Tuesday Tips: The Biggest Changes in the 2020-2021 USA Ultimate Rules

A cheat sheet on the new rules.

Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

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It’s been over a decade since the 11th edition of USA Ultimate’s ruleset, which governs North American competition, started guiding the sport.

Tomorrow, on January 1st, 2020, a new era begins, when the 12th edition — officially known as the 2020-2021 Rules of Ultimate, which makes clear the plan to revise the rules every two years going forward — goes into effect.

While everyone should read the entire rulebook, we all know that it won’t happen, so we’ve compiled a list of the new ruleset’s most substantive changes. The large majority of alterations to the 2020-2021 rules are clerical in nature or designed to officially codify rules that have already been in use for years, like the contact call or 20 yard end zones. But there are some real, meaningful changes.

Here are the biggest rule changes in the 12th edition, ranked loosely in order of their relevance to everyday players:

1. Play continues on travel calls if the disc isn’t thrown. (17.K.3.b)

That’s right. Travel calls for things like rounding the corner after catching the disc no longer cause a stoppage in play. Instead, the defensive player just points to the spot where the travel occurred and the offensive player returns to the spot and must ground tap the disc before attempting a pass. The stall count is paused until a pivot is established at the correct spot.

If the disc is thrown, standard travel call resolutions still apply.

2. Players can seek the perspective of players on the sideline or use officially-designated video footage to make calls. (3.A)

Weren’t sure if you were in or out? You can now ask players (but not coaches!) on the sideline to assist in making the correct call. No more yelling “keep it on the field!”

If there is official video of the game, you may also use the video footage to resolve calls, as long as play is not delayed to review it. (So, e.g., you can look at a replay on a video board, but not rewatch the play five times or request a replay review.)

3. Soft caps are now +1 and play to that score, WFDF-style. There’s also a new halftime cap. (6)

Cap rules will still vary from tournament to tournament, but expect to see a lot more of the new soft cap. Rather than adding two points to the highest score, the soft cap now just adds a single point to the highest score. The standard rules about the cap going on at the conclusion of the current point still apply.

If USAU tournaments follow WFDF’s lead, the soft cap may not be paired with a typical hard cap: instead, you finish the game by playing to the new point total. (E.g., if the cap goes on during the point when it’s 10-9, Team A, and Team A scores to make it 11-9, the new game total is 12. Play until one team reaches 12 points.) That allows for the trailing team to come back in the game, no matter the score. Versions of this soft cap only rule have been used in the past in the semifinals and finals of the College and Club Championships.

There’s also a halftime cap that effectively works the same as the soft cap, except for reaching halftime instead of concluding the game. If a game reaches a predetermined time before either team has taken half, finish the point, then add one to the higher score to set the new halftime target. (E.g. In a game to 15 with a half at 8, it’s 5-5 when halftime cap goes off. Team B scores to make it 6-5, and now the halftime target is 7 goals, rather than 8.)

4. Offsides by the pulling team allows the receiving team to play the disc as normal or take it at the brick mark (1st offsides) / midfield (2nd+ offsides). There is no stoppage or re-pull. (9.B.4.d)

The offsides rule got a huge overhaul in the 12th edition. The primary change is that it allows the receiving team on a pulling offsides (99% of cases) to play the pull like normal or take the disc at the brick mark on a first violation or at midfield on second and subsequent violations (by signaling with a hand overhead before fielding the disc, per standard bricked pull procedures).

Play does not stop, and there is no more re-pulling, unless the offsides call is contested (not applicable in observed games, where the large majority of offsides calls are made).

Observers generally make offsides calls, but a designated sideline player can call and contest offsides in unobserved games.

5. In limited situations, contact is not required in order to call a dangerous play. (17.I.1)

While “the vast majority of dangerous play will involve contact between players,” contact is no longer required to call a dangerous play if “there is reasonable certainty that contact would have occurred had the player not taken steps to avoid contact.” For example, if a player aggressively lays out in a way that was certain to create contact if their opponent didn’t actively dodge said contact, it could be called as a dangerous play even if no contact occurs between the players. Dangerous plays are treated as fouls.

6. The time between points has been reduced from 90 to 85 seconds. (9.C.2-4)

The defense has to pull within 85 seconds of the end of the previous point instead of 90 seconds. The offense has to be on the line at the 55 second mark and signal readiness at 70 seconds. This mostly applies to observed games.

7. If you take a timeout when you don’t have one, it’s +3 to the stall count instead of an automatic turnover. (7.B.5)

Pretty self explanatory. Pulling a “Chris Webber” (perhaps in ultimate it should be called a “Trent Dillon“) used to be a turnover. Now, if a team calls a timeout with none remaining, the current stall count goes up by three instead. If adding three to the stall results in a count of 10 or higher, it is a turnover.

8. There are newly established hand signals for calls and resolutions. (Appendix C)

Use them! It helps everyone — players, fans, and media — understand what’s going on when there is a stoppage.

For a more complete list of substantive changes, see this document from USA Ultimate. The full ruleset is available here.

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