Ultimate Frisbee has become one of the fastest growing sports in the nation. Just like many varsity sports, athleticism and skill is a tremendous factor in being a successful Ultimate player.
In recent years, two professional leagues have been created, the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) and Major League Ultimate (MLU). ESPN also reached an agreement with USA Ultimate, an organization that sanctions the sport, to broadcast games on the major sports network.
The sport is growing rapidly on the collegiate level as well, with almost 1,000 schools nationwide possessing an Ultimate team. The number of college USA Ultimate members also increased from 9,951 in 2004, to 16,058 in 2011.
However, the sport has yet to be sanctioned by the NCAA and the increased participation suggests that it could be. Lacrosse, another rapidly growing sport, began NCAA sanctioned tournaments in 1971 with far less participation. In 2010, 7,424 males and 3,700 females participated in college Ultimate. NCAA Lacrosse did not reach 7,400 males until 2005 and did not reach 3,700 females until 1995.
Although the amount of participants in college Ultimate is comparable to other varsity sports, the talent level does not compare. “I think that at the highest level of college Ultimate, where you have the Pitt’s, Oregon’s, and Carleton’s; there could be some potential to sanction,” said Danny Lemmen, a captain of Marist’s Ultimate team. “At lower levels it would be tough to justify sanctioning initially, because the quality of the athletes just wouldn’t be on the same level of your traditional varsity sport.”
Becoming an NCAA sanctioned sport is an exceptionally complicated process. A certain number of schools must support Ultimate as a varsity team, rather than a club team, before the NCAA considers sanctioning the sport. Supporting another varsity team would need the athletic department to spend more money; which is one of the biggest obstacles. A solution could be players funding the program themselves as most Ultimate programs already do.
An NCAA sanctioned tournament could be similar to the structure USA Ultimate currently uses. College teams compete in a rigorous tournament broken into three parts; sectionals, regionals, and nationals. Only 20 of the best teams around the country make it to nationals, battling for a National Championship. This past year’s National Championship game was broadcasted by ESPN, which may increase the chance of Ultimate taking the next step. If the top schools in the country support Ultimate as varsity teams, the minimum amount of teams required for consideration would be met.
The minimum amount of teams could also be met strictly through Women’s Ultimate. Due to Title IX, a law that protects females from gender discrimination in athletics, Women’s Ultimate is more likely to be NCAA sanctioned than Men’s Ultimate. Schools struggling to be Title IX compliant typically add female programs to balance the male-to-female ratio. With the sport rapidly growing, Ultimate could be the next female program that schools look to add. If Women’s Ultimate thrives under the NCAA, the organization may look to sanction Men’s Ultimate as well.
The professional Ultimate leagues could also have a strong influence on the sport being sanctioned. The AUDL is entering its third season, while the MLU is entering its second season. Due to the AUDL’s success in the first two seasons, the league has expanded to 18 teams. The MLU also plans to expand if the league’s success continues. “I think a big factor [of sanctioning] will be on the success of professional ultimate leagues,” said Lemmen. “If those leagues thrive there would be more incentive to have recognized athletes at colleges who are turning pro in their sport.”
Professional leagues could also negatively impact the possibility of NCAA sanctioning Ultimate. If the leagues fail to increase interest, the NCAA may see it as a warning sign of sanctioning. However, if the leagues continue to succeed, it would be hard for the NCAA to ignore sanction proposals. NCAA Ultimate could also have the same effect on the professional leagues as well as high school teams. The amount of high schools with Ultimate teams would most likely increase if it were to become an NCAA sport.
Ultimate being sanctioned by the NCAA would also lead to many changes. The Ultimate community is widely known for its “spirit of the game”. Since there are no referees, players make their own foul calls. Players are expected to play fairly and respectfully, refraining from showing poor sportsmanship. If Ultimate becomes sanctioned, referees would be added to enforce the rules instead of players making the calls. The NCAA would also be able to change and/or add other rules.
Other than the rules and referees, Lemmen believes there would be more focus off the field. “It would be interesting to watch the transition, but in my mind it would slightly boost the intensity for teams. They would be more recognized by their schools. Their games would be marketed to the student body and the community more. Playing in front of spectators would be a big rush if it were consistent.”
With an increased intensity that could be found in varsity sports, the spirit found in Ultimate could change as well. However, Lemmen is confident that the spirit would stay intact. “Spirit of the game is ingrained in ultimate the way it’s ingrained in catchers to have a mutual respect for their counterpart. There is a bond among the players on each team, they both share the same game even when they are on opposing sides.”
NCAA Ultimate could also increase the already rapidly growing interest in the sport. Ultimate is often given a negative connotation by people that are unfamiliar with the sport. Becoming a varsity sport may finally rid Ultimate of any misguided beliefs. “I think people tend to think of it as something laid back they tie into hippie or progressive culture or they think we’re just tossing a frisbee back and forth nonchalantly,” said Chelsea Richardson, a Marist alumna and Ultimate player.
Marist College could also benefit if Ultimate becomes sanctioned. The Ultimate program at Marist was founded in 2007 and it has developed into a consistently winning team. The freshman and sophomore classes also have the potential to build upon the success the team has already reached. The team has yet to reach nationals, but with enough work, the team is capable of competing for a bid this year.
It appears that Ultimate will eventually become an NCAA sport, but it will likely be a long process, and an even longer process for it to affect Marist.