Disc Management: Can Professional Ultimate Frisbee Make It in D.C.?
On a steamy day in early July, the D.C. Breeze struggled through its last game of the season. Playing in front of an animated crowd of 100 at Anacostia High School’s football stadium, the Breeze fought valiantly, though they eventually succumbed to the league-leading Toronto Rush, 31-17.
The loss capped off a rocky first season for the team, which posted a 4-12 record—second-to-last in the Eastern Division. Like many other pro sports franchises that call D.C. home, the Breeze wouldn’t be heading to the playoffs, much less bringing home a championship.
If the Breeze isn’t a name that you recognize as belonging alongside the Nationals, Wizards, Capitals, United, and Pigskins in the lexicon of professional D.C. sports teams, don’t feel too bad—the team just completed its inaugural year in the unlikeliest of pro sports: Ultimate Frisbee.
“Professional” and “Ultimate” may seem a contradiction in terms, especially for a sport with humble roots, an undeniable association with college pickup games, and a longstanding refusal to allow for proper officiating. But the sport’s popularity—Ultimate’s governing body estimates that five million people play annually—has made it ripe for commercialization, and two professional leagues with teams stretching from one coast to the other have emerged in the last year and a half.
While the two leagues have largely stuck to different markets, D.C. is one of three cities—New York and Philadelphia are the others—where each has a team. As Ultimate makes a bid for the big time, the two leagues that hope to bring the sport to the masses have put their competing styles, structures, and corporate philosophies to battle in the nation’s capital.
That, of course, raises the question: Which league—and which D.C. team—will survive?
* * *
As long as there have been sports, peo-ple have tried to make money off them. Since its inception in New Jersey in 1967, though, Ultimate has largely bucked that convention: Seeing their game as a free-wheeling alternative to traditional sports, Ultimate adherents have steadfastly kept things more grassroots-driven, even opting to ditch referees in favor of self-policing known as the “Spirit of the Game.”
Lately, that’s changed. In April 2012, the American Ultimate Disc League formed to professionalize the sport. Eight teams were created, with four more added a year later, including the D.C. Breeze. Major League Ultimate soon followed, bringing eight more teams, including the Washington Current, to the nascent pro Ultimate scene.
Both leagues pay their players (not much) and cover travel expenses, seek out corporate sponsors, live-stream games, and sell tickets (prices range from $8 to $20) and team merchandise (a Breeze jersey will set you back $79, a Current one goes for $29). They even took the controversial step of ditching the Spirit of the Game, opting to recruit referees to bring some objective order.
While MLU includes teams on the West Coast and AUDL has a Midwestern contingent, both leagues are well-represented along the Northeast Corridor. New Jersey is the sport’s ancestral home, but that geography makes economic sense, too: Some 50 million people live in the megalopolis stretching from Washington to Boston, and the large urban centers are only a few hours apart.
“D.C.’s a huge hotbed for the sport,” AUDL founder Josh Moore says of the decision to bring professional Ultimate to Washington. “The player base was there for a good foundation, and geographically it makes a little sense with where other teams are located.”
He’s not kidding: The amateur Washington Area Frisbee Club has 2,800 members and close to $1 million in the bank. Walk to Anacostia Park or the Polo Fields on any given weekend and you’ll see plenty of games; WAFC recently raised a big stink when the Secret Service planted trees on portions of the Ellipse, a weeknight Ultimate hotspot.
But beyond their shared geographic space, acceptance of referees as a necessary evil, and conviction that Ultimate has huge professional potential, there isn’t much that the two leagues do similarly.
AUDL works as something of a franchise model, with individual city-based Ultimate moguls-to-be paying a one-time fee starting at $2,500 for the rights to a team. Contracts are negotiated individually with players, who take home a stipend and can qualify for a portion of ticket sales.
MLU, on the other hand, centralizes operations out of its Philadelphia headquarters, with investors buying a share of the league and management rights. The league chooses where and when to expand, picks local management and coaching staff, and even plays a role in selecting players—who are paid $25 a game—for hometown squads.
“We put a lot of time and energy into constructing a pretty robust corporate structure and financial model, and we managed to raise a good amount of money to start the league,” says Nic Darling, MLU’s executive vice president, throwing out business lingo as easily as he’d flick a disc to a teammate.
The centralized structure and corporate spirit were actually born of frustration with the ADLU’s laissez-faire attitude toward the sport—the champion Philadelphia Spinners defected from the ADLU at the end of the 2012 inaugural season, opting to create the competing MLU. In professional Ultimate, the MLU’s founders reasoned, chill can only go so far.
