MLU vs. AUDL
| ||Major League Ultimate ||American Ultimate Disc League
||Usually under $15
||$25/game, plus expenses
||Stipend or revenue %, plus expenses
Boston won the inaugural MLU championship in Philadelphia on July 13, defeating San Francisco 20-15.
The AUDL regular season just ended and the playoffs will take place in Chicago on Aug. 3 and 4.
For more see TheAUDL.com and MLUltimate.com
Tunnell is an artist, and says that Ultimate "rewards creative minds," but he is no flower child, either. A strongly built, two-way force on the field, he fills the hours not spent chasing discs by serving as a firefighter in west Atlanta, often pulling 48-hour shifts in order to serve his passion for Ultimate. He went to the University of Georgia, where he clashed often with Smith’s Florida teams. While there were no cocktail parties, the games were fierce and "testosterone- y," as Tunnell puts it. "We didn’t love each other," he says of Smith. "It was a heated rivalry," one that Florida usually won, it should be noted.
Smith rues those college days, and says he is often unfairly judged within the Ultimate community because of them. "It was my team and I ran it badly. We knew we were good and we wanted to make sure you knew we were beating you. I made a name for myself in college that was cocky and arrogant. I take responsibility for that, but that’s not me anymore. I consider myself a huge joke — I make fun of myself more than anyone."
The trick shot videos, while awesomely entertaining, have actually decreased Smith’s standing within Ultimate. "People don’t like that I make a living off Frisbee," he says. "They call me a sellout, say I’m putting myself above the game. Hey, I have to put food on the table."
The internecine warfare within the game is encapsulated perfectly by a woman I sit next to in the stands at the Open, a female player at the University of North Carolina. "Ultimate," she says, "is both the most and the least hardcore sport there is."
* * *
Much of the Ultimate community’s resistance to Smith and his fellow agents of change comes from the female side. Women possess a sizable voice and place in the game, and the gender equity adds much to the unique flavor of Frisbee. The women players chant their encouragement, comment from the sidelines on their games and others, and provide much of the fun and pep to tournaments like the Open. At one point during an Open match, a block of female spectators chanted "Wa-ter, wa-ter" when a player went to take a drink. When she gulped it down, the stands erupted in cheers.
Ultimate is also one of the few sports to encourage not only equivalent participation between the sexes, but actual co-ed play.
Ultimate is also one of the few sports to encourage not only equivalent participation between the sexes, but actual co-ed play, even at the highest levels. International teams, including the one representing the U.S. at the coming World Games in Cali, Colombia, are mixed, and the co-mingling of the sexes is a huge part of the sport’s appeal.
Indeed, the proximity of the opposite sex is a strong drawing card for many players. "I can’t tell you how many marriages I know that have been a result of Ultimate," Ambler says, including her own.
Smith proudly states, "I have never dated an Ultimate girl, and probably never will." He’s no sexist, but when Smith goes on to opine, "I personally think a lot of people in Ultimate are scared of their place in the sport," he’s likely talking about the women, who don’t have any place in the professional game, not yet, anyway. "The ones holding us back are the ones thinking that if we blew up as a sport, they would be left behind."
In Raleigh, female spectators exponentially outnumbered men, but there isn’t a red-blooded male who would miss an Ultimate tournament if they knew that the women’s teams, consisting of one knockout after another, routinely strip down to sports bra and undies and change right on the field. Ladies ranging from 20-year-old Michela Meister to 40-year old Kimberly Beach turn heads with both their prowess and their pulchritude.
As Tunnell puts it, "The level of athleticism in elite women Ultimate players relative to the general population, or even other sports, is higher than it is with men." The likes of Alex Morgan or Brittney Griner may quibble the point, but certainly watching national teamer Georgia Bosscher chase down and sky to knock away a disc headed for the end zone is as glorious and inspiring as any aspect of women’s sports.
If trick shot videos don’t do it for the Ultimate community, perhaps marketing the women front and center might do the trick.
