ULTIMATE FRISBEE MAKES A BID FOR COMMERCIAL ACCEPTANCE
by Alex Masulis
Contrary to what you might assume, Ultimate Frisbee wasn't born
on the beaches of sunny California. It wasn't the brainchild of
some particularly athletic hippies. It wasn't created by a couple
of liberal undergraduates sitting around a Berkeley dorm room. No,
the birth of Ultimate Frisbeeor Ultimate, as those who play
the sport call itmay not be what you'd expect. But it's a
born in the spring of 1967 when a New Jersey teen named Joel Silver
decided he was bored with traditional sports. Silver sat down one
afternoon and sketched out a new gamean amalgam of
football, basketball and soccer that would be played with a Wham-O
Frisbee. He called the game Ultimate Frisbee.
fairly loosely defined until 1970 when Silver, along with fellow
high schoolers Buzzy Hellring and Jon Hines, wrote a revised version
of the rules that made the sport more competition ready. That year,
on November 7, the first interscholastic game of Ultimate was played,
with Silver's Columbia High defeating Millburn High, 43-10. (Silver,
who graduated that year, would go on to make his mark in Hollywood
as the producer of such films as Die Hard, Lethal Weapon
and The Matrix).
The first collegiate
game (between Rutgers and Princeton) was played soon after on November
6, 1972, with Rutgers winning 29-27. Coincidentally, the first intercollegiate
football game had been played by the same schools exactly 103 years
earlier. Rutgers also won that matchup by a deuce.
After a relatively
quiet first decade, Ultimate really took off in the '80s and has
since experienced rapid growth despite remaining a largely college-centric
endeavor. The Ultimate Players Association (UPA) boasts 15,700 members,
a number that has more than doubled in the past ten years. Meanwhile,
the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF)the international
governing body of all disc sportsclaims Ultimate is
played by more than 100,000 people in 40 countries around the world.
But regardless of growth, it is clear that more than 35 years after
its creation Ultimate remains a small-time alternative sport, fully
eclipsed by the Holy Trinity of the American jock: football, baseball
and basketball. Which brings to mind two questions: What is holding
Ultimate back? And do Ultimate players really want their beloved
sport to enter the mainstream?
founder and owner of Gaia, a Vancouver-based company that specializes
in Ultimate gear, believes most Ultimate players want more exposure
for the sport. "The old guard is dying off," claims Price, referring
to the older (and mostly politically liberal) men and women who
have been playing for 15 or 25 years. Many such players resisted
and continue to resist the idea of Ultimate becoming media-friendly,
mainly because of the inevitability of money changing the sport.
this increasingly obvious divide between the guys who started playing
Ultimate in the late '70s and '80s, and those kids who are into
it now," agrees National and World Champion Ultimate player Philip
Burkhardt. "Unless you live in a major college town, your local
club team is likely to be a portrait of '80s slackerdom…. But now
you've got kids playing Ultimate who heard about it from their study
pal in a Stanford physics seminar. It's a whole different world
from the old school guys and it's inevitable that those worlds are
gonna collide every once in a while."
official stance seems to be aligned with Price and Burkhardt. "The
UPA and WFDF have been working to achieve the best presentation
of Ultimate and other disc sports on the worldwide sport scene for
some time," says Stephanie Kurth, the UPA's Director of Media and
Communications. "A major milestone occurred in 2001 when Ultimate
was included in the World Games for the first time as a full medal
with Ultimate are hopeful that the next logical step will be inclusion
in the Olympics. Sadly, however, the World Games is probably just
a glorified dead-end. According to Kurth and others at UPA headquarters,
the current climate for inclusion of new events in the Olympic Games
is not encouraging.
"It's not even
that Ultimate couldn't theoretically be an Olympic sport," says
Jay Plasman, former star of Carleton College's Ultimate team, arguably
the most dominant college team of the last decade. "Really, it's
not even about the Olympics. Ultimate's potential for growth is
hampered by its image in mainstream culture. When your average person
hears 'Ultimate Frisbee' they think of hippies smoking pot and 'tossing
the bee' with their dog. Ultimate has developed into an extremely
organized athletic sport with almost no media attention."
part of Ultimate's lack of broadcast appeal and marketability stems
from the fact that it requires almost no equipmenta
quality many would see as positive. The expensive gear necessary
for other alternative sports like those popularized by the X-Games
means that companies supplying those sports have a lot to gain by
helping draw increasingly larger audiences. "Skateboarding, snowboarding,
BMX™ biking, etc., all attract big corporate sponsorships from gear
manufacturers," says Kurth, " and that goes a long way in terms
of getting more commercial visibility."
it takes to play a high-quality game of Ultimate is a Frisbee (Discraft,
$8), a large field, and a set of cones to demarcate the end zones.
Most players choose to wear cleats, but soccer or football cleats
This is not
to say that there aren't any Ultimate gear companies. Gaia
sells Ultimate-specific clothing and accessories and has even ventured
into the potentially lucrative footwear market, so far without much
success. While Price admits that larger brands like Nike and Adidas
have huge distribution advantages he won't admit defeat. Price has
been doing his own marketing, increasing exposure by providing free
cleats to big-name players on top club teams like Death or Glory
(Boston), The Condors (Santa Barbara) and Furious George (Vancouver).
Still, Price maintains that only two to five percent of Ultimate
players currently wear Gaia cleats.
will be a viable commercial sport in the future remains to be seen,
but it won't be competing with football, baseball or basketball
at any time in the conceivable future. The most significant problem
is simply lack of an audience. Some have argued that the absence
of referees (unique among team sports) has held Ultimate back, as
play is often delayed by arguments between the self-officiating
players. Others say it's just not as watchable as other professional
coverage is not a complete impossibility. The 2003 College National
championships were filmed and broadcast in a series of 30-minute
segments by College Sports Television (CSTV), a burgeoning satellite
company. But this was definitely an exception to the rule, and even
then the UPA had to match CSTV's monetary contribution in order
for the project to happen at all.
As media diversifies
and the sport grows, regularly televised Ultimate may someday become
a reality. But for now both the old guard players and the entrepreneurial
youngsters will have to be satisfied with the compromise of slow
but continued growth. "It isn't that Ultimate is bad, or ugly, or
not good enough," says Ben Wiggins, longtime Ultimate player and
winner of the 2003 Callahan award (College Ultimate's version of
the Heisman trophy). "It is simply a question of a fan base that
we don't have yet."
(Official Web site of the Ultimate Players Association)
(Official Web site of the World Flying Disc Federation)
(Gaia Ultimate Sports Inc.)