Ultimate Frisbee leagues seeking a foothold
BY ANNE-KATHRIN GERSTLAUER, McClatchy-Tribune
WASHINGTON -- The athlete with the blue Cookie Monster cap snatches the disc as it cuts the icy air. He pivots and passes toward a teammate in the end zone. It's a score -- and maybe one step closer to making it to the pros.
"DC Breeeeeze!" Tom Johnson shouts from the sidelines of a field in Southeast Washington. He's overseeing tryouts for a new team in Ultimate, a sport that many know as Frisbee.
In April, the DC Breeze will compete in the 12-team American Ultimate Disc League. In its second season, the league is attempting to succeed in something that many leagues before have found to be exceptionally tough: convincing Americans to tune in to -- and turn out for -- a new sport.
"Most leagues fail. The four major sports are too dominant," says Michael Dobbs, an assistant professor of management at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. He has researched the births of leagues and has seen the deaths of many, from football leagues that tried to compete with the National Football League to women's soccer and women's basketball leagues.
"It's like in the grocery store. Even if you have a really good product, space is limited, especially on major networks," Dobbs says.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade organization, nearly 5 million people play Ultimate in the United States, often in high school, college or recreational leagues, or simply with friends in parks.
But establishing a professional league isn't only about lifestyle and college players, it's also about sponsors, TV networks and spectators.
In its inaugural season, the Ultimate league got some highlights on ESPN SportsCenter's "Top 10 Plays." But in the stadiums, the games attracted only 500 fans, on average, and the money most players got was to cover their expenses: food, jerseys, travel.
More digital marketing and use of social media should help the league, Commissioner Steve Gordon says. His ambition is for the games to be on television within the next two years.
Dobbs, the professor from Illinois, says that might not be enough for the league to succeed, however: "The base of people playing needs to be bigger than 5 million. They should go into schools and provide the kids with discs."
Nevertheless, this year the American Ultimate Disc League has some competition. The Philadelphia Spinners, the team that won last year's league championship, is building a competing league this year, called Major League Ultimate, with eight teams from both coasts.
The second league has another approach, publicist Antoine Johnson says. He got his players on the WTXF-FOX 29 News show "Good Day Philadelphia."
"We want to make the sport more mainstream. We have more athletes who are willing to go public and bring in personality," he says.
Greg Greenhalgh of the Center for Sport Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University has found that non-mainstream sports don't necessarily need to become that big to attract sponsors.
"The demographics are more important," he says. "Non-mainstream sports should invest in market research to find out what their fan base exactly looks like."