Seattle is home to the world champion men's, women's, and coed ultimate Frisbee teams—which is probably news to you. Sockeye, Riot, and Shazam dominated last year's Ultimate Players Association (UPA) tournament in Sarasota, Florida. They're the best teams in North America and the best teams in the world. All three qualified for this year's UPA tournament and will return to defend their titles this weekend.
While legions of stoners still fumble around college quads playing recreational ultimate, the club-level teams have sprinted miles beyond the beer-and-weed crowd. "Once the season starts, it's a 30-hour-per-week commitment," said Ben Wiggins, a captain for Sockeye. The UPA has increased its budget from $200,000 in 1995 to over $1 million in 2005, corporate interests like Patagonia and Jose Cuervo have courted the sport, and Seattle has knocked down hallowed teams from Boston, New York, and San Francisco to become the brightest star in the ultimate Frisbee universe.
Ultimate is becoming so popular in part because it's intuitive. "Tell a group of people to form two teams, hand them a Frisbee, and they'll naturally start playing ultimate," said Tony Leonardo, ultimate historian and coauthor (with Adam Zagoria) of Ultimate: The First Four Decades. Two teams of seven pass the Frisbee around the field, trying to score by catching the disc in an end zone. Ultimate is a no-contact sport, but players hurl themselves across the field to make spectacular, and dangerous, catches. Sitting over a beer after a pre-nationals scrimmage between members of Riot, Sockeye, and Shazam, players detailed their injuries: torn arches, dislocated hips, broken wrists, concussions, snapped fibula, ripped cartilage. Miranda Roth of Riot has had reconstructive surgery on both knees, separated one shoulder, and has dislocated both. (Roth, by the way, is famous, according to players as far away as New York. She became a national star after leading two different teams to nationals two years in a row. Roth and four other Seattle athletes played on the U.S. national team that won the gold medal at the World Games in Duisberg, Germany, last summer.)
Ultimate emerged in the 1960s, when an Amherst student named Jared Kass taught a game he called "social dorm Frisbee" to high school kids at summer camp. One of those kids was Joel Silver, a student from Maplewood, New Jersey. Silver returned from Amherst and started two high school teams. As they graduated, the players took the sport to Rutgers, Princeton, and Tufts. Ultimate had its first intercollegiate game on November 6, 1972—103 years to the day, and on the same site (Princeton at Rutgers), as the world's first intercollegiate football game. (Joel Silver abandoned ultimate shortly after high school and became the legendary Hollywood tyrant/producer as famous for his hits—including the Matrix, Die Hard, and Lethal Weapon franchises—as his volcanic personality.)
Since the historic Princeton-Rutgers game, the ultimate gospel spread on college campuses across the country, attracting serious, dedicated athletes who aren't quite pro baseball, basketball, or football material. Excellent ultimate players have a different combination of abilities (agility, speed, and smarts) and are as intense on the field as they are in discussions about whether ultimate should embrace corporate sponsorship, paid referees, and the other trappings of professionalism. If ultimate blew up, "I would get to be a professional athlete," said Seth Crockford of Sockeye, "a dream I had to give up at about 14 when I realized I was just never going to pitch in the bigs."
But going big time would require significant changes to the ultimate aesthetic and erode the uniqueness that many players say is essential to the Spirit of the Game™.
Yes, "Spirit of the Game" is a trademarked slogan and players hold Talmudic discussions on what it means. According to the UPA website, "Spirit of the Game sets ultimate apart from other team sports... Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of the bond of mutual respect between players, adherence to the agreed-upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play." Self-officiating is key: Ultimate has fouls (traveling, contact, etc.) but no referees. Imagine you're trying to throw the disc, I'm trying to block your pass, and I hit your arm. You call a foul. I dispute it. We debate for 20 seconds. If we cannot agree, we settle on a do-over or defer to someone else on the field—at the highest levels, a proto-referee called an "observer" who can resolve disputes but cannot make official calls. To some, self-officiating, and the long harangues it requires, is the biggest obstacle between amateur and professional ultimate. To others it is the essence of "Spirit."
"The reason for referees [in other sports] has always been gambling," Wiggins said. "Less moneyed interest means more sportsmanship. There's a movement to introduce professional officials, but self-officiating keeps it a player's game."
Other players say they already gamble—never on their own teams, of course—and that ultimate's culture of fair play and mutual respect has already withered. "Every team has cheat-to-win assholes," Sockeye's Jaime "Idaho" Arambula said. "And I didn't pay four hundred bucks to go to Florida and hand my ass to anyone. You're either out of my way or under my cleats."
Players enjoy competitive smack-talk, but also take pride in ultimate's quirky community spirit. They learn the sport on college campuses (though ultimate is making inroads in public schools, particularly in Seattle), and tend to be well-educated white liberals. Many, like Roth and Wiggins, are graduate students. Ultimate players not only train—and argue—hard, they also pay for the privilege—tournament fees, plane tickets, and time off work are out-of-pocket expenses. Consequently, corporate sponsorship is attractive, though many ultimate players worry it will compromise their friendly, consensus-based culture.
Witness the Jose Cuervo debacle. The tequila company sponsored beach volleyball in the 1980s, gunning for television exposure (since liquor companies cannot run TV ads). According to Leonardo, Cuervo began a similar ultimate sponsorship in the early 1990s—but wanted to change the rules and introduce referees to make the game more television friendly. Some players balked, and the sponsorship fell apart. "It's an identity thing," said Melina Coogan, captain of Element, the University of Washington's women's team. "Ultimate players are, however grudgingly, very proud of being obsessed with a sport that does not pay." A healthy ambivalence toward business, taking their lumps with pride, fiercely competitive but community oriented—ultimate is not just a sport full of liberals, but a good example of liberalism's ideals put into practice.
Whatever ultimate's future, it deserves more respect, especially in Seattle, where Sockeye, Riot, and Shazam are our hometown champions in a city full of disappointing pro sports teams. Roth says she's not bitter, but wishes more people had noticed "just because we worked really hard and won." Seattle's domination at nationals last year should have grabbed the city's attention—the way the Seattle Storm did after winning the WNBA championship. Let's see if Seattle notices the second time around.
Seattle sent three champion teams to Florida, but only Riot came back with a trophy. Sockeye made it to the final game undefeated but lost 15-13 to Furious George (Vancouver, B.C.). Adding to the sting of defeat, Sockeye beat Furious 15-13 on the first day of the tournament. The women of Riot fared better, trouncing Backhoe (North Carolina) at 15-4 in the final game. Shazam tanked early and didn’t make it to the championship bracket.
Oh well. There’s always next year…