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Ultimate Frisbee Is Trying to Break Into the Big Leagues

Five hours with the Aviators, L.A.’s premier pro Ultimate Frisbee franchise

“The advent of the professional league was a big step for the legitimacy of Ultimate,” Eric Lissner says from inside the men’s football locker room at Occidental College, a small liberal arts school in northeast L.A. “And the Ultimate community really wants to be seen as legit.”

The heat inside the locker room is stifling and Lissner sweats while he stretches. He has sprinter’s calves, thin and striated with muscle. He wraps the left one with a thick band of red latex rubber.

Lissner is the 27-year-old star offensive player for the L.A. Aviators. In two hours, they will take the field against SoCal rival the San Diego Growlers. Both are of the American Ultimate Disc League, the country’s premier professional Ultimate Frisbee organization. Aside from regional bragging rights, the game carries hefty postseason implications: If the Aviators win, they clinch a playoff berth.

As a sport, Ultimate Frisbee is remarkably simple. Teams move up the field by passing the disc between teammates. Complete a pass in the end zone, and they score a goal. But for Ultimate evangelists like Lissner, it borders on a spiritual experience.

“There’s something magical about about it,” he says, releasing the band to reveal a red, heavily-marked calf muscle. He bends his knee in the air several times to induce blood flow back to the previously constricted area. “At its core, I’m out here with some buddies, chasing plastic around. … I ran track in high school, and I used to think of myself as a lone ranger — pounding the pavement all alone. Now it’s about being part of a group and being accountable to each other. Win as a team, lose as a team. I love that.”

Currently in its seventh season, the AUDL now has 24 teams and virtually no mainstream recognition. But Lissner put the sport on the cultural main stage for a brief moment last week when his diving catch against the Growlers made its way onto SportsCenter’s Top Plays. (Today’s game is the second half of their home-and-home.)

That play has come to symbolize the current state of the Aviators, the AUDL and Ultimate in general. It was an amazing display of athleticism — Lissner’s teammate Tim Beatty leading him into the end zone with a perfect throw; the disc hovering just long enough for Lissner to reach it; and Lissner tracking it down after a 35-yard sprint and laying out, full extension, to catch the floating circle a foot above the ground.

For every commenter impressed with Lissner’s diving grab, however, was someone wondering why the hell ESPN would even bother with such an inferior sport.

“Look, it’s the internet,” Lissner says about the negative comments. “I know people think Ultimate is just a bunch of barefoot hippies. But we’re committed. We’re professionals. … And whenever you try to take something obscure and make it mainstream, some haters arise.”

On the field, Lissner and his teammates play catch to warm up, while Aviators co-owner James Park looks on from the sidelines. “We all call it Frisbee,” Park confesses. Technically, this is a faux pas — Frisbee is a brand name owned by the toy company Wham-O (which also owns the rights to similarly overused brand-name toys Hula Hoop and Hacky Sack). To avoid trademark issues, the league officially goes by the American Ultimate Disc League. Not that it really matters: Everyone just refers to it as Ultimate anyway.

Now in their third season, Park and the rest of the ownership group are tasked with turning the Aviators into a profitable enterprise. This is a business, after all — there are corporate sponsors, jersey sales and player salaries just like with any major professional league, albeit on a much smaller scale. Clif Bar is a notable sponsor of tonight’s game, but the rest are small local businesses, including two bars and two medical offices. “The league minimum is $25 a game,” Lissner tells me before play begins. “But there are rumors the highest-paid player makes 50 grand.” (Either way, all the players work 9-to-5 jobs.)

Growing the sport will mean changing its perception. Because despite Ultimate’s ubiquity on college campuses and in public parks, many still have a negative association with it. “The main challenge is people not understanding what Ultimate is,” Park tells me. “The automatic reaction is ‘Are there dogs?’ and ‘Are you guys out there drinking beer and smoking pot?’ They don’t realize the athleticism involved.”

Ninety minutes before the game, there are three fans seated in the concrete grandstands — all of them are girlfriends or close friends of the players, I’m told.

Beatty, now in his second year with the team, believes the AUDL could be on the same level as Major League Lacrosse within the next decade or so. MLL now has its own streaming network, and its games regularly appear on regional networks and ESPN3.

The physics of Ultimate give it a distinct advantage over other sports in terms of watchability, Beatty adds. Baseballs and footballs fall to the earth on their predictable, parabolic trajectories. But Frisbees hang in the air, seemingly defying gravity and creating an additional level of tension.

“We’re at that point where nearly every major college has a club [Ultimate] team,” Aviators head coach Frankie Rho says. At 42, Rho has been around Ultimate longer than anyone affiliated with the Aviators, and he’s seen the sport go from a coastal liberal arts school phenomenon, to one embraced by larger state schools in the early 2000s, to the establishment of a professional league. Ultimate is currently sweeping its way through football country, with more SEC campuses starting club teams.

The next phase in Ultimate’s development, Rho says, is advancing the sport from club (where players handle all the fund-raising and scheduling themselves) to varsity status, which would make it an officially sanctioned NCAA sport. The visibility (and perhaps more importantly, the money) that would come from being a varsity sport is sure to attract more athletes to the game.

But not everyone wants to take the sport legit, Rho adds. Ultimate began in the late 1960s as a friendlier alternative to more mainstream sports. “Actions such as intentional fouling, cheating, dangerous plays, disrespectful conversations and other ‘win at all costs’ behaviour [sic] are contrary to the Spirit of the Game,” according to the World Flying Disc Federation.

Even at the college club level, Ultimate games are self-officiated. Players operate on an honor system, calling penalties themselves. To become part of a corrupt institution such as the NCAA would be a repudiation of those founding principles, according to some Ultimate purists. “We hated adding refs, but we needed to in terms of making it a smoother fan experience,” says Aviators co-owner Daniel Smeltzer, a 31-year-old logistics sales executive by day. Apparently fans are comforted by men stalking the field in zebra stripes.

By game time, the crowd numbers 200 people, the majority of them still “family and girlfriends,” according to one avid Aviators fan. Tickets are $15 for adults, and the event has the feel-good energy of a minor league baseball game. A hype woman roams the stands with a microphone making Top Gun references, hoping to pump up the Aviator faithful. “Cha-Cha Slide” plays mid-game, and the fans in attendance dutifully claps their hands on cue. A former D-I women’s soccer player notes the endurance necessary to play. “There’s more running than soccer,” she says.

The league does its best to stay true to its humble, anti-establishment roots. Players compete wearing backward ballcaps, and the league allows them to invoke “The Integrity Rule,” whereby a player can overrule a referee, but only if the initial call was made in his favor. According to Smeltzer, the rule is used approximately once per game.

On the field, the Aviators and Growlers trade goals for the first three quarters, including two massive, buzzer-beating goals thrown by Beatty from the opposite side of the field. The play is fast, and the goals are frequent — in just 48 minutes of regulation time, there are 40 scores. “Anyone who’s seen a game understands that it’s fun and athletic,” says Aviators captain Michael Kiyoi, a four-year veteran of the AUDL.

The Growlers pull ahead in the fourth quarter due to some defensive miscues by the Aviators, winning the game 22–18 and dropping the Aviators to third place in their division—and putting their postseason ambitions in jeopardy.

After the game, some of the Aviators meet at one of the local bars they count as a sponsor. Not Lissner, though. He has to drive an hour south to Irvine. It’s 10 p.m. on Saturday, and in a little more than 24 hours, he stops being a professional athlete and goes back to being a civil engineer.