AUDL takes the casual game of frisbee to a professional level
School is out for the summer at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn., but on a hot Saturday in June the parking lot outside Arute Field on campus has the feel of a neighborhood block party. Around cars and under canopies, groups of people gather to sip beer and nosh on six-foot long subs. There are dogs on leashes, a girl wearing an American flag-patterned bikini top and a kid with a "Don't tread on me" flag draped around his shoulders. There are also a number of people wearing shirts and jerseys with "Connecticut Constitution" emblazoned on the front, the name of the local professional ultimate frisbee team that the tailgaters have come to watch. This afternoon Connecticut takes on the Philadelphia Spinners, who sit one spot behind the Constitution in the standings, in their biggest game to date.
There is a buzz among the crowd that precedes any anticipated sporting event, although it might seem odd that there is any tension with a game of frisbee involved. Welcome to the American Ultimate Disc League, or AUDL, America's newest professional sports association. The playoffs start on July 29, marking the league's 16th week of existence, or exactly 16 weeks more than anybody expected a pro frisbee league to last prior to this year.
Ultimate frisbee has come a long way from being pigeonholed as the pastime of hippies and college students, and has graduated from the quad on a college campus to football and soccer fields nationwide. It's estimated that almost 5 million people participate in the sport each year, and there are established club and college circuits, a burgeoning high school scene and a governing body, known as USA Ultimate (USAU), that keeps tabs on all of the above. Yet for all of ultimate's popularity, it did not have a professional league to call its own, which is saying something in a country where even some of the most marginalized sports (bowling, pool, lingerie football) have found senior circuits.
This is the quandary that confronted Josh Moore upon graduating from the University of Missouri in 2003. Moore, who grew up in Omaha, Neb., first became acquainted with ultimate while in college, where he came in contact with the rec leagues and local tournaments around Columbia, Mo. While Moore was far from a superstar --"I'm not nearly as good as the guys you'll see in the league or anything like that," he says -- the sport resonated with him in such a way that he thought others might want to actually pay to see it played at a high level.
"I definitely saw an opportunity with ultimate, because there was no existing professional league, and a huge demographic of people that play the sport," Moore says. "[There was] the opportunity to create something and take it to another level."
Of course, hearing "I'm going to start a professional ultimate frisbee league!" ranks near the top of the "Worst Things You Can Tell Your Parents Upon Receiving Your Degree" list, and so after college Moore moved back to Omaha and became an accountant. His frisbee dream did not fade away easily though, and around 2008 he started to really consider what it would take to get a professional league up and running.
Moore first had to figure out in what area it would be logical to establish teams, and settled on the Northeast, because, according to him, "the sport is just so popular there, and cities are in close proximity where we can minimize some of the travel costs." It didn't hurt that places like the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas are hotbeds for the sport, and with that notion in mind Moore set about finding investors for the league.
"We put up countless numbers of ads, whether it was Craigslist or some business website, [as well as] a couple newspaper ads...and [targeted] just anybody that would let me pitch the idea," Moore says. "I eventually got enough business minded people on board to take this chance with me and we kind of built it from there."
If you've never seen it before, ultimate is a very simple game. Two teams of seven players attempt to move a frisbee down the field by passing it between teammates, in the hope of scoring a point when a player catches the disc inside of an end zone, similar to football. There is no running with the frisbee, and if a throw is dropped or batted down by the defense, possession changes hands.
The raw athleticism of the players is evident from the first throw, and many are built like shooting guards: Tall and lanky, but speedy with a sinewy strength and grace that allows them to make spectacular catches with impressive regularity. There are about 10 grabs each match that make the crowd "ooh" and "ahh" with appreciation.
"You see guys throw 80-yard hucks right on the money, and guys run full speed up and down a football field over and over and over," says Moore. "It's endurance, it's speed, it's agility, and a lot of leaping. It really is an ultimate athleticism test for these guys. They may not be stronger than any other sport, but when you look at the things they're required to do on the field, it does take amazing athletic ability."
One can only see in person the fluidity of the game. Players are constantly making overlapping runs and cutting at full speed, a hurricane of motion where the eye of the storm is the handler of the frisbee, rooted to his spot for a maximum of seven seconds while he decides where to toss the disc.
Despite a structural similarity to football, ultimate most resembles soccer in the way the teams advance up and down the field. Cutters seek pockets of free space away from the defense, and some of the throws that the handlers make, leading their marks into open areas of the field free of defenders, are as exquisitely well-timed as anything Barcelona's midfield has produced in recent years.
Inside the stadium, the Spinners jump out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, and the Constitution cannot seem to keep up as they carelessly lose possession of the frisbee again and again. It's a game that requires as deft a touch as any sport on the planet; but today those touches aren't going the Constitution's way, and they trudge into the locker room down 18-8 at the half.
