Despite the inaugural pull being less than 24 hours away, the start of AUDL has been a softly spoken secret. If you are a big fan of ultimate, finding out information about professional ultimate is certainly possible if inconvenient. It worries me because so few people know about the league. The season hasn’t exactly been, well, marketed…at all. I even have friends who play ultimate and hadn’t heard about the league. To stay afloat then, the AUDL is initially going to be relying on the wallets and interest of the ultimate community. Certainly, the big fans of ultimate have to get on board for the league to succeed.
The problem is that ultimate fans can’t even decide what to make of the AUDL. They are generally conflicted. The AUDL has made a number of changes to the rules, and a lot of the best players in the country/world won’t be competing in the AUDL. Plus, USA Ultimate already offers a competitive platform for the sport. On the surface, it is hard to see the point of another league.
As a result, ultimate players/fans are having trouble getting behind the AUDL. Some even feel angry or slighted by decisions the AUDL’s has made like adding officials or changing the field. The community’s dissatisfaction and ambivalence may be the AUDL’s death knell. If the ultimate faithful don’t get on board, who exactly will sit in the seats? Who will provide value to potential advertisers? The game hasn’t been marketed to anyone else.
Daniel Lametti has an interesting article about the AUDL over at Slate, and I highly recommend the read. The article asks the basic question; is America ready for professional Ultimate Frisbee? I don’t think that question gets to the root of the problem though. The AUDL hasn’t been pitched to America. It is too small of a startup for national advertising. As an initial offering, they are relying on the ultimate faithful, those of us who regularly keep track of what is going on with the sport.
The ultimate community has a choice to make it seems. There are certainly enough people involved in the sport here in the U.S. to support a professional league with estimates of over 4.7 million players who have tried ultimate. People that play ultimate as a demographic are also typically more educated and affluent than many other demographics, so we have the money. Do we want professional ultimate though?
When I played in college, I frequently talked with my teammates about the future when ultimate would be a professionally recognized sport. Even back then, it was on our minds. Obviously, we wanted to watch the sport we loved. We wanted to root for our favorite teams, follow our favorite players, and track their stats. More than that though, we wanted legitimacy for ultimate, the sport we loved.
After all, Mr. Lametti’s article isn’t wrong. People outside the ultimate community don’t really take our sport seriously. It’s true that articles written about ultimate almost always lead in by detailing the rules and creating assurances that the game is more than a bunch of hippies hanging out. It gets under my skin. Reading stuff like that sucks. It means the author thinks the readers need that information! Sadly, those authors are probably right.
Ultimate players pour their hearts and souls into the game. We play despite people’s perceptions about ultimate because we recognize how amazing it is as a sport. You’d think we could have moved past irrelevance and mass ignorance by now. Anyone who has seen the USA Ultimate (previously the UPA) collegiate or club championships in the last decade wouldn’t question for a second the level of skill and athleticism needed to play. They wouldn’t need to associate hippies with the activity to define it. People outside the sport don’t get to see those games though.
The problem is systemic. Americans, as a larger collective, don’t really recognize or pay much attention to a sport unless you can get paid to play. The mindset seems to be that only professional sports are “real sports”. Even then, sports get disrespected, but at least they get disrespected as sports. Ice Hokey doesn’t get as much respect in America as football, but no one thinks Ice Hockey is just a thing you do in between passing a bowl. In terms of recognition and legitimacy, one highlight on ESPN’s Top Ten has done more for ultimate than more than a decade of high-level competitive play. It was an amazing play.
Sadly, one play just isn’t enough to change a cultural perception. On the eve of the AUDL’s opening pull, I should be ecstatic. I’ve waited for this moment for over 10 years. I’m not excited or pumped though. I’m nervous. Professional Frisbee’s fate now rests in the hands of the people that live and breathe the sport. We’ve grown up with the UPA/USA Ultimate rules, and many aren’t happy with what the AUDL done to the rules. There are other choices the AUDL has made like picking franchise locations far from ultimate hotbeds where many of the best players reside, which has upset many people including myself.
Despite those choices, I can only hope the ultimate community is able find a way to support the AUDL. Ultimate has given us all so much. It deserves a legacy beyond hippies and border collies. It deserves legitimacy as a sport. We too, as a community, deserve that legitimacy, and we now have the power to seize it. I don’t want another decade to pass by while college players are forced to define ultimate for the people who ask in the framework of other “legitimate” sports, while thrashing their bodies day after day playing one of the most physically demanding sports around. I want ultimate to be recognized as a legitimate sport for what it is.
The players that step onto the field on this Saturday are fighting for that goal. Love him or hate him, Brodie Smith gets that this league is about more than personal fame or making money. It is about giving back to the legacy of a sport that has given so much. The AUDL is certainly not perfect, but supporting professional ultimate is bigger than officials and stall counts. The question isn’t whether or not America is ready for professional ultimate. The question is; will the Ultimate Community Fight for Professional Ultimate?
I know I will.