Ultimate’s Biggest Stories Of 2012: The Year In Review

2012 will be remembered as a pivotal year for ultimate. From professional leagues to a full-length documentary to referees to unprecedented appearances on ESPN, this was a remarkable year for the sport. Here is a look back through the biggest stories, why they matter, and what we might expect in 2013 and beyond.

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“Professional” Ultimate Is Here To Stay

Players may not be able to make a living as an athlete yet, but the American Ultimate Disc League this year began a new era in Ultimate, one in which organizers will charge admission to spectators within a professional sports model. Kevin Minderhout, the founder of NexGen, should be credited as one of the pioneers as well; the NexGen Tour was the first serious attempt at paid admission for Ultimate.

The concept is so alluring that, less than a year after signing up for the AUDL, Philadelphia Spinners owner Jeff Snader has gathered his own team of people to attempt their own professional league: Major League Ultimate. They’re asking for deep pockets to invest in the league as they challenge the AUDL to be the premier pro ultimate league.

Even Minderhout wants in, as he seeks to gather existing teams and talent into a different kind of pro league, more a hybrid of club (tournament style) and a more standard professional sports model (apparel, charging admission, night games).

Perhaps most surprising, USA Ultimate is trying to get into the game as well. Although they preserve the tournament model of years past, their Triple Crown Tour plan has paid admission built into it — and they continue to emphasize their plan to get select games onto national television.

Whether or not the financial realities will make these leagues possible two or three years from now is murky at best. It doesn’t seem likely that players will be able to quit their day job anytime soon. But professional ultimate, a punchline just a year ago, is now a reality.

For a comparison of the four leagues, see this infographic.

Refereed Ultimate Is On The Rise

The advent of the AUDL also brought with it the first large-scale attempt at refereed ultimate with no self-officiation component. For a sport long proud of its different attitude to foul calling, this is a milestone. But the writing has been on the wall for some time.

Many of the AUDL’s players give high praise to refereed ultimate, saying that it allows them to focus on playing, not on calling fouls. And most top club and college players love observers; many of them also want to play with refs.

There is a generational divide here that points to an ever-increasing role for third-party officials. This is anecdotal, to be sure, but many younger players seem to be in favor of referees, or at least observers with expanded powers. Older players tend to be more inclined to prefer self-officiation. Particularly as more athletes join the sport (i.e. those who have played other competitive sports in the past), the cries for referees will continue to grow.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who want to preserve self-officiation. The World Flying Disc Federation is committed to maintaining a purely self-officiated game at the international level. Minderhout used to like refs, but has since changed his mind and wants to stick with observers. USA Ultimate also believes strongly that self-officiation is a major selling point for the sport.

But influential players like Brodie Smith and stars of the AUDL are vocal about their preference for referees. And high profile failures of self-officiation really hurt the case. That will slowly permeate through the thinking of younger players, who will want referees when they get to college or club. The demographic shift of Ultimate will be the big story of the next ten years.

‘Spirit Of The Game’ Is Becoming Meaningless

One of the first things you learn when you start to play Ultimate is the importance of ‘Spirit of the Game.’ But what is it? Can you define it? How is it different from sportsmanship? It’s not clear anyone really knows.

USA Ultimate acknowledges this, and chose “Make Spirit Of The Game Real For Today’s Ultimate Players And Community” as one of their six strategic goals for the next five years. There is a new committee set to help redefine what SOTG really means.

Internationally, SOTG is also a big deal. Anecdotally, it’s much more important than it is in the United States. Yet it often feels like lip service. Play can get very ugly — bad foul calls, cheap fouls, etc. — but a “spirit circle” after the game somehow makes up for that? It’s a huge topic of conversation overseas.

This doesn’t mean the game needs refs, but it does mean SOTG has to be redefined for the way the game is played today.

Fury’s Dynasty

With their seventh straight National Championship, San Francisco’s Fury now holds the title of longest win streak in USA Ultimate history. Although it’s true that only a handful of women’s teams are really competing for the title in a given year, parity has increased dramatically in the past couple of seasons. And winning seven straight titles is hard, no matter what.

Under coach Matty Tsang, Fury has become easily the most successful team of the last decade. Although they may not quite have reached Death or Glory’s level of dynasty yet, they are very close.

Doublewide Snaps The Coastal Dominance

With their 15-12 victory over the defending champion San Francisco Revolver, Austin’s Doublewide ended an 18 year run for coastal teams. With a core of players from Austin combined with Florida alumni, Doublewide rebounded from a Friday beatdown at the hands of Revolver to roll the team’s first title at the Club Championships.

The real story is that it was a team effort. Although the Florida guys — Tim Gehret, Kurt Gibson, and Brodie Smith, among others — made a huge impact, the Austin players were critical to their success. This wasn’t a coastal team flown into Austin to get a championship. This victory was years in the making.

Ultimate Comes To The Big Screen

“Chasing Sarasota,” the story of Portland Rhino’s 2011 season, is the first feature-length documentary about Ultimate. Director Matt Mastrantuono quit his day job and spent months working on the project, which he screened across the US and Canada (along with an international appearance in Dublin for the World Juniors Championships).

The movie has been well-received and captures the essence of the time and passion elite players put towards their team as they chase a championship.

It’s Easier Than Ever To Learn The Sport

Two big teaching tools emerged in 2012: Ulticards and RISE UP. Both products are immensely useful and well-done, and both enable new players to pick up the fundamentals quicker than ever before. Most people really learn to play Ultimate in college, but only so many schools have great programs that really develop players in a great system, teaching fundamentals and instilling a positive, winning culture. Now, more teams than ever have access to resources that can help them get to that point much faster.

It will take a few years to see the impact of this new knowledge, but expect a significant rise in the level of play from smaller programs and an increasing emphasis on innovative strategies.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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