WASHINGTON — The athlete with the blue Cookie Monster cap snatches the disc as it cuts the icy air. He pivots and passes toward a teammate in the end zone. It’s a score – and maybe one step closer to making it to the pros.
“DC Breeeeeze!” Tom Johnson shouts from the sidelines of a field in Southeast Washington. He’s overseeing tryouts for a new team in Ultimate, a sport that many know as Frisbee.
In April, the DC Breeze will compete in the 12-team American Ultimate Disc League. In its second season, the league is attempting to succeed in something that many leagues before have found to be exceptionally tough: convincing Americans to tune in to – and turn out for – a new sport.
“Most leagues fail. The four major sports are too dominant,” says Michael Dobbs, an assistant professor of management at the Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. He’s researched the births of leagues and has seen the deaths of many, from football leagues that tried to compete with the National Football League to women’s soccer and women’s basketball leagues.
“It’s like in the grocery store. Even if you have a really good product, space is limited, especially on major networks,” Dobbs says.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade organization, nearly 5 million people play Ultimate in the United States, often in high school, college or recreational leagues, or simply with friends in parks.
But establishing a professional league isn’t only about lifestyle and college players, it’s also about sponsors, TV networks and spectators.
In its inaugural season, the Ultimate league got some highlights on ESPN SportsCenter’s “Top 10 Plays.” But in the stadiums, the games attracted only 500 fans, on average, and the money most players got was to cover their expenses: food, jerseys, travel.
Nevertheless, this year the American Ultimate Disc League has some competition. The Philadelphia Spinners, the team that won last year’s league championship, is building a competing league this year, called Major League Ultimate, with eight teams from both coasts.
High school students invented Ultimate 45 years ago. Its national governing body, USA Ultimate, based in Boulder, Colo., isn’t connected to the two professional leagues. It holds some 300 tournaments and related events per year, including national championships.
“Ultimate is often seen as one of the fastest-growing team sports in the country, together with rugby and lacrosse,” USA Ultimate CEO Tom Crawford says.
Players just need to have a disc and follow some simple principles that have been taken from major sports. As in basketball, they must move constantly. As in soccer, they must pass. As in football, they aim to score in the end zone, and usually manage it without collisions or concussions. And when players have the discs in their hands, they aren’t allowed to run.
“Once we get our sport out there, people really fall in love with it,” Johnson says.
On this Saturday in early February, when the temperature is just 44, Johnson is watching the second round of tryouts. Standing next to him, coach Tom Coffin has a specific picture in his mind for players.
“I’m looking for someone who has a lot of speed, a lot of agility and lots of handling skills,” Coffin says.
So his would-be players run toward orange pylons, jump over red mini-hurdles and throw, catch and throw again.
“I used to play other sports, but it never felt fun,” says Jacob Nuxoll, a 26-year-old teacher from Virginia.
“It’s an interesting time to be a Frisbee player, and it would be a neat thing to be part of the team,” he adds.
Player Brodie Smith is already a part of professional Ultimate, and he’s a YouTube star. His trick shot videos have been viewed more than 35 million times, and he sells shirts with his name on them and teaches at Ultimate camps to make a living. He’ll play for the Windy City Wildfire in Chicago this year, moving from the Indianapolis AlleyCats.“This year I’m hoping for 4,000 spectators,” he says in a phone interview.
More digital marketing and use of social media should help the league, Commissioner Steve Gordon says. His ambition is for the games to be on television within the next two years.
Dobbs, the professor from Illinois, says that might not be enough for the league to succeed, however: “The base of people playing needs to be bigger than 5 million. They should go into schools and provide the kids with discs.”
The second league has another approach, Major League Ultimate publicist Antoine Johnson says. He got his players on the WTXF-FOX 29 News show “Good Day Philadelphia.”
“We want to make the sport more mainstream. We have more athletes who are willing to go public and bring in personality,” he says. The new league already has raised $1 million from private investors.
Dobbs agrees that the sport has potential.
“It is a great spectator sport, and there are no big switching costs. A baseball fan just needs a ticket to become an Ultimate fan,” Dobbs says. “The game is much more intuitive than American football.”
Greg Greenhalgh of the Center for Sport Leadership at the Virginia Commonwealth University has found that non-mainstream sports don’t necessarily need to become that big to attract sponsors.
“The demographics are more important,” he says. “Non-mainstream sports should invest in market research to find out what their fan base exactly looks like.”
Tom Johnson says he’s seen a lot of talent, but he tries to be realistic about the American Ultimate Disc League’s ambitions.
“Are we going to be the NFL? Probably not,” he says. The sport is still early in its development. “There are no Frisbee moms yet,” he says.
He joins the players as they gather at the middle of the field, put their hands on one big tower and shout, “DC Breeeeeeze!”
“The game is just too fun to go away,” Nuxoll says.