As Moore pulled the final owners into his organization, the AUDL began to take shape: Eight teams in two divisions, with Philadelphia, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Buffalo representing the East and Indianapolis, Kentucky, Columbus and Detroit filling out the West. Each owner is required to buy his own team, and is responsible for its promotion, upkeep and overall revenue.
The Constitution are jointly owned by Bryan Ricci and his 20 year-old son, Joe. Bryan is a CPA based in Bristol, and Joe is a student at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. The elder Ricci first came into contact with Moore on internet boards dealing with startups -- "I'm a businessman first, sports guy second," he notes -- and though he was not looking to get into ultimate frisbee, his interest was piqued. That was in October of 2010, and by April 2011 the Riccis were in posession of Connecticut's first pro ultimate frisbee franchise.
Like every other owner, they were asked to put down their own collateral for the franchise (Joe's contribution is running game day operations, according to Bryan), after which they set about hunting for players, sponsors, and most importantly, fans.
"We thought it was important to create a player base that also has some local interest, which is good for the fans," Ricci says. "We're working for two wins every week. One is a win on the field; one is a win in the stands. So going forward, we're certainly going to take that with us."
The Constitution average about 525 spectators per game, ranking third in the AUDL in attendance, with day-of tickets going for $9 a pop. The Riccis estimate their first game drew a crowd of 800, but are happy with how the numbers have stabilized from there.
The games have a minor league baseball feel that the Ricci's purposefully cultivate, basing their model on the popular New Britain Rock Cats, a Double-A affiliate of the Twins. There is a Huck-a-Disc competition at halftime ($1 per disc), a lax outside food policy, and an amateur PA announcer that exhorts the crowd to cheer on the home team every few minutes or so. It's easy to see why people keep coming to Constitution games: cheap seats, sun and frenetic frisbee action are an easy sell, and the cupcake truck parked outside offers up some pretty delectable snacks to boot.
The crowd at Arute Field is made up of probably 60% friends and family of the players on either team, but there is definitely a smattering of ultimate fans who are affiliated with neither organization and have come to witness the spectacle of ultimate played professionally. Throughout the stands fans sport Constitution tshirts that proclaim "Connecticut Is Ultimate," as well as authentic jerseys from both squads, which can be bought for $79 (Connecticut) or $74.99 (Philadelphia) online.
Bryan and Joe Ricci pace the sideline for the entire game, wearing matching white long-sleeved shirts stitched with Connecticut's logo, red ties, hats and sunglasses. The combination of sun and turf mean it's probably 95 degrees down there, but the Riccis' biggest concern is what's happening in the game: Although the Constitution opened the third quarter with a probing, slicing attack that cut the score to single digits, they're down 23-15 at the end of it. First place in the East Division is on the line, and the Spinners are still breaking down Connecticut's defense with ease.
Because of its newness and lack of any true national reach, the AUDL has no form of revenue sharing among the teams. Rather, each organization is charged with growing and promoting its own brand, and any money that is earned is generally plugged right back into the team to cover expenses such as travel and personnel. The league owners and Moore have a conference call every Tuesday to discuss strategy, but by and large each team has a unique approach to garnering fans.
"Everything comes with time," says Bryan. "We have to create something that people are excited about. So once we do that, then we can go to the sponsors and say this is what we have. We have a lot of Facebook followers, a lot of Twitter followers, a lot of website followers, but it varies from team to team."
The internet based, grassroots marketing campaign has worked for the AUDL so far, as have the three clips that have made it onto SportsCenter's "Top Plays" on ESPN (One got as high as number three, featuring Connecticut's Brent Anderson
"We're continuing to work on some national sponsors for the league, which would be helpful," Ricci says, "and it's going to help on a local level once we start knocking those down, because it's easier to go door to door and say, 'Listen, Coke is sponsoring us, why wouldn't you want to too?'"
However, not everything has been positive for the new team's growth. In July, soon after clinching a playoff spot, the team was forced to suspend its operations when the league filed a suit against the Constitution. The necessity to obtain lawyers drained the team's meager funds, and they were forced to forfeit three games, losing their playoff spot.
According to a statement released by Moore, the Riccis and their counterparts on the Rhode Island Rampage were set on blocking the addition of teams in New York and Boston, fearing the new squads would cut into their territory and in spite of the fact that the expansion had been agree upon prior to the season. Although the Constitution resumed play less than a week later, the issue remains unresolved; this issue shows the barometer of the hiccups that growth in a nascent sports organization can produce.
As he explains his duties with the AUDL, it's easy to understand why Brent Steepe is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the league. Speaking with the clipped vowels and cheery demeanor of someone native to the Upper Midwest, Steepe is relentlessly optimistic about his franchise, the Detroit Mechanix, and the league as a whole.