* * *
Smith says he has made repeated efforts to join forces with USAU, despite the disagreements over referees, only to be rebuffed with extreme prejudice. "We haven’t done anything together. It makes zero sense. I want to help, but they have to want my help in return. I can only bang my head against the wall so many times." (USAU’s response: "We’ve had general conversations with Brodie in the past and even offered to meet with him in Sarasota in 2011 in order to discuss his inquiry. He did not respond to our offer.")
Considering Smith has over a quarter of a million YouTube subscribers, over 23,000 Twitter followers, and his trick shots have been seen around the world, it stands to reason that a sport attempting to grow its profile would want to reach out to him, and be associated with his brand. But that hasn’t happened. "We don’t see eye to eye, so maybe that’s enough for them not to be associated with me," Smith says.
The chief obstacle is Crawford, who brings some heavy résumé artillery to his role with USAU — a double doctorate in sports performance and psychology of high performance from Indiana University, a stint as Senior Director at the National Institute of Fitness and Sport, and a decade as the Director of Coaching with the U.S. Olympic Committee. In short, he’s a sports lifer, and a highly accomplished one. He took over as CEO in 2009 after being recruited by the sport's powers-that-be to help Ultimate break into the public consciousness. "The first thing we need to do is get rid of all the Tom Crawfords," Crawford says. "People like me who have worked their whole lives in sports and don’t even know Ultimate exists."
His isn’t the sort of background that usually leads one to hauling the tarp off the playing field early in the morning on game day, as I spot Crawford doing several hours before the U.S. Open finals commence, a moment of DIY commissionership Messrs. Goodell or Stern are unlikely to attempt. But Crawford, who was first made aware of the sport by his niece, a Frisbee fanatic, has the messianic fervor of the recently converted. Once his niece finally noodged him into investigating Ultimate, "I was instantly hooked by the game and its growth potential," he says. "If I took an empty mixing bowl and put in all the ingredients to make the best sport. Ultimate has all those ingredients, starting with it is wicked fun to play and watch." It’s not clear whether Crawford would have used "wicked" as an adjective before coming to Ultimate, but it sounded perfectly normal when he said it.
The self-officiating method, he maintains, is "the envy of other sports."
When I catch up with Crawford in Raleigh, he tells me he has just come from a meeting with other sports organizing chieftains. A depressing poll clearly detailing a downward trend in sports participation among the nation’s youth was the talk of the meeting. "It sure got Nike’s attention," Crawford says. All on hand agreed that a lack of fun in modern youth sports was a major culprit in kids turning away from the playing fields. Crawford told me that the head of the US Tennis Association pointed right at Crawford and said, "We need to do what they’re doing." The self-officiating method, he maintains, is "the envy of other sports."
Perhaps, but greed is even higher on the list of deadly sins than envy, and many top players, even those who don’t believe in refs, Tunnell included, quietly slip away to play pro games, pragmatically pointing out that it is better to get paid, even a pittance (typically $25-$30 per game), than to pay to play. Those days may be ending, however. "The athletes are gonna have to make a choice," Crawford says, ominously. "No one can play a different game and then go to the Olympics and look to the ref who isn’t there for a call." In other words, you’re either a pro or you’re not, and never the twain shall meet.
"We have no relationship at all with the pro leagues," he continues, by extension lumping in Smith. "It’s very clear their economics can’t work. Their only real revenue stream is attendance."
Given the fact that both pro and club versions struggle to draw more than a few hundred spectators per game, sponsorship is more than a lifeline — it’s blood plasma. Both refereed and non-refereed Ultimate are chasing the Holy Grail, a non-endemic large corporate sponsor that will suffuse the game with cash and cachet.
"To me the paradigm is CrossFit," Smith says of the hardcore fitness craze-turned competitive niche sport. "Reebok was being crushed by Nike and Under Armour. They made a decision to get behind a small sport or movement that had a lot of potential to grow, and now CrossFit competitions are on ESPN in primetime."
The race to procure the next Reebok is on. Crawford, USAU, and the traditionalists have ESPN, the IOC, and momentum on their side. Smith, the pro leagues, and the modernizers have YouTube, the viral power of social media and a jetboat on theirs.
May the best (?) version of the game win.