The Post-Pandemic Return of Professional Frisbee

A photographer follows the DC Breeze of the American Ultimate Disc League as players once again take the field
DC Breeze player AJ Merriman in midair at practice.
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Frisbee culture still vibrates with a quirky ragtag energy, even as the American Ultimate Disc League — founded in 2012 — professionalizes the sport and sharpens its competitive edge. It’s a sport of constant action, like basketball or hockey. Like football it’s played on a field with end zones — such as one multi-use field at Catholic University, home venue of the DC Breeze. It demands serious athleticism and stamina from its squads of seven to score points. Sprinting players often launch themselves into the air, diving after hard-to-reach throws. It’s not unusual to see clips go viral across social media.

The AUDL, which has 22 franchises in the United States and Canada (and avoids the word Frisbee because of trademark concerns), has modified the sport’s amateur rule book. The rules were originally codified by teenagers in the 1960s from an informal game played at summer camps. The changes have made the game faster and more exciting, and have introduced referees onto the field, but the basic objective remains the same: The team on offense tries to move the disc up the field to score in the opposing end zone, while the team playing defense tries to block throws or force drops for a turnover. After catching the disc, a player must stop running and has seven seconds to throw to a teammate and keep the disc moving, otherwise a “stall” is called, resulting in a turnover.

Today’s star players are still among the first generations to play the sport, and it’s common for veterans of the league to have only started learning to throw a disc in college. But a growing number of younger players who began playing on organized teams as children are rising through the rosters and pushing the level of play. Now, some of the youngest played their first professional game for the Breeze fresh out of high school. The Breeze, founded in 2013, kicked off preseason in April, more than a year after the pandemic forced the AUDL to delay and ultimately cancel the 2020 season. Opening weekend in June brought the return of fans; the Breeze’s goal is to achieve a summer of victories that will take it to the championship in September.

Rhys Bergeron, left, lays out for a defensive block against teammate Kenta Kawaguchi during DC Breeze’s final preseason practice before the season opener against the New York Empire in June.
Breeze player Duncan Fitzgerald flips a disc into the air with his foot during practice in May.
The Breeze’s Benjamin Green shows his scraped elbows, caused by diving on the turf at practice in April.
LEFT: Breeze player Duncan Fitzgerald flips a disc into the air with his foot during practice in May. RIGHT: The Breeze’s Benjamin Green shows his scraped elbows, caused by diving on the turf at practice in April.
DC Breeze co-captain David Bloodgood throws the disc while a defender tries to block it with his foot in a game between the Breeze and the Tampa Bay Cannons in June.
DC Breeze head coach Darryl Stanley studies lineups and scouting reports on the bus to New York to face the Empire.
Merriman and Aaron Barlett prepare for the season opener against the Empire in a locker room in New Rochelle, N.Y., in June.
Jeremy Hess and Merriman on the bus back from New York after a loss to the Empire.
Players listen to coaches during a game against the Boston Glory.
A fan cheers on the Breeze during a game against the Tampa Bay Cannons in June.
Bergeron and Merriman at practice in June.
Stanley and player Jonny Malks celebrate during a home win against the Boston Glory in June.

Graeme Sloan is a photojournalist based in the D.C. area.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Clare Ramirez.

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