Steepe was first exposed to ultimate while working as a summer camp director and was told about Moore's vision through a friend who, as he tells it, "stated that they were brining this obscure sport to Detroit, and frankly that I was the only one crazy enough to take him up on the offer so I should call him up right away."
Now, the Mechanix play out of the Silverdome in Michigan, have a dance team lent from the Detroit Lions and have a weekly radio show.
"The fact that it was a value conscious choice for good, pro entertainment, it just all fit together," he says. "Like many economies, Detroit is going through an extreme contraction, so you find a need and you create a product to fill that need, and ultimate seemed like kind of the right place, the right time and the right sport. I kind of had a hunch."
Steepe's hunch paid off, and the Mechanix are one of the few teams in the league that are expected to end the season in the black. More importantly, he was offered the sales and marketing job because of his enthusiasm, and now works to recruit and identify potential sponsorship opportunities, as well as to educate and screen potential owners looking to procure a franchise of their own. While Steepe has made progress, the going has not been easy.
"For sponsors, we had to start at the base level of, 'Do you know what ultimate is?'" he says. "It's always, 'It's too late for this year, call us next year,' when the truth is, [potential sponsors are thinking] 'Our product isn't tested yet, and we're not sitting on a pile of money to take a chance.'"
Steepe believes that the AUDL's success in getting financial backing will have to come mainly from people witnessing the game itself and wanting to be a part of the league's evolution.
"People love an American success story, so when you encourage them to become a part of it in a little way or in a gradual way, they're much more receptive than sitting across the table from you and listening to a pitch," he says.
To that end, every team in the AUDL engages in community outreach programs and clinics, as well as sponsoring a charity of their choice. With regard to who he considers the Mechanix's fan base in Detroit to be, Steepe says, "It depends on who's had the opportunity to see us." He explains, "I can speak for the 150 cub scouts that got to play with one of my athletes today. I can speak for the Bruce Collins Elementary School, for 350 kids who lined the sidelines as we played an exhibition game two weeks ago, or the clinic that took place in Grosse Pointe last Saturday. Whoever gets in front of us, loves us."
It's this 'seeing-is-believing' approach that Steepe thinks will transform the AUDL into something more than a niche league. Even before going to a game, he says, both prospective fans and curious individuals alike should take some time to watch ultimate clips online. When asked how one person should try to explain ultimate frisbee to somebody who has never seen it, he responds, "Don't try and tell anybody about ultimate, just show them. They see a couple of plays or highlights, and they get it really fast. To anybody who poses that question," he says, "Tell them nothing, show them everything."
As with many subcultures, ultimate has its own lingo, conventions and ideologies. The frisbee is referred to almost invariably as "the disc," and the throw-off to begin each half and after a score is the "pull." Admiration is reserved for those who can throw the longest and jump the highest, and backwards baseball hats seem to be the fashion du jour on the field. With frisbee's traditions, however, came a backlash against the AUDL as it took its first steps towards legitimacy.
"When I first started introducing the idea to the general public, there was a lot of pushback, people were like 'You can't do this league because it's not done this way'," says Moore.
Some ultimate lifers viewed a profit-making league as running contrary to frisbee's all-inclusive populism, and feared it would tank and give the sport a bad name in the eyes of uneducated observers. Others took issue with the changes made to game: The AUDL features referees -- a first for the sport -- a bigger field and slightly modified rules, all missteps in the eyes of hard-line ultimate conservatives.
"A lot of what's going on in the ultimate community is sort of this weird evolution between ultimate as a player only sport to ultimate as a spectator sport," says John Korber, who, in addition to being one of the more talented players on the team, is Constitution's general manager, coach and head scout rolled into one. "USAU has never cared about it as a spectator sport."
Even with the hesitancy expressed by portions of the ultimate community, Moore, Korber and others knew that the AUDL would still draw plenty of frisbee players to watch the games, if only because nothing like the league had ever been done before. However, as Korber notes, the AUDL will not grow if it only caters to those who are already invested in the sport, which explains the massive outreach efforts on the part of the league as whole as well as the individual organizations.
"We're not trying to find the 2000 people who play ultimate and get them to come to our games," he says. "The model is tapping into tapping into the hundreds of thousands of sports fans in the greater Hartford area and getting them to come to a game every week. The fan base has never been about just the ultimate community. The fan base has always been about the sports fan community. We just want a small piece of that big pie."
The final score of the game is 29-19, Philadelphia. Korber leads Connecticut with 10 scores, tying his own league record, and youngster Matt Baum makes a number of spectacular throws and catches, but neither player can prevent the loss. As Constitution players leave the field, they stop to acknowledge their fans. A frisbee is passed around for players to autograph, destined to become a piece of memorabilia for the students of one teammate who is a teacher back in the real world. A local TV station films some interviews, and in the background the crowd begins to trickle out to the parking lot.
