Seattle a hotbed for an ultimate disc sport that’s getting professional
At $25 a game, it’s not superstar salaries, but two competing national “ultimate” disc leagues both have teams in Seattle.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Back in 1891, when a schoolteacher in Springfield, Mass., nailed two baskets to balconies on either side of an indoor court, nobody thought it’d become the multibillion-dollar pro-basketball game of today.
So why not Ultimate Frisbee as a pro sport, with seven players a side scoring points over an end zone?
These days, a Frisbee is not just for throwing around on Sundays for your dog.
As for it becoming a pro sport and getting an ESPN contract, you can always dream.
Meanwhile, players make $25 a game, and attendance last year for homestands for the Seattle Rainmakers in their inaugural season was around 600 people.
On last Saturday’s rainy, windy afternoon, some 30 young guys are gathered at a field at Magnuson Park, throwing plastic discs around.
They’re trying out the Rainmakers, who are in Major League Ultimate. (“Frisbee” is not used in describing the sport, as it is copyrighted by the Wham-O company, which popularized the flying disc in the 1960s.)
And this year, they’ll be joined by a second pro team here, the Seattle Raptors, who are in a competing league, the American Ultimate Disc League. Besides Seattle, the two newly formed leagues go head-to-head in five other cities.
“I think two leagues can make it here,” says Ben Beehner, 28, a building manager for a low-income housing agency, who has already made the Rainmakers roster.
“I think Seattle is probably the best city in the world for ultimate. There are more players here than in almost any city in the world. It’s a sport that’s part of an alternative culture. It was started by a bunch of hippies in college 40 years ago, and that fits in with the culture in Seattle.”
The sport is Seattle-centric enough that in the 2013 mayoral election, candidate Joey Gray, an information-systems consultant, touted her background in organizing the national ultimate game.
“First of all, it’s the weather,” she says about why the sport took hold here.
Sure, says Gray, it rains here, but if you’re willing to put up with it, as happened on Saturday, you won’t be snowed in or be playing in 100 degrees in the summer.
The Rainmakers’ general manager is Rusty Brown, who’s also the operating manager for DiscNW, a nonprofit that runs school and adult club leagues in this area. He figures around 4,000 players participate. Worldwide, claim those involved in the sport, 7 million people play it.
Like soccer, it’s a cheap sport to participate in at its basic level.
All you need are eight cones to mark off the field, a Frisbee and some open space, says Brown, “And you can pretty much play anywhere. Your cost is 20 bucks.”
Of course, these days there are also a number of manufacturers specializing in ultimate discs that are claimed to fly smoother, faster, better in wind.
On Saturday, Brown is taking notes on the players.
He doesn’t mind the rain and 20 mph wind.
“It shows me how players can deal with inclement weather,” says Brown.
He’s also looking for players who can jump 2 feet high to catch a disc, or to tap away or intercept one.
The game is simple enough.
The player with the disc cannot run with it and has to throw it within seven seconds. You score when a player on your team catches it in the end zone. The field is basically a football field.
It’s pretty easy for those really good at the sport to spot those who aren’t.
Since most people are right-handed, they throw a Frisbee from the left side of their body. It’s considerably harder to throw the disc in a forehand motion, which requires a different grip.
“I teach it to people, and then I tell them, ‘OK, now just do it a million times.’ It takes years and years,” says Beehner about a forehand throw.
At the level of players in a casual weekend game, he says, “A lot of time people are running around like hornets. No one is paying attention to where everybody else is.”
One thing you notice about the players trying out is that they all seem to have 0 percent body fat.
Evan Klein, 25, is a law student at Gonzaga University in Spokane, and soon plans to move to Seattle. He’s on the roster of the Seattle Raptors.
You have to be in shape, he says, to run 60 or 70 yards on defense, “and diving 4 feet in the air to knock a disc away,” or to “have two or three people sprint full field, all jumping to pull down a disc 10 feet in the air.”
Both leagues hype those kinds of acrobatic moves, and post them on YouTube and hope the videos make it as an ESPN highlight.
Klein says he appreciates the $25 he’ll get a game, because the players also get airfare paid when going to San Francisco, for example, and meals.
When he played for a club, says Klein, one year he ended up spending $2,500 because everybody pays their own way.
Still, it’s going to be a struggle for the pro teams.
Ben Thielhorn carries the title of owner, general manager and coach of the Raptors.
He’s 51 and spent 33 years playing the game. He worked 20 years active Air Force and another five years as a defense contractor as a lead planner for the Air Force aerial combat fighter exercise known as Red Flag.
Thielhorn says that to make a go of it, he’ll likely need 2,000 people to pay an average of $12 a ticket for the seven home games in a season that goes from April until June.
The Rainmakers also play their home games at Renton Memorial Stadium in an April-June season.
Says Thielhorn, “It’s a fantastic game. It’s an alternative to football in the off season. You can take the whole family for less than one ticket to the Seahawk.”
What else but enthusiasm would you expect?
You gotta believe.
Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org