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Enough With The Stoner Jokes: How To Get ESPN To Take Ultimate Seriously

by in Featured, News, Opinion with 8 Comments

When I saw Dylan Freechild flying through the air on his way to a game-saving layout D during SportsCenter’s Top 10 earlier this week, I had the same initial reaction I’m sure the majority of ultimate players had: “How is that not #1?!”

Ultimate has actually been getting a good deal of exposure recently. By my count, there have been five ultimate highlights in Sportscenter’s Top 10 this summer — not including trick shots and stuff like that, just real game highlights.  ESPN.com has posted even more clips — including Ultiworld’s Top 10 plays from ECC — and tweeted them through their various handles directly to over 5 million sports fans.

For some reason, though, it still feels like ultimate is getting no love. Each time footage airs, it seems to be accompanied by undermining commentary. On Thursday, ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt Show — which, for the record, is televised — ran the Freechild D during its Best Available Video segment. Sounds promising.

Van Pelt and his co-host Ryan Russillo open with seemingly sincere praise — “this is as unbelievable of a play as you’ll ever see a guy make” — and a surprisingly aware reference to the teams’ USA Ultimate rankings. They then turn the commentary to a more typical route, when Russillo comes out of nowhere and asks, “How much do these guys love the String Cheese Incident?” This is the dual-narrative — ultimate is a legit sport + derogatory random stereotype — that’s seem to become the norm for non-ultimate specific media outlets that run coverage of the sport. Eventually, for ultimate to continue growing, this will have to change.

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Let me give you a hypothetical scenario. It’s the last week of the NFL regular season. The Seahawks and Texans are locked in a tight, back-and-forth game that goes to overtime. On fourth down, the Texans go for a deep pass play instead of something more conservative. The receiver beats his man by a mile and the quarterback puts up a perfect pass. Out of nowhere, the Seahawks’ safety sprints into the picture, makes up a ton of ground, and dives horizontally — four feet in the air — and gets a hand on the ball to deflect it out of bounds. The Seahawks then get the ball back, march down the field, and score the winning touchdown. Does that sound like a play that makes it to #1 on SportsCenter?

I think so too. And that’s why I initially couldn’t comprehend how the Freechild highlight — nearly the exact same scenario but in an ultimate game — was relegated to #6. But it really makes complete sense. Ultimate is still seen as a lesser sport by most — not on par with real sports like football and baseball — so even the most incredible plays end up at the bottom of the barrel. It’s a vicious cycle. The general public sees ultimate as a semi-serious game for hippies, which leads media outlets like ESPN to report on it in that fashion, further convincing the audience that their version of the sport is real.

How do we change their minds? Increasing access to video footage is a good place to start.

We’ve said it here before, NexGen is going to be huge for the sport of ultimate. The quality of their video coverage is unrivaled in ultimate and the high-definition broadcasts do a great job capturing the speed of the sport. If NexGen could find a way to work more closely with the likes of ESPN, Versus, and CBS to get their footage televised, it would do wonders for the sport. Right now, Brodie Smith’s YouTube channel is ESPN’s filter for Ultimate. Brodie’s reach is awesome, but it doesn’t always end up making Ultimate look as good as it could. It makes no sense that ESPN used Brodie’s low-resolution clip of the Freechild D instead of getting the awesome HD footage direct from NexGen.

What’s more, the average sports fan has never seen an ultimate video more than a minute long. It’s impossible to understand the athleticism and skill that it takes to compete in an ultimate game if you’re only watching isolated plays out of context, so getting longer segments and full games on the air is a must. With NexGen continually raising the standards for ultimate coverage, it’s not hard to imagine a network wanting to broadcast a handful of tournaments or a series of games in the very near future.

Video is just the start; it can certainly lead to bigger things. The more ultimate makes it to TV, the more kids will end up taking interest in it. Similar to the way youth soccer has helped Major League Soccer grow and the public awareness of international squads increase, getting more young people playing the game in elementary, middle, and high school would drive ultimate’s long-term progress. It’s why USA Ultimate focuses so much on youth development.

Increased coverage would also help create superstars. In an era of fantasy sports, big names are the reason a large portion of fans watch and attend games. Ultimate is much more likely to attract new fans if there are players they can follow and expect highlights from.

There’s no question our sport deserves respect. But we need to work harder to sell it to an audience outside of the ultimate community. It will take a concerted effort from media outlets like NexGen and, yes, Ultiworld to advance the sports world’s access to and knowledge of ultimate. It’s time to make it happen.

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About Wes Cronk

Wesley Cronk is the Vice President of Business Development of Ultiworld. Originally from West Palm Beach, Florida, he started playing ultimate in high school and split his college ultimate between the University of Florida and New York University. He has played open club with Vicious Cycle (Gainesville) and Fox Trot Swag Team Unity (New York). He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can reach him by email (wes@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@wescronk).