"Did we get all of our discs back?" Bryan Ricci asks his son. "Probably not," says Joe, with a rueful smile that hints at the dark humor inherent in owning an ultimate frisbee franchise. Although Connecticut is no longer in first place, the afternoon has been a success. Hundreds of fans came and paid money to watch a game of ultimate. They will probably go home and tell their friends and family what they did today, and maybe some of those listeners will show up at the next home game. At the very least, more people in the New Britain area will be aware of the professional frisbee team that exists in their midst than did the day before.
"We're starting to get locals," Bryan says with optimism. "This is more than I really truly expected. I was starting with no fans, so this is pretty cool."
Unfortunately, the Constitution are not one of the four teams headed to the playoffs, and their future hangs in limbo as the unresolved lawsuit with the AUDL hangs over their heads. The Constitution remain frustrated with the league as it tries to expand into their already-targeted areas, and the league maintains that the Constitution are being stubborn, since they agreed to expansion before the 2012 season even started.
At its core, the AUDL is still about its players. The athletes, who are mostly recent college graduates but range from teenagers to men in their forties, were not attracted to the league so they could put "Professional frisbee player" on their résumés. They joined up because they will do whatever it takes to play the sport they love, and Moore's league has made "whatever" a whole lot easier to grasp.
"I probably spent four to five thousand dollars in 2011 on traveling and playing expenses connected to ultimate," says Korber. While steep, that amount was basically the norm for players like him, who would travel with his club team to the various tournaments set up around the country. The cost associated with playing ultimate at an elite level may dissuade some top players from doing so, which is why, says Moore, "we don't want the players paying for their travel and stuff like that. At the very minimum we want everything comped for them."
By making cost a non-issue, the AUDL made itself more amenable to attracting top talent. Some of the teams are even able to give their players a small salary. Moore explains, "The most common compensation that we have is some teams give them a percent of profit, for example, 50% of the profits would be spent evenly among all the players." It's not much, but it's more than playing on a tournament team would get them, and, Moore notes, it encourages the players to try and sell themselves and have more fans come out to the games and watch.
Even so, all the financial matters are secondary to Korber, his teammates and their counterparts across the league. They're here because they want to continue playing while still keeping their day jobs, and the league has given them the best opportunity to do just that.
"I think it's easy to forget that it's a big, spread out, disjointed startup," he says. "For the first time ever, people are reliably paying money to watch ultimate. Which for all of the other things that are going on that aren't perfect or could be better, at the end of the day Josh's vision two or three years ago was 'I think ultimate is game that people would like to pay to watch.'"
Chris Mazur, one of the Constitution's handlers, agrees. He and Korber had played club frisbee together, and when Korber asked Mazur if he wanted to join a new league, the Guilford, CT native jumped on board. Mazur has played in the USAU's national club final before, but he says nothing compares to the crowd that comes to support the Constitution when they play at home.
"Our first home game, we had one thousand people come out. Looking up in the stands, everyone was excited, cheering, and pumped to be here, and the place was electric," he recounts. "I've played in front of fans. I've played in the national finals a couple years back, down in Sarasota, Fla., and there was probably a couple thousand that were there. This was a different feeling. I didn't go to sign autographs after that. At the end of these games you know we have high school kids coming out, college kids coming out, and they want to talk about the game, and they want to learn, and we never thought we would be part of this."
Mazur's amazement is standard issue throughout the league, where both players and execs alike agree that the AUDL has surpassed any notions they brought into the inaugural season.
"If I had told you two years ago that we were bringing professional ultimate to Detroit, that we were going to play out of the Silverdome, have a mascot, a dance team...you probably would have pegged me as the biggest blowhard in the room," says Steepe. "In the first year, everybody thought that we were an April Fools' joke coming out of the gate. To say we've exceeded expectations would be an understatement."
"It's something that without Josh's dream and vision, and without a lot of people's hard work, wouldn't have happened. I think it's pretty remarkable that it's gotten where it's gotten," says Korber.
Perhaps the only person that the AUDL has not taken completely by surprise is Moore, who has seen his brainchild grow from an idea into an entity that is looking to grow -- an AUDL that spans both coasts is not even Moore's stopping point, and he is confident that a national audience will view the league sometime soon.
For now, though, Moore has plenty of other issues to deal with on his agenda.
The Bluegrass Revolution will take on the Indianapolis AlleyCats in the Western division championship, and the Rhode Island Rampage will face the Philadelphia Spinners in the Eastern Division championship. The playoffs culminate with a championship Aug. 11 held at the Silverdome. All signs point to at least another season, and what happens to the AUDL after that is anybody's guess. After this improbable year, though, even a guess might not be good enough.