Ultimate Frisbee looks to grow, so long as it can maintain its roots

June 22, 2013

A game created by a group of New Jersey students in 1968 and perpetuated informally for decades on college campuses today has a professional league whose highlights have been featured on ESPN, provisional recognition from the International Olympic Committee and — in perhaps the most significant sign of its burgeoning status — its very own officiating controversy.

But true to its character, ultimate Frisbee isn’t debating whether to incorporate instant replay to bolster its officiating; it’s questioning whether it needs officials at all.

Ultimate, a seven-on-seven team sport that uses a football field, is played by an estimated 5 million people in the United States, including 800 college programs and 30 high school state associations, according to the sport’s national governing body.

On Sunday at 4 p.m., the DC Current, one of eight franchises in Major League Ultimate, will host the New York Rumble at Washington-Lee High in its last home game of the season with a chance to clinch a berth in the MLU’s inaugural season playoffs.

For the Current, a win would be a rewarding punctuation mark.

“Playing before crowds of over a thousand has been unreal,” said Daniel Kantor, DC’s co-captain. “When I first got my jersey and got on the team bus for a road game, it made me think, ‘Yeah, this is happening. I’m playing professional ultimate.’ ”

“Professional” is true in a minimal sense. MLU Commissioner Jeff Snader said players make $25 per game with incentives that will push some players’ season salaries over $1,000. Crowds at the modest stadiums the league rents from high schools and municipalities have been small, but Snader said fans who give the sport a look tend to return.

What they see is a non-contact sport in which players jostle for position similar to the way wide receivers and defensive backs battle for balls in the air. Players cannot move with the disk, which is advanced by completing passes. Scoring occurs when a player catches the disk in the other team’s end zone. If a player drops the disk or it is intercepted, the result is a turnover.

“Things can change in an instant,” said Tom Crawford, chief executive of USA Ultimate. “At any moment, players can shift from offense to defense.”

What traditionally has not been part of such transitions is the presence of a referee. The sport’s guiding principle — referred to as “spirit of the game” — calls for players to make their own officiating decisions and settle disputes on their own.

But MLU made a decision to move away from the self-officiating principle, instituing referees instead in one of several key rules changes aimed at making the game more accessible to regular sports fans, including adding time-regulated quarters instead of playing to a point total and expanding the size of the playing field.

“We wanted to simplify things on the field for the players and the fans,” said Snader. “Referees prevent lengthy on-field discussions between players and move the game along.”

According to Crawford, such rules changes mean the MLU is playing a sport that isn’t, by the strictest definition, ultimate.

The players, who will return to play for their club teams this summer, have equally mixed feelings about the rule changes, leaving some to question what has been lost in the name of professionalism and entertainment.

“I’m torn,” Kantor said. “MLU still has the spirit of the game built into the rules. Players can overturn the referees if they think a bad call was made. And it’s happened. But it’s different from club or college play.”

Two weeks ago at the previous meeting between DC and New York, a bright spot in terms of spirit came when the referees missed a crucial foul in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. A New York player approached the referees to call a foul on himself, in all essence, handing the win to the Current when a New York victory would have clinched a playoff spot.

“To see an opponent call a foul on himself in a moment like that shows you that the spirit of the game is very strong even in this league,” said Keven Moldenhauer, the Current’s head coach.

Because of the way the rules are currently structured, the call was not upheld. But the very idea of a player making a game-changing call on himself should be encouraging to the sport’s traditionalists. DC won the game anyway, setting up Sunday’s winner-take-all game that players are hoping will be the start of something big.

“I have people I barely know stop to tell me that they’ve come to games or watched us online. That’s amazing to me,” Moldenhauer said. “We’ve proven that our game is exciting. The fans that have come out have loved the sport. I hope more people continue to come out and see what it’s all about.”

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