Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK — So I was in the Knicks media room the other day when a conversation with one of my fellow sports writing colleagues turned to Ultimate.
OK, I brought it up, only to get a barrage of the same questions I and other Ultimate players have been answering for decades.
“Is it a real sport?” my colleague asked. “Are there teams? How do you play? I don’t see it anywhere.”
You can’t blame the guy. He doesn’t see Ultimate anywhere, so how’s he expected to know about it?
Yet now that a pro Ultimate league is launching, he and others may finally be exposed to a fast-moving sport that has long been characterized as combining elements of football, soccer and basketball and was originally described by now-famous Hollywood movie producer Joel Silver as, “The Ultimate sport.”
The American Ultimate Disc League (the AUDL)will consist of eight teams located in the Northeast and will include clubs in Connecticut, Philadelphia, Providence, R.I., Buffalo, N.Y., Columbus, OH, Detroit, Indianapolis and Kentucky.
(Full disclosure: I’m taking my 43-year-old body to try out for the Connecticut Constitution this Sunday and will report back on the event, which will include combine testing and a 40-yard dash. Hope I make it back alive after competing against all the 20-somethings.)
Josh Moore, the league’s President and a former recreational player at the University of Missouri, was somewhat vague about the league’s financing during a series of e-mail interviews but said all teams are individually owned. He also did not rule out further expansion in the South or West.
“The league is self-sufficient yet is always looking for those individuals and companies who would seek to support us monetarily on this journey,” Moore said via e-mail.
The Constitution will host eight weekend home games during its first season of play, spanning the months of April through July, with an opening day home game planned for May 5, the same day as the Kentucky Derby.
The first season will round out in mid July with division playoffs followed by the first American Ultimate Championship game to be played in the Silverdome in Detroit on August 11.
John Korber, general manager of the Constitution and one of the top players on the Connecticut-based mixed team D-5, says the team will cover travel, uniform and other expenses for players, and that compensation “will vary player by player.”
“But you can expect to earn several hundred dollars over the course of the season,” Korber said.
“We also plan to give end of year bonuses as a percentage of gate receipts…so putting people in the seats is good for everyone. Each player will be expected to serve as an ambassador for the league and team; we expect people to work within their own personal and professional circles to help grow the Constitution’s fan base.”
OK, so pro Ultimate players won’t be making A-Rod or Amar’e money, but that’s hardly the point for many of the players.
“Frankly, I don’t care about getting paid to play ultimate,” said Ben Van Heuvelen, captain of the New York-based PONY club team and a longtime college friend of mine. “I have never loved the sport more than when I was playing in high school, and one of the best things about club ultimate — as opposed to other sports at their highest levels — is that everyone is still doing it purely because they love to play.
“Don’t get me wrong, I would be absolutely thrilled if someone paid my airfare and lodging for tournaments. But I have zero desire to be paid for playing.”
Still, “BVH,” as he’s known, added: “Part of why I love the sport is that I can play at the highest level and also have a career and a life that are separate from ultimate. It’s a big part of my life, but it’s not the only part.
“I am probably in the minority not wanting to get paid. I know lots of top-level players, especially younger guys just graduating from college, who would make a full-time career out of ultimate if they could.”
Ever since 1,000 fans came to watch Princeton meet Rutgers in the first college Ultimate game in a parking lot at Rutgers in 1972, Ultimate players have dreamed of big-time Ultimate.
At that time, “Monday Night Football” had just recently begun, and some players from Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., where Silver, Buzzy Hellring and Jonny Hines first copyrighted the rules to the sport believed there could be “Monday Night Ultimate.”
Over the 40 years since, there have been various attempts — some sponsored by corporate entities like Jose Cuervo — to alter the sport and take it to the big-time.
The sport, which is governed by USA Ultimate, is played without referees and under the “Spirit of the Game,” which requires that all players settle differences on fouls, travels and picks themselves.
Elimination games at Club and College Nationals do feature “active observers” who settle disputes.
But during the course of a regular game, an argument over a call can last several minutes, which would be deadly in a pro league.
Thus, the AUDl will utilize “active officials” who can institute yardage penalties.
“There’s active officiating, so the players don’t make any calls,” said Rafe Steinhauer, a New York-based club player who played in an AUDL exhibition and was my teammate on the 2011 Westchester Ultimate Summer League championship team. “All infractions — fouls, travels, picks, etc — result in a yardage penalty.
“Surprisingly, however, the active officiating and yardage penalties didn’t change the feel of the game nearly as much as adding an extra 13 yards of width.”
Yes, the size of the field has been changed, too. Instead of playing on a field that is 40 yards wide by 70 yards long, plus two 25-yard end zones, the AUDL will play on a field that is 53 yards wide.
Of course, it won’t matter how wide the field is if fan support can’t be generated and sustained.
Having covered various successful and failed pro leagues for 15 years as a writer, I can tell you the American sports landscape is littered with failed pro leagues, from the USFL and the XFL to the Women’s United Soccer Association.
Yet for now, the potential of a “pro” Ultimate league is enough to raise the hopes of players who for years have spent their own money traveling to tournaments around the nation and the world simply because they love the game.
“Playing Ultimate professionally would be a dream-come-true and validation for the thousands of hours and dollars I’ve invested to become a better player,” Steinhauer said.
“The one vision that is motivating me now (to train hard to make the team) is that of a bunch of teammates passing a long bus ride to away games with chatter of strategy, ultimate, the serious and the frivolous. The chance to play Ultimate professionally is certainly an opportunity of a lifetime; I hope it will also create memories of a lifetime.”
And in a best-case scenario, it could create new memories for the masses who still don’t know anything about Ultimate.
**Across an Ultimate career that has lasted more than 20 years, Adam Zagoria has competed in College, Open, Mixed, Masters and Grandmasters Nationals. In 2011, he was a member of the Westchester Ultimate Summer League championship team. Zagoria is the co-author, along with Tony Leonardo, of “ULTIMATE – The First Four Decades.”
Photos: Connecticut Constitution
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.