View all posts by Wes Cronk →

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  • WaterAndSand

    The whole deal is surprising to me because ESPN is all over novelty clips, especially when there isn’t a good lot of plays from the big 4 to fill their highlight reel, AKA summer. Off hand: The kid who did the soccer style handstand flip on a basketball, swishing from across court, Brodie’s frisbee clips, the guys who do the same thing with crazy basketball shots, and to a different extent with the crippled table tennis shot. If you watch SC every day, you could go on and on with these. All of them appear on ESPN fairly often, but for some reason when you couple that novelty factor with a game mostly seen on college campuses, and underfunded at best, it’s no longer as attractive, no matter how impressive it is. Ultimate is stuck in limbo between being one of those novelty clips, and the coverage of a more established small-market sport.

    I think you’re right about the youth factor. There aren’t any youth ultimate leagues that I’m aware of anywhere, but there are programs for the big 4 all over the place. Those are gigantic sports industries where a kid can live the dream, get drafted, get famous, get paid, and retire as a sports hero. That isn’t available in Ultimate right now, and until it is, it’s going to be harder to get people interested and give them access.

    For what it’s worth, Ultimate does an incredible job of sustaining itself as it currently does. The onus for the growth of the game is almost entirely on the players, and from my perspective, they do a great job with the limited exposure and fans they get. I wonder if there’s any cues you guys could take from soccer for growing the game in that sort of sponsor-heavy big-name environment fostered by ESPN and the notoriety of famous high-dollar athletes. I’m sure they’ve been griping for ages. USA national team plays at Jamaica tonight, and it’s hardly accessible stateside. Why? Broadcast rights. If ESPN isn’t willing to pony up for the biggest sport in the world, it is going to take something special for them to give Ultimate its due. To be fair, Ultimate is still relatively new, and I’d say it’s climbed the ladder pretty well thus far. The culture of ESPN is changing and is much more favorable to getting coverage of this type of game than it was a decade ago. With the dedication of Ultimate players, it won’t be surprising to see the sport continue to fast-itself into relevance, including best-of-the-best and more. Hell, I could even see them picking up coverage of a national championship if the scheduling is there.

    • Jonathan Levy

      “Aren’t any youth ultimate leagues” ?

      The USAU website lists 24 states with HS State Championships. Many of those states have a two-month Spring League which precedes and seeds the Championship tourney.

      The State Championships lead to four Regional Tournaments.

      In some states, there are also Invitational Tournaments virtually every weekend during the season.

      There is plenty of organized youth ultimate, and it is growing every year.

  • Pingback: Brodie Smith Responds To Our Story About ESPN | Ultiworld

  • Stephen

    Dude quit hating on Brodie. He is helping the sport out so quit whining. Damn reading this made me mad. You play high level dude? Any exposure is better than nothing. You probably don’t want refs either. And why you hating on “stoners”? Too many nerds playing this sport and not enough true burner jocks. You got a problem if there are folks out there that get fired up then crush it at the gym and/or on the field?

    • Mimmo

      Sorry, I should have put my below comment as a Reply

      It’s down there
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  • Mimmo

    Hey Steve,

    I think their comments about Brodie are far from “hating.” They give him the props he deserves, but make a valid criticism:

    “Brodie’s reach is awesome, but it doesn’t always end up making Ultimate look as good as it could. It makes no sense that ESPN used Brodie’s low-resolution clip of the Freechild D instead of getting the awesome HD footage direct from NexGen.”

    This is far from hating. Secondly, nobody is hating on people who smoke pot. What they are saying is that the stereotype that frisbee players are a bunch of stoners (and therefore are not to be taken seriously) is bad for the sport. I agree.

    What sport that has any sort of notoriety had “true burner jocks?” None. That kind of image isn’t marketable, and that kind of image isn’t something parents want their kids involved with.

    You say any exposure is better than nothing; yes that’s true, but that’s not where we are at. And squashing people back for making critiques on how to better the sport’s exposure is anti-progressive.

    Just as it’s perfectly alright for Brodie to comment on his opinion about ESPN’s exposure, it’s perfectly fine for Ultiworld to as well. Brodie has a vested interest in ESPN continuing to show clips on Sportscenter, ESPECIALLY when they come from his site and provide a citation to it. Because then people go look at Brodie’s site and he gets money from ads. Which is perfectly fine for him to do. However, it’s a double edge sword. It doesn’t necessarily send people to NextGen’s site where they would get the increased traffic, and attention, and they filmed the dang clip!

    I think it’s good to have a dialogue going through various internet channels and it’s important that we don’t take things as personal attacks unless they are made as personal attacks. This is so much better without the Mike G./Toad vs. Others vitriolic broken record arguments that killed RSD.

    Just my $.02

  • Pingback: Ultimate In The Media: ESPN, Brodie Smith, And Stereotypes | Ultiworld

  • Stephen

    Mimmo, you are correct with your statements. That comment of mine was uncalled for and actually a mistake. Wanted to back brodie but meant to delete the last part before posting. My apologies to the ultimate community. What these guys are doing with media on ultimate is awesome and I too want to see the sport get bigger and better.

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