PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Chris Mazur is as competitive a professional athlete as any. After flubbing an easy pass, he kicks a trash can with pro-level gusto.
But the Connecticut Constitution defensive handler’s best play against the Philadelphia Spinners on a recent Sunday is not one of the team-leading five goals he throws. It is the point he gives the other side when his Ultimate team is slightly behind.
Ultimate is a fast-paced field sport played with flying discs. The object is to score points by catching passes in the opponent’s end-zone. Players can only advance the disc by throwing and catching it, and contact is not allowed. Possession of the disc changes when a pass is not completed.
Data from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association shows Ultimate has nearly 5 million players in the United States, about the same number as gymnastics, and far more than field hockey, lacrosse or Rugby, which have less than 2 million each.
Ardor for the amateur sport may have something to do with the USA Ultimate rule book. The preface states that players must abide by the Spirit of the Game (known informally as the “spirit rule”), a guide to fair play considered to be sacrosanct: “Competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of respect between players, adherence to the rules, and the basic joy of play.”
Also intrinsic to the spirit rule is the enforcement of all the game’s rules by the players themselves, even though the practice is not spelled out as a rule proper.
Despite an avid fan base - its players — Ultimate has not had many independent spectators. At the USA Ultimate club championships, most people watching are players who didn’t make it to the finals.
“There are still too many Tom Crawfords out there who are big sports fans that just don’t even know that Ultimate is highly entertaining,” says Tom Crawford, the chief executive officer of USA Ultimate. He has a rare perspective among its top brass: He was introduced to the sport as a spectator.
Taking up the challenge of the small audience, this spring the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) launched the sport’s first serious professional league, beginning its inaugural season with eight teams. Eight more cities, including New York, Boston and Washington, are expected to up and running next year, and franchises in 12 of 32 cities targeted for 2014 have been sold.
These aggressive expansion plans are based on making the game more of a spectacle and less of a drag: The league decided that having players call their own fouls slowed the game to a crawl. It introduced referees.
The AUDL understood that such a radical move could alienate the amateur world, and so it introduced an “integrity rule” as a nod to the spirit rule. The practice allows a player to overturn a referee’s call if it is considered inappropriate and does not benefit that player’s team.
The adaptation comes with a risk — possibly jeopardizing one of the most endearing qualities of the sport: giving new players the sense that fair play is only achieved by enforcing their own rules.
“I think that ‘spirit of the game’ is really the best branding tool that could be used to promote Ultimate, especially in the business of sport today where athletes seem to no longer be held to a higher standard,” Robert Rauch, the president of the WFDF, wrote in an email, adding that the spirit rule is a standard that remains the Olympic ideal.
At Franklin Field, the oldest football stadium in the country, dancers lead cheers and punch pom-poms. The Philadelphia Area Disc Alliance has drummed up spectators for the AUDL game between the Spinners and the Constitution. Afterward, fans line up along the field rail and high-five players from both teams as they exit the field.
Overall, Philadelphia draws the biggest crowds in the league, followed by the Indianapolis Alleycats and Connecticut. (The Alleycats are captained by Brodie Smith, whose videos of disc trick shots are a viral phenomenon.)
But the crowd for the Sunday game against Connecticut is only about half the 1,700 fans that showed up for Philly’s home opener.
Privately, AUDL owners are concerned about the novelty of a re-fangled sport wearing off. But the AUDL’s expansion plans may pose a bigger threat. On Thursday, the Constitution announced it was suspending operations. At issue is a dispute over creating teams in the big-city markets of Boston and New York City, two critical sources of players and fans for the team.
The timing of the dispute couldn’t be worse for a young league with big plans. Connecticut had earned a respectable berth in the playoffs, scheduled for July 28. The Championship, slated for August 11, is booked for the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan.
Of about a dozen children at the June 9 game between the Constitution and the Rampage, 11-year-old Grady is alone in professing a desire to be a professional Ultimate player when he grows up.
But even Grady would rather not have referees.
“It’s better when the players are in charge,” he says.
AUDL players say referees keep the game moving at a pace unlike anything Ultimate has ever seen, though they admit the rules covering judgment calls could stand some refinement.
Despite Mazur’s integrity call in the game with Philly, it is rarely invoked in AUDL games; giving an advantage to your opponent may be spirited but is hardly the stuff of professional sports, where winners make money and losers go find another job.
While the AUDL does not pay quit-your-day-job money, for the players it still makes sense.
“Currently with their club teams they’re paying all their tournament entry fees and all their travel ... so at a minimum to have all that paid for them is a big benefit,” says AUDL President Josh Moore.
Some teams also offer a per-game stipend, others a percentage of profits.
Then there are the budding crowds.
“I’m very happy and surprised with the support we are getting,” says Constitution cutter CJ Ouellette.
“As long as it keeps attracting crowds and keeps drawing attention to itself, those people who play on those top (club) teams are going to come out and think maybe this is something legitimate.”
At Franklin Field that Sunday, three integrity calls are made. Early in the second half, seeing a foul call was not made against his Philadelphia team, Spinners coach Jeff Snader instructs the players to give up possession of the disc. While not technically an issue of integrity, since no foul had been called, the decision underscored the respect the teams had for spirit in their sport.
“I don’t think it would happen in USA Ultimate club play,” says Philadelphia Spinners captain Trey Katzenbach when asked about teams giving up possession in the spirit of fair play. “That’s just because it’s a different beast. With the referees out here we expect them to make a mistake every now and then and we can rectify it.”
“It’s the right thing to do,” Mazur said of his own integrity call.
“We play Ultimate and we love Ultimate.”