Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Frisbee-tossing catches major-league wave

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So far in this, the second season of Major League Ultimate, the Boston Whitecaps, last season's champs, are leading the Eastern League, while the San Francisco Dogfish, whom they faced in the first season's championship game, are once again top dogs in the Western League. Will they clash again at next July's finale?

The excitement is almost overwhelming. Yet incredibly, many Americans still do not realize that Ultimate, or formalized Frisbee-flinging, is now a serious sport. In the championship game, held in Philadelphia this past July, leaflets were handed out explaining that games are played seven to a side, typically on an American football field with the goal posts removed. Players score by catching a thrown disc, often with an athletic flourish, in the opponents' end zone.

Plastic discs have been chucked across beaches since before the Second World War. Frisbee, still the best-known brand, was registered in the 1950s by Whamo, and attempts to codify the game's rules date back to the 1960s. Only last year, however, did MLU. begin as the sport's first centrally managed profssional league.

"We wanted to create a spectator sport from what has largely been a player-driven experience," says Nic Darling, an MLU official.

However, an older organizing body, USA Ultimate, also has been working to professionalize the sport. Separate from the MLU, it has created the Triple-Crown Tour, a series of tournaments for elite teams, which operates somewhat like European football's Champions League.

Previously, USAU chief Tom Crawford says, "it was random teams in random cities. No one was ever sure who was going to play. It was impossible to sell that."

In March ESPN, the cable-sports giant owned by Disney, bought the rights to broadcast the Triple-Crown Tour in full for an undisclosed amount. Now USAU is seeking a big-name sponsor.

Small firms are benefiting from the sport's growth. Five Ultimate makes the official uniforms -- baggy shorts and shirts, made of stretchy fabric -- for hundreds of teams worldwide. Started in 2006 by five siblings in a Seattle garage, it now employs 23 full-time staffers.

Ultiapps is a mobile app that allows coaches to track players' performance. Its data have been used to power MLU's online fantasy league. Tushar Singh, one of Ultiapp's founders, thinks a whole new economy can form around ultimate.

"People can start making livings as funds are injected at a sponsorship level," he says.

Unlike basketball and baseball, ultimate has no millionaire stars. Players get only modest stipends and travel expenses. Surely the big money will come, however.

Chucking around a Frisbee may seem frivolous to some, but there was a time when throwing a big orange ball through a hoop or even hitting a ball with a stick seemed to be nothing more than a bit of pleasant exercise, certainly no way to make a living.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 7, 2013 A9

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