* * *
It doesn’t take much more than watching high-level Ultimate to get why its fiercest proponents think going pro could actually work.
At its best, the game flows like a well-executed soccer match; offensive handlers patiently work their way up the field in small increments, looking to connect with cutters who dart in and out of defensive formations. (Players can’t take more than three steps with the disc, and have 10 seconds to get rid of it, or else possession turns over to the opposing team.) The Hail Mary hucks of your college quad pickup game are rare, but when a handler does choose to go long, the disc will be delivered with exacting accuracy to a player in the end zone.
That level of play is what attracted Aaron Foreman, the Breeze’s owner, to the sport. A D.C. native who graduated from Ballou High School, Foreman, 42, admits he didn’t know much about Ultimate until recently; both he and co-owner Marvin Graves are football guys (Graves played in the Canadian Football League, Foreman has coached high school football in Maryland). But when a friend told him about the sport, he listened.
“He just shot me an email and said, ‘You know, you gotta check this out. I really think this is going to be the next big thing,’” says Foreman, who supplements his emerging career as a sports mogul with a gig as the assistant IT director for St. Mary’s County Public Schools. “I started reading up on it, and I discovered a whole world that had not been put in front of me before. It was a lot more vast than what I thought existed.”
Though the first season was a steep learning curve—beyond its losing record, in March the team’s coach was replaced—Foreman is optimistic about the future of the Breeze. As for the Current, he says he isn’t fazed by the presence of a competing D.C. team: The Breeze and the Current are looking for different ways to grow.
“From a co-existing standpoint, I think we’re going after two different markets,” says Foreman. “They’re more catered toward the traditional Ultimate community, and we’re not only catering to the traditional Ultimate community, but we’re also going after a fan base that would never, ever pick up a Frisbee.”
Foreman is working with John Capozzi, a WAFC member (and former D.C. shadow representative), on bringing Ultimate to D.C. Public Schools; two high schools currently field teams, and a third would bring with it the central office’s formal blessing. Capozzi sees high school play as a necessary step in growing the sport—and getting D.C.’s buy-in.
“Just like soccer, if you get more people to play, especially here in the community, then that’s a lot more interest in the sport,” Foreman says of the grassroots approach to building the Breeze’s presence.
They’re also looking to move games out of Anacostia, not so much because it isn’t a good field—it is—but because selling beer isn’t allowed at a public school. (The Current started in Silver Spring before moving to an Arlington field.) In Foreman’s ideal world, the team would relocate to a spot where the usual economy of professional sports could function freely: Fans pay for tickets only to pay way more for beer, where the real money is.
* * *
Foreman is among the few optimists out there, though. Charlie Eisenhood, the editor of Ultiworld.com, thinks the two leagues and their local teams will eventually merge, much as pro baseball, basketball, and hockey umbrella organizations did. “There is no way two professional Ultimate leagues can survive in the long- or even medium-term. The long history of professional sports shows us both how difficult it is to start a successful league and how, consistently, competitors either merge or die off,” Eisenhood says.
Even Moore and Darling admit that D.C. isn’t a town that can sustain both teams in the long-term—though neither said that they’d be first to fold. Eisenhood says that the MLU has the “cohesive marketing plan and vision” needed to attract top players to teams, while the AUDL benefits from fielding teams in three of the best markets for the sport—Toronto; Madison, Wisc.; and Chicago.
As for D.C., the Breeze might be trying to build its brands by engaging new players, but the Current actually draws more fans. In its first season, the team attracted an average of 600 a game (with a high of 1,100), while the Breeze often played in front of between 175 and 300 die-hards.
Regardless, Foreman remains hopeful that D.C. can remain a two-team, two-league town. “As we grow, I don’t have an animosity toward the MLU or the D.C. Current,” he says. “I think it’s great for the sport. Down the road, who knows, maybe we’ll have a D.C. Breeze game versus the D.C. Current. I don’t really see it as competition, I see it as a McDonalds-Wendy’s concept.”
For Glenn Poole, the 25-year-old captain of the Breeze, the chance to play “professionally”—he’s keeping his day job at a nonprofit for now—has been one he hasn’t regretted, though he admits that no matter which league and team win out, they’ve both got their fair share of learning to do.
“The model has to mature,” he says. “My hope is that pro Ultimate develops in a way that supports its athletes, engages its fans, and promotes the kind of community that draws people to the sport in the first place. I don’t think either league is there yet, but I have to believe it is possible.”
Photo by Vernon Tang via Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0