Monday, July 30, 2012

Semi-Pro Ultimate

Ultimate has been written about before in Sports Illustrated (Nov 2011); and don’t forget about the superb illustrations of the sport. This lengthy SI article focuses on the AUDL as a start-up sports business (its current status) of Ultimate rather than detailing a drama-filled semi-professional sports league in its first season.

AUDL takes the casual game of frisbee to a professional level [ . 7.24.12]

The raw athleticism of the players is evident from the first throw, and many are built like shooting guards: Tall and lanky, but speedy with a sinewy strength and grace that allows them to make spectacular catches with impressive regularity. There are about 10 grabs each match that make the crowd "ooh" and "ahh" with appreciation.

"You see guys throw 80-yard hucks right on the money, and guys run full speed up and down a football field over and over and over," says Moore. "It's endurance, it's speed, it's agility, and a lot of leaping. It really is an ultimate athleticism test for these guys. They may not be stronger than any other sport, but when you look at the things they're required to do on the field, it does take amazing athletic ability."

One can only see in person the fluidity of the game. Players are constantly making overlapping runs and cutting at full speed, a hurricane of motion where the eye of the storm is the handler of the frisbee, rooted to his spot for a maximum of seven seconds while he decides where to toss the disc.

Despite a structural similarity to football, ultimate most resembles soccer in the way the teams advance up and down the field. Cutters seek pockets of free space away from the defense, and some of the throws that the handlers make, leading their marks into open areas of the field free of defenders, are as exquisitely well-timed as anything Barcelona's midfield has produced in recent years.
The internet based, grassroots marketing campaign has worked for the AUDL so far, as have the three clips that have made it onto SportsCenter's "Top Plays" on ESPN (One got as high as number three, featuring Connecticut's Brent Anderson laying out to make a nearly impossible catch in the end zone against the Spinners in May). Still, the Riccis, Moore and the other owners recognize that the league will need backing from a major company at some point to truly solidify its place as an entity that isn't just a one-and-done.
It's this 'seeing-is-believing' approach that Steepe thinks will transform the AUDL into something more than a niche league. Even before going to a game, he says, both prospective fans and curious individuals alike should take some time to watch ultimate clips online. When asked how one person should try to explain ultimate frisbee to somebody who has never seen it, he responds, "Don't try and tell anybody about ultimate, just show them. They see a couple of plays or highlights, and they get it really fast. To anybody who poses that question," he says, "Tell them nothing, show them everything."

As with many subcultures, ultimate has its own lingo, conventions and ideologies. The frisbee is referred to almost invariably as "the disc," and the throw-off to begin each half and after a score is the "pull." Admiration is reserved for those who can throw the longest and jump the highest, and backwards baseball hats seem to be the fashion du jour on the field. With frisbee's traditions, however, came a backlash against the AUDL as it took its first steps towards legitimacy.

"When I first started introducing the idea to the general public, there was a lot of pushback, people were like 'You can't do this league because it's not done this way'," says Moore.

Some ultimate lifers viewed a profit-making league as running contrary to frisbee's all-inclusive populism, and feared it would tank and give the sport a bad name in the eyes of uneducated observers. Others took issue with the changes made to game: The AUDL features referees -- a first for the sport -- a bigger field and slightly modified rules, all missteps in the eyes of hard-line ultimate conservatives.

Even so, all the financial matters are secondary to Korber, his teammates and their counterparts across the league. They're here because they want to continue playing while still keeping their day jobs, and the league has given them the best opportunity to do just that.

"I think it's easy to forget that it's a big, spread out, disjointed startup," he says. "For the first time ever, people are reliably paying money to watch ultimate. Which for all of the other things that are going on that aren't perfect or could be better, at the end of the day Josh's vision two or three years ago was 'I think ultimate is [a] game that people would like to pay to watch.'"
"Our first home game, we had one thousand people come out. Looking up in the stands, everyone was excited, cheering, and pumped to be here, and the place was electric," he recounts. "I've played in front of fans. I've played in the national finals a couple years back, down in Sarasota, Fla., and there was probably a couple thousand that were there. This was a different feeling. I didn't go to sign autographs after that. At the end of these games you know we have high school kids coming out, college kids coming out, and they want to talk about the game, and they want to learn, and we never thought we would be part of this."

Mazur's amazement is standard issue throughout the league, where both players and execs alike agree that the AUDL has surpassed any notions they brought into the inaugural season. Read more...

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