You know that flying disc you threw around in college or use to play fetch with your dog? Well, now people are being paid to throw that same disc professionally. They aren't paid much, around $25 a game, but all of the expenses — travel, lodging, uniforms and insurance — are covered by Major League Ultimate.
On Sunday, the eight-team league concluded its first 10-week season in the nation's capital. Roaring heat melded with roaring fans as players ran, dove and spun the disc through the air during the final regular season game between the New York Rumble and the Washington DC Current.
A Sport On The Rise
The league, founded last year by seven members of the Ultimate Frisbee community, decided to build upon the league they left in 2012 and make the sport more spectator-friendly. That meant changing the rules a little by including referees, adding a time limit and changing "do-overs" into turnovers.
Jeff Snader, president of the new professional league, suggested forming the group in August 2012 to friend and colleague Nic Darling. Darling, who is now the league's vice president, thought the first game wouldn't be played until 2015. But Snader, sensing a strong surge in the sport, wanted to get going more quickly.
Nine months later, Major League Ultimate, the second professional Ultimate Frisbee league in the United States, played its first games.
"We're doing something most people say is impossible," Snader says. "It's even, to some people's minds, crazier than lingerie football or something."
Snader thinks Ultimate Frisbee is right on the brink of national stardom. On May 31, the International Olympic Committee officially recognized the World Flying Disc Federation, the international governing body of all flying disc sports, and Ultimate Frisbee as a sport. ESPN has also featured highlights on SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays and SportsNation multiple times over the past few weeks.
"The reason I think Frisbee has a chance is because of how extreme it is," Snader says. "People hear Frisbee and think 'no way is that professional.' And then they see it and they're like, 'Wow. ... How have I been missing this?' "
The average attendees at any of these games is around 500 people. That may not seem like much, but players such as Jeff Graham are used to playing in front of far fewer people at the club level.
"From a player's standpoint, it's been amazing to play for over 500 people," says Graham, who plays for the Boston Whitecaps. "I would never have dreamed that would have been the case 10 years ago. It's been really cool for us, too."
Chris Sherwood, general manager of the San Francisco Dogfish, agrees that attendance isn't as high as other sports. But even though there are a lot of empty seats in the 9,000-seat stadium his team uses, Sherwood said SF Parks, the company who owns the stadium, is amazed by how many people attend games.
"Compared to what they're used to seeing when people use their facilities," Sherwood says, "they're amazed."
Rob "Nob" Rauch, president of the World Flying Disc Federation, predicts the sport will only grow when it is presented in a TV format for spectators. And for Ultimate Frisbee, the different dynamic of the sport offers some interesting nuances.
"If you look at the established sports like a football or a basketball, they've been refining the way they present the sport for decades," Rauch said. "Ultimate has that balance that you need to reach of what the camera finds interesting, which is more of the close-ups, versus an understanding of the play on the field."
But with these rule changes, Major League Ultimate looks to help fans understand the game better and quicken the pace of the game. The rule changes also give the players the opportunity to concentrate on playing.
"We wanted to free them up to do what they do best, which is play the sport," Darling says "and to give them the opportunity to do that without having to worry about making calls or arguing about calls or being accused of making bad calls."
Deviation From The Roots
But Rauch, as well as U.S.A. Ultimate, the governing body of all club Ultimate Frisbee leagues in the U.S., did not warm up to the rule changes seen in Major League Ultimate. The sport was founded on the principle of "Spirit of the Game," which essentially means sportsmanship but more specifically talks about self-officiating.
While international play is 100 percent self-officiated, U.S.A Ultimate does have observers that give a third-party perspective to a disputed play. After ESPN picked up coverage of U.S.A Ultimate this spring, the sports network put microphones on the observers so fans could hear the discussion of the play. Tom Crawford, CEO of U.S.A. Ultimate, doesn't agree with the idea that adding referees helps the sport.
"We don't think it does make it easier for people to watch, and I think we're proving that now on ESPN," Crawford says. "That the observers keep the game moving actually adds entertainment value and also stays true to the sport."
Whatever the case, the sport is growing at an enormous pace. Almost 5 million people participate in Ultimate Frisbee in the U.S. alone, more than lacrosse and hockey combined, according to a 2012 Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association report. Worldwide, there are more than 7 million participants in more than 80 countries, according to the World Flying Disc Federation. Darling sees this trend growing because of how simplistic and inexpensive Ultimate Frisbee is, and he hopes Major League Ultimate will help.
"The greatest thing about the sport? Anyone can play," Darling says. "You can go out and play. All you need is a disc."
Back at the last game fans stomped the bleachers when the Rumble scored, and screamed "DEFENSE! DEFENSE!" when the Current needed to stop the Rumble from scoring. Signs with funny slogans and players' names waved in the wind. Aaron Roberts, the game's announcer, kept the crowd in the game by calling out the time, fouls, players and scores, while also starting cheers.
"Let them know we are here for them!" Roberts yelled to the crowd, which erupted into even more cheers as the final minutes waned. And as the final seconds ticked away, around 625 fans got on their feet and applauded the final plays of Major League Ultimate's first regular season.