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.
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.