Ultimate Frisbee makes a bid for commercial acceptance.

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?

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