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Volume 20 No. 42
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Sportsmanship, fun part of the appeal for USA Ultimate

The game has broken out of its college campus roots, appealing to cities with multi-field facilities looking to fill out their calendars.
Courtesy of: USA ULTIMATE (2)
The first time that the CEO of the U.S. governing body for ultimate Frisbee saw the sport played at its highest level, he was struck by a quirk that distinguishes it from all other sports — and it had nothing to do with the flight of the disc.

To the uninitiated, ultimate plays like a cross between soccer and touch football, with teams of seven advancing the disc by passing it up a 40-yard-wide, 120-yard-long field. What caught Crawford’s eye was the process that unfolded when two players made contact and one of them called a foul.

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■ 3 questions with CEO Tom Crawford

There is no referee or umpire in a traditional ultimate game. Instead, players call their own fouls, talking through disputes. Those they can’t resolve are turned over to an “observer” who makes the final call. Taking the debate that far is discouraged.

“It’s why I got into this, to be honest,” said Tom Crawford, a longtime Olympic movement insider who took over as CEO of USA Ultimate in 2009. “I fell in love because of that element. These were phenomenal athletes and it was super entertaining. But what really attracted me to it — you really do feel that ‘spirit of the game’ ethos, even at the world championships or U.S. Open. It is a culture that has figured out a way to operationalize sportsmanship.”

This, Crawford said, has been at the core of a sport that has shown steady growth in recent years, emerging from its college campus roots to break through to broader acceptance, gaining recognition by the International Olympic Committee and membership in the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2014. Membership in USA Ultimate has grown steadily since then, increasing to 56,249 this month, up 18 percent from the same time in 2014 and up 55 percent from 2012.

The core of USA Ultimate membership remains at the college level, where about 18,000 students play for clubs at more than 800 schools. But participation among both older and younger players is growing rapidly, with about 13,500 non-collegiate adults and 14,000 youth now registered.

To foster and manage that growth, USA Ultimate in the last two years has established state-based organizations in Minnesota, North Carolina, New England, California and Illinois, with plans to add at least four each year. Their priority: To create a structure that allows more kids to play the sport.

One of the appeals of ultimate Frisbee for venues is that it does minimal damage to fields.
The fact that most clubs must travel to find tournaments has increasingly put ultimate on the radar of sports commissions and large multi-field facilities that are looking to fill out their calendars. While ultimate still has not penetrated the mainstream of U.S. sports properties, it has made inroads with a handful that have hosted its larger events.

“If you’re one of the many communities out there that’s bringing in soccer and lacrosse and rugby and field hockey, we’re a fast-growing sport that fits in with what you’re already catering to,” said Andy Lee, managing director of marketing at USA Ultimate. “We’re hearing more and more from facilities who see that we can be a great fit.”

Interestingly, ultimate has been on the radar for more than a decade at the nation’s largest, most established multi-field facility, the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn., which is entering the second year of a three-year agreement to host the sport’s biggest event, which pairs the U.S. Open Club championships with the national championship youth tournament.

That August event — which included a mixed division final that aired live on ESPN2 — brought in about 3,000 athletes and occupied 40 fields, Lee said, with many bringing family members and staying more than four nights.

“We always are talking about how big our facility is, so anything that can bring in this many people is good for us in terms of visibility,” said Kelli Goodrich, field sports coordinator at the National Sports Center. “We’re really happy we were ahead of the game with this sport because we’ve really grown with them. We’re known for soccer and hockey, but we don’t want to be only soccer and hockey.”

USA Ultimate owns and operates 14 championship events annually, attracting teams in collegiate, youth and adult club divisions. Six of those events typically attract more than 1,000 competitors, Lee said. As in most sports, the events with large youth fields are the most attractive to communities, because they bring families that fill additional hotel rooms.

But the largest college events also can be attractive because they can fill hotel rooms for almost a week.

The most recent USA Ultimate college championships, held near Cincinnati, generated about 12,000 room nights and $4 million in economic impact, based on calculations by the host Warren County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Fueled by one of the nation’s more active ultimate Frisbee communities, Warren County hosted its first ultimate event in 2007 and now annually hosts three tournaments, packaging a USA Ultimate event with one of them. Next year, it will host the weeklong World Ultimate Club Championships.

Ultimate has returned the fifth-highest economic impact of any sport for the Warren County CVB in the last decade, behind only soccer, basketball, baseball and cheer/dance.

“There’s a growing awareness [among sports commissions], but I don’t think people jump to it the way they do soccer and basketball and baseball,” said Ben Huffman, director of sports marketing for the Warren County CVB. “It’s great for us and it’s great for our facilities.

“There’s no goal. So nobody stands in one place game after game and tears up your field.”

It’s something that Goodrich, who books the fields at the National Sports Center in Minnesota, also pointed out.

“They bring in a humongous event that uses all our fields but doesn’t destroy them,” Goodrich said. “Believe me, that’s hard to find. We love that part of it.”