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Despite Challenges, Some Disc Organizations Are Restarting Leagues and Tournaments

State reopenings have reopened door to ultimate games.

After a three month shutdown, ultimate is beginning to reemerge in some US states that have loosened coronavirus-related restrictions.

Reports of pickup games — both following local guidance and ignoring it — have increased in recent weeks, and some local disc organizations are beginning to dip their toe into summer leagues and tournaments.

Utah, which never had a statewide stay-at-home order, moved to the ‘yellow’ phase of reopening, which permitted close-contact team sports, on May 14th. Some privately operated summer leagues started up within the last two weeks, and more playing opportunities are soon to begin.

The Utah Ultimate Disc Association (UUDA) is currently registering for youth summer camps and leagues, as well as a 5v5 tournament for both adults and children.

Organizers are relying both on local health department guidance and the just-released USA Ultimate return-to-play guidelines to determine what kinds of modifications to make to standard game play, including reducing the number of active players, sanitizing discs, encouraging social distancing, and altering rules to decrease close contact.

“We put together our COVID guidelines and submitted them to State Health boards to get them approved,” said UUDA Director of Operations Eric Holt.

In Utah County south of Salt Lake City, Bryce Merrill is preparing to run a summer league that will look quite different from any other year.

“We moved to a complex where we are playing on baseball outfields,” said Merrill, a league administrator for Ultimate Play Utah and the head coach of both the BYU men’s ultimate team and the WUL’s Utah Wild. “Each field will be just two teams, no sidelines back-to-back. Teams will be assigned to a sideline. And we’ll be painting lines 10 feet apart on the sideline.”

Players will be required to stay socially distanced on the sidelines. All attendees will have their temperature checked and be asked coronavirus screening questions. They will also be required to log their attendance in a mobile app that will enable contact tracing in the case someone gets sick.

Discs will be sanitized after every point — there will be multiple discs available to keep play moving — and there will be mandatory hand sanitizing before the game and at halftime. High five lines won’t be allowed.

Merrill said they also want to encourage players to wear neckies as a mask during competition. “A lot of this is coming from my experience running the [Provo Recreation Center in my day job] the past couple of months,” he said.

“I think overall we’re being really safe, and this does not feel out of place in Utah County,” added Merrill. “We are not an outlier, which we do not want to be.”

Utah opening up and leagues implementing safety measures hasn’t led to a burst of activity. Signups for the league are down about 50%. Holt said that signups for UUDA’s camps and tournament are also very slow. “We’re not seeing great registration right now, and that’s pretty consistent across the state,” he said.

In Jacksonville, Florida, there’s been more enthusiasm to return to the field.

The city approved pickup ultimate on May 22nd and allowed organized sports to resume a week later. As kickball leagues and other recreational sports have come back, so has a desire for organized ultimate, says Jacksonville Ultimate League (JUL) VP of Social Outreach Daniel Heser.

“We’re trying to provide the safest outlet for our players to play without having to resort to less favorable options, like going out to play pickup with a large group of people,” he said.

JUL quickly canceled their spring league and annual beach tournament as the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in March, but they are getting set to host their first event since then — a 5v5 hat tournament — on June 27th.

“We wanted to test the waters, if you will,” said Heser. “We’re not ready to do a whole spring league or summer league yet. But at the end of the day, if the city says it’s OK for us to play, and the governing body says it’s OK, then we want to facilitate that to happen.”

The tournament is going with a 5v5 format to reduce team size, and other safety measures — sanitizing discs, distancing on the sidelines — will be in place.

Split Decisions

Some states are facing dramatically different situations in some cities and counties. Texas was one of the earlier states to begin reopening protocols, but yesterday Austin-Travis county extended its stay-at-home order by two months. Those differences are playing out amongst ultimate organizations as well.

Organizers from Austin, Dallas, and Houston met in late May to discuss return-to-play options and decided to issue guidance separately for their respective communities about returning to play. The Ultimate Players League of Austin “will not be operating organized ultimate leagues or tournaments until safe play can be assured from medical and health professionals and local government officials.”

Meanwhile, the Dallas Ultimate Association (DUA) has opened registration for a summer league in Allen, TX, a suburb north of Dallas, where reopening is further along and the coronavirus impact has been muted. But even within the organization there has been disagreement. DUA board minutes show that the decision to run the Allen league was supported by just four of the nine voting board members. Two board members voted against it and three abstained.

The DUA board had previously surveyed its members for their opinions on returning to play. “We had just about half of our respondents saying that they were comfortable playing leagues once it was allowed by our city and our county,” said Chinwe Obi, the DUA Board President.

Like other organizations, the DUA has a full list of safety measures informed by USAU’s return to play guidelines, including significant rules modifications to discourage contact. And future abrupt changes are possible. “If a player reports having COVID-19 during the league, we will suspend play for a period of time or cancel the league entirely,” reads the policy.

“Our number one priority is to keep players safe during this time,” said Obi, who added that an organized league with safety protocols in place is a better option than other playing opportunities like pickup, where such measures may not be in place.

In Madison, Wisconsin, one of the country’s biggest summer leagues — typically hosting over 4,000 participants — just got canceled.

Currently, medium and high-risk contact field sports — which include ultimate — are not allowed at Madison city parks, but the uncertainty of what may come in the next phase of reopening proved too daunting to simply postpone the league.

“We kept holding out hope,” said Madison Ultimate Frisbee Association president Pete Schramm. “It just became less and less realistic that any league we could put on this summer could look anything like summer league. So it got to a point where we were saying, ‘Are we just putting it on to say we were running summer league?'”

“The MUFA board considered smaller league sizes, temperature checks before games, attendance logs and regular roster checks to aid in required contact tracing, sideline social distancing rules, mask usage policies, COVID waivers, whether in-game social distancing was practically able to be implemented in a league format, and several other options around holding a league this summer before determining that even with several of these measures in place we did not have enough information about COVID transmission and the effectiveness of various safety measures to responsibly hold a league at this time,” reads MUFA’s statement. Schramm said that the scope of their league would make effectively implementing safety measures difficult.

“You have to have the infrastructure to do the temperature checks and everything else,” he said. “So we’d need an army of volunteers, which we don’t normally have.”

He added that MUFA hopes to run small-sided games or alternative competition options later this summer, pending further guidance.

Future Shutdowns Could Disrupt Competition

Most localities that are beginning to reestablish ultimate leagues are in states that began the reopening process early relative to the rest of the country. Many of those states have seen rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in recent days.

Texas’ COVID-19 hospitalizations rose 11% yesterday to a new high. Texas governor Greg Abbott said yesterday that the increase in cases and hospitalizations “does raise concerns” but that “there is no reason right now to be alarmed.”

Cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in Utah and Florida as well.

Governors in those states so far have resisted calls for tightening restrictions, but the possibility of returning to lockdowns or reestablishing policies that block team sports is on the radar of ultimate organizers.

One small summer league in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, started competition on June 4th but suspended games after one week due to the league’s fields being closed down due to the impact of COVID-19 on Stevens Point Area School District operations. The league hopes to restart on July 2nd but awaits a decision from the school district on reopening outdoor facilities for public use. A recent outbreak of coronavirus in the area may also weigh on the decision to restart games.

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