Professional Ultimate Tries To Find Grip With Fans

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On a muggy day in July, Raymie Younkin, GM, head coach and minority owner of the Bluegrass Revolution, watched his players practice in the rain and tried to sound optimistic.

"We knew going in that getting the word out and everything and asking people to pay to watch ultimate might be a little bit prohibitive but it's a great sport," Younkin said. "People love it when they see it."

The Bluegrass Revolution is one of eight teams playing in the inaugural season of the American Ultimate Disc League.  The AUDL is the first professional league for ultimate, but given ongoing legal troubles and marketing issues, it may not be the last.

The sport, often called Ultimate Frisbee, has been around since the late sixties and has risen to the level of cult favorite.  Ultimate hasn't been given scholarship status by the NCAA, and it's not considered "varsity" at most high schools.  But that doesn't mean that AUDL players can't be called "professionals."  They are, after all, paid by their teams a minimum of $50 per season plus profit sharing, in a sport where there are little to no profits.

"Going forward we'll be able to do more of the per game stipend and an actual salary," Younkin said. "Just like the NFL way back when, they were playing players $30-40 per season."

No one at the Pro Football Hall of Fame could confirm those starting salaries, but researcher Jon Kendle did point out that in 1892, long before the NFL was founded, William "Pudge" Hefflefinger became the first athlete to be paid for playing football.  He received $500 for a single game.

But I digress…

AUDL players wear professional-looking jerseys and they travel on the team owner's dime.  Teams have home stadiums, like the Bluegrass Revolution's—at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ken.—and they have fans.

"We have attendance somewhere around 250," Younkin said. "Whenever we have a day like today when it may be raining, it'll wane. We'll do our best and even if we just have one fan in the stands, we will play."

On that day, attendance waned far below 200…to somewhere around 20.  At the opening pull (the first throw that starts a point), the skies had cleared and Roger Grace, father of Todd—a 37 year old attorney moonlighting as a pro ultimate player—described the crowd.

"Very slim," Rogers said with a chuckle.

Those who love this sport do so wholeheartedly, and they're accustomed to explaining it.

"Once you catch the disc you have to stop and throw it, you can't run like you do in football," Younkin said. "You score by getting across the end zone. So it's fast paced.  The possessions go back and forth quickly, and the players go all out."

Eight hundred and eighty-six miles northeast of Lexington, the game at Pierce Stadium in East Providence, R.I. had already started.  The crowd was much bigger, maybe pushing 100 or 150, all huddled together in the shade of the broadcast booth.

Tall, broad, and African-American, Rhode Island Rampage owner Emerson Kilgore stood out in the crowd. It would be an understatement to say he came into professional ultimate team ownership with modest expectations.  Before learning that franchises were for sale, Kilgore had never heard of ultimate.

"Well, actually I've been looking to re-invent myself a little bit," Kilgore said. "As you can probably tell from my size I've played football a few years of my life, and this opportunity crossed my path and I took full advantage of it."

The day was warm and sunny, so the weather was not to blame for the sparse attendance.  Tana Babbitt, a fan from Easton, Mass., offered another excuse.  A major charity tournament was being contested in Boston that weekend, and maybe all the fans of the game were there?

"If you have a chance to play, you might not come and watch," Babbitt said.

Babbitt's been playing ultimate with her husband and adult children for four years, but she never expected to watch a professional ultimate game.

"I mean there are other sports that are more mainstream that have trouble getting professional leagues going, so why would this one be able to do it?" she asked.

So, the league has owners who had never heard of the sport and fans who aren't convinced it can succeed.  To make matters worse, ultimate players say they'd rather win the club championship, contested in Florida every fall, than the AUDL championship held this weekend in Michigan.

Mike Miller is one of the assistant captains of the Rampage.  He joined the team to get in shape for the club season. "Winning club nationals is the epitome," Miller said. "Maybe in a couple years, the AUDL will get there, but right now, club is as good as it gets."

But there's one more obstacle to the AUDL's success.  The league is currently suing two of its teams, the Connecticut Constitution and the Rhode Island Rampage.

At issue are territory rights.  The league says Connecticut and Rhode Island agreed to expansion teams in Boston and New York.  Connecticut and Rhode Island say they were sold territories that included a 100-mile radius around their home counties, which includes Boston and New York.  It's a point Josh Moore, founder and president of the AUDL, doesn't really refute.

"The agreement does say that there is a 100-mile radius for teams coming into existence," Moore said.

"They keep telling us that's not really what they meant," explained Bryan Ricci, owner of the Connecticut Constitution.  Ricci was pretty happy with the way the season was going, until the legal troubles started.

Ricci is a CPA, and he sounds a bit believable when he says professional ultimate can succeed.

"It’s going to have a lot to do with how well whoever is the one running the best league is marketing the league," Ricci said. "There may be other leagues that come out because of this."

Moore said he hopes the conflict with Connecticut and Rhode Island will be resolved in the next few weeks and that the league is already addressing other problems that came up during the season.

"We are hard at work and will be working all off season to improve in as many things as we can," Moore said.

But, before the intrigue of next year, there's still one game left in the inaugural season.  On Saturday, the Philadelphia Spinners take on the Indianapolis Alley Cats at the 80,00-seat Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.  Moore promised, whether the turnout is 100 or 10,000, it should be an enjoyable event for all.

This segment aired on August 11, 2012.

Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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