"It's a long way from ESPN or even a living wage." Except for the fact that Major League Ultimate appeared on SportsCenter three times last year.
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On an unusually warm afternoon between polar vortexes, patches of snow still cover the athletic fields at East River Park. There's a small group tossing a football around, another kicking a soccer ball through a pair of makeshift goal posts, yet another with a baseball and bat. And, just under the Williamsburg Bridge, some 90 men in their twenties and thirties hucking Frisbees into the air, diving head first after the falling discs into banks of slush and mud.
In 2013, professional (yes, professional) Ultimate Frisbee came to New York City, and now, as the sport continues to gain popularity, more and more players want in. Before their season starts on April 13, the New York Empire, one of two (yes, two) pro Ultimate teams based in the city, will whittle these 90 hopefuls down to an elite team of 28. The goal is to form a squad strong enough to compete for a championship, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to grow a fledgling business and help rebrand a sport that has only recently begun to shed its Birkenstocks.
"People are shocked when they hear that I wear cleats, that I travel all over the country for this and have practices," says 26-year-old Ryan Delaney. "That's kind of what the pro scene is trying to change, that hippie-stoner stigma."
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Delaney founded the Ultimate team at SUNY Oneonta, played for New York co-ed club team 7 Express, and worked as the Empire's director of marketing and sales, but this is his first attempt at becoming a professional Ultimate player. "My friend put it like this," he explains, stretching on the sidelines. "He wants to be able to tell his kids one day that he played professional Ultimate Frisbee before it blows up."
The word "professional" is used loosely here, of course. Organizations like Major League Ultimate (MLU) and the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), in which the Empire compete, call themselves "pro" largely for branding purposes. The average player only makes $25 to $50 a game, plus the occasional bonus for an awe-inspiring catch or for bringing extra fans out to the games. It's a long way from ESPN or even a living wage.
But for Delaney and others, pro Ultimate is a chance to play in front of a crowd and have necessities like jerseys, food, and travel expenses taken care of. Though the pay isn't great, it still beats forking over thousands of dollars a year for pricey club leagues and tournament fees.
"The best way to think about it is kind of like the early leather-helmet football days," says Empire head coach and co-owner Tom Gibbons. "The players still have full-time jobs and kind of just do it on the weekends. But, hopefully, we'll be able to be as big as the NFL or something like that. Who knows?"
The sport seems ripe for spectatorship. In 2014, Ultimate Frisbee is more football and less hacky sack, as close to a contact sport as possible without losing sight of the "Spirit of the Game" — a set of rules pledging good sportsmanship that are treated with an almost dogmatic religiosity inside the community. Players zip discs forehand, backhand, and tomahawk-style, squeezing them past opponents' flailing arms and legs, all in the hopes of moving incrementally toward an end zone. It's nonstop action with more than a few diving catches, hard fouls, and big plays. "I was trying out earlier," remarks one player sitting on the sidelines, "but then I threw up."
Though most Ultimate enthusiasts are first introduced to the sport through college club teams, the pedigree of players is starting to change.
"The Ultimate athlete seems to be maybe around six foot, has the speed of a soccer player, and can throw a Frisbee really, really well, because that's what's been in their hand since they've been in grade school," explains Gibbons. "It's not like, 'Well, I used to throw a baseball, now I throw a Frisbee.' It's, 'I've always thrown a Frisbee . . . I can throw it into a garbage pail from 70 yards away.'"
The business side of the sport is quickly evolving, too. The early days of the AUDL saw a lawsuit between the league and several teams over expansion plans and non-compete clauses in their contracts. Eventually, the Philadelphia franchise split from the AUDL and began its own league, the MLU. Today, the Empire have to worry about competing not only with the other teams on the field, but also with the MLU's New York Rumble (which play in Union City, New Jersey) for ticket sales and market dominance.
"If you ask me, 'Is it sustainable to have two professional, or semi-professional, Ultimate Frisbee leagues?' I'm going to tell you, unequivocally, 'No.' I mean, of course not," says Charlie Eisenwood, editor-in-chief of Ultiworld, an online Ultimate publication based in Brooklyn. "It's just a question of who has enough money and clout to make that happen in the next five to 10 years."
One thing the Empire have done to maintain a competitive edge is start recruiting talent from out of state. Four top-tier players from North Carolina signed with the team in the offseason and will spend the summer living in New York City. The Empire will help with living arrangements, grocery costs, and MetroCards, while (as with most New York sports teams wooing new talent) offering the chance to compete in a high-visibility market.
"We had a budget, we had a time frame, and we knew what kind of players we wanted," says Gibbons. "We really handled it like a front office of a major sport."
Last season, the Empire lost in the conference finals to the Toronto Rush, the team that would go on to win the AUDL championship. Lack of a home stadium (the Empire bounced around between Randall's Island and fields in Brooklyn) kept attendance modest for New York, with highs of roughly 400 fans and lows of just 100. This year, the Empire hope that new blood, growing interest in the sport, and season tickets starting at just $50 will help change all that.
"There are 5 million people that play Ultimate in this country," says the team's general manager, Cullen Shaw. "We want this sport to be accessible to the masses."