A Letter from Austin #20: Everybody’s Playing Ultimate
A Sport That Emphasizes Flight Over Fight is Still Looking for a Hit
For several weeks after I started playing Ultimate, sometimes known as Ultimate Frisbee, my wife and friends would ask me how it was going.
Fine, I’d say. I’m a little sore, but it’s worth it.
Sore? they’d ask. Just from walking around the course?
They were mistaking Ultimate for Frisbee Golf, Ultimate’s shaggy, contemplative cousin, a perfectly good game but not at all the same thing. Ultimate is a combination of soccer, sorcery, and freeze tag, a friendly sport that encourages movement, coordination, and, well, encouragement. Ultimate rewards strong hearts and lungs. Ultimate moves.
But the confusion is understandable. Despite the fact that something like three million people play the game nationwide, Ultimate is a stealth pastime. It’s the VW microbus of team athletics, hindered by its own humility. Devised as a sort of anti-sport by iconoclastic college and high school kids in the late sixties and early seventies, Ultimate is characterized by little contact and even less argument. Its participants are asked to subscribe to something called the Spirit of the Game, a nebulous but nevertheless important ethos that emphasizes cooperation over competition. (For those who like to imagine their spirits in the flesh, think of a sweaty, board shorts-wearing Keanu Reeves at his most beatific.)
Not that the sport doesn’t get intense. It’s just that in Ultimate, argument is seen as bad form, a sort of inability to understand how the game works. At most levels of the sport, players call their own fouls. It speaks to the sort of athlete who plays Ultimate that I’ve never seen a call disputed. This contrasts nicely with both basketball and football, where arguments over alleged rule violations can last longer than the actual game.
Ultimate is played on a rectangular field. The length of the field is 80 yards, with two end zones of 20 yards each. The thoughtful reader will note that this means an Ultimate field is, in total, 120 yards long. This is the exact length of a football field, which helps in staging matches in gridiron-friendly Texas. Under some league rules the width of the field is a little different — 40 yards for Ultimate versus 50 for football. But the AUDL, the American Ultimate Disc League, Ultimate’s equivalent of the NFL, specifies a fifty-yard field width as well. When in Rome, after all…
The object of Ultimate is for one seven-person team to move the disc — don’t call it a “Frisbee,” as that’s a trade name for a disc rather than the disc itself — down the field into the opponent’s end zone. In soccer, players aren’t allowed to carry the ball, but must kick it to advance down the pitch. In Ultimate, players can only advance by passing the disc. Once the disc is caught, the person who catches it has to stop (here’s the “freeze tag” element) and throw it again, with the objective being to pass the disc to a teammate who catches it in the opponent’s end zone. This is a goal, worth one point. Once this happens, the other team receives the equivalent of a kick-off, here called a “pull,” and tries to move the disc down the field to the other end zone.
Under professional rules, games last four quarters of twelve minutes each, with a fifteen-minute halftime. That’s a lot of playing time, and it generally leads to a lot of goals. A typical score for a completed professional game is 25 to 21.
The best Ultimate players are long, lithe, and fast. They combine the basketball player’s leaping abilities with a sprinter’s speed and the archer’s eye. The disc itself sometimes seems like a player. The best passers are sidearm sorcerers, committing complicated acts of physics — lift, drag, angle of attack — with the flick of a wrist. A talented handler can send the plastic platter on great scything arcs in the air, darting in precise quick vectors, or lounging above the field for impossible seconds on long downfield tosses — “hucks,” they’re called, equivalent to football’s “bombs.” (See Play №10 at :04 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOlsNR6Nvsw .) Some players have perfected the Hammer, an improbable overhead throw in which the disc travels upside down to its target, moving much faster than it would right-side up, as it’s subject to less lift from underneath. Regardless of how they’re thrown, though, passes can be intercepted, knocked down, or blocked, at which point the flow of the game automatically reverses. Here’s where speed matters. One of the best opportunities for an offense to score is when it takes over unexpectedly from the opposing squad, whose best players may be thirty yards down the field in the wrong direction. (See Play № 9 at 0:24 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOlsNR6Nvsw )
Ultimate thrives on prep and college campuses, where it’s a popular intramural sport. Some high schools have club teams; I recently watched Westlake High School play LASA in a tournament in Zilker Park. The University of Texas boasts nationally competitive men’s and women’s club teams. The men play as TUFF, Texas Ultimate Frisbee Friends. The women, who clearly gave nomenclature a little more thought, call themselves Melee, a name said to derive from their shared love of Lady Marmalade, actual marmalade, the burnt-orange color of marmalade, and their willingness to get physical on the field. Both Longhorn squads are consistent regional powerhouses and usually find themselves in the hunt for the national championship as well, chasing North Carolina, Brown, and Oregon on the men’s side and North Carolina, Dartmouth, and Ohio State for the women’s title.
Ultimate’s not just for kids anymore. The decade-old AUDL has 25 teams in four divisions, a season that runs from late April through August, and a streaming deal with Fox Sports. (And, yes, its own irresistible hype videos. Take a look at this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUiBqk25te0) Austin boasts a successful pro team, the perfectly-named Sol, owned by local software engineer Patrick Christmas. (See https://theaudl.com/sol.) Other franchises proclaim their own brands of civic identity: the Madison (WI) Radicals, the Minnesota Wind Chill, the New York Empire. The Sol start their season on April 30 with a game up I-35 with their instate rivals, the Dallas Legion. Their home opener is scheduled for May 13, when the Legion repay the visit with a game at Westlake’s Chaparral Stadium, with its panoramic view of the downtown skyline. Austin has a talented young squad, anchored by big Mick Walter, the 6’6” St. Ed’s grad and defensive ace, and speedster Evan Swiatek, out of Marquette. The Sol are a team to watch, but smart money is on the mighty New York Empire and their MVP, Ben Jagt, to claim a third national title.
Whether Ultimate can ever crack the ranks of the Big Four Sports — football, basketball, soccer, and baseball — remains to be seen. The question may be whether a sport without frequent eruptions of barely buried violence — blitzes and bombs, brushbacks and shoot-outs — can capture enough eyeballs to command major advertising dollars. It’s the worship of flight versus the glory of fights. But it wasn’t that long ago that the notion of a successful professional soccer team in Austin seemed like a pipe dream.
In the meantime, Ultimate players like the Sol’s Evan Swiatek will make do with meager paychecks to supplement their day jobs, much like professional football and baseball players did a hundred years ago. Giving Swiatek a raise will ultimately (there’s that word again) depend on how many people follow the sport. And that, in turn, will depend on how many people play it. There are pick-up games all over Austin. One, a Tuesday-Thursday noontime game in Zilker Park, has been active for over thirty years. For information on how to get out and running, check out https://austinultimate.org/pickup for a list of games you can get involved in. Never thrown a Frisbee? Don’t worry. You can’t be worse than I was when I started, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
Now’s the time to start playing. As the days lengthen and the stiff spring breezes dwindle, Ultimate playing conditions develop: the golden light of late afternoon; lush green grass that makes the occasional lay-out tolerable; and most of all the intimacy of the sun, which creates the nano-thermals that cradle the disc on sixty- and seventy-yard hucks downfield. Watching one of these throws is among the prettiest experiences in sports, akin to witnessing a mid-court three-pointer or a wickedly curving shot on goal by a Beckham or Messi. But catching one is even better. So get yourself out to the park. Track down one of those magisterial launches and, after a long, lung-pumping sprint, gather it in. Now take a bow as your teammates cheer. Believe it or not, some of your opponents will cheer too.
That’s the Spirit of the Game.