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 Frisbee—or Ultimate, as those who play the sport call it—may not be what you'd expect. But it's a good story.
Ultimate was 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 game—an amalgam of football, basketball and soccer that would be played with a Wham-O Frisbee. He called the game Ultimate Frisbee.
Ultimate remained 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 sports—claims 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?
Brett Price, 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.
“There's been 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.”
The sport's 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 sport.”
Those involved 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.”
Ironically, part of Ultimate's lack of broadcast appeal and marketability stems from the fact that it requires almost no equipment—a 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.”
Meanwhile, all 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 usually suffice.
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.
Whether Ultimate 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 sports.
However, television 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.”