AUDL takes the casual game of frisbee to a professional level
Josh Moore saw potential for a pro ultimate frisbee league, and created the AUDL
The league's eight teams in two divisions are owned and operated individually
Despite struggles, AUDL gives players opportunity to play the game they love
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.