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How Community Drives Ultimate to Legitimacy

It’s all about the community.

“Frisbee is a brand name”

— Brodie Smith

Meeting the Ultimate Community

The first time I went home after starting college, my mom asked what the highlight had been outside of classes so far. My own answer surprised me. But I responded with that one frisbee practice I went to; the girls were all so nice, the sport was new and exciting, and it was refreshing to feel like part of a team. In that moment it seemed obvious that I should go back to that. My mom naturally then pried asking why I left it. “It’s such a big time commitment and, well, is ultimate even a real sport?” But it was fun and I missed it after one singular practice. So the next Tuesday, I was back under the lights with the team.

While that was the initial appeal of ultimate for me, I soon became hooked. I wanted to be able to throw like the veteran players, stop my player from getting open, get in better shape even on my own so I could try to keep up. And it was so fun. Every night after practice, everyone one with a meal-plan would end up at the dining commons eating and socializing for hours. This was my first community in college that I felt truly connected to. Because of that sense of community, I even came back from winter break early, after only playing for two months, to play in a community tournament. This is when my outlook on the sport begins to change.

I have been a sport junkie since about kindergarten. Toothless, hair flying, jumper dirty, I was always that kid who took capture the flag way too seriously. At practices for every sport I would be the loud energy dancing around and the one groaning when water breaks were called because I wanted to keep playing. Raised around plenty of soccer moms, teacher coaches, and leading my high school’s student section, I knew community was a big part of sports. I had never experienced sports community like this.

There were nearly 100 community members at the tournament, and I knew maybe 10 people there, while many of the older players, especially those in their late 30s, seemed to know every one there. As the day went along I got to know more people there. There were alum, pro-players (I didn’t know that was a thing?!), club players, friends- even family members who had never touched a disc before, and pets. Everyone was just there to connect to the community and play the game. My initial community found in ultimate immediately exploded.

Our season went on and we did much better than expected. Community members, some who I met at that community tournament, started to reach out to us. At the time I helped run some of the social media; the tweets, direct messages, comments, likes, and follows just kept coming. We ended the season in 17th place and had a blast doing it. We even made a fun little video. We came back from nationals stronger and with a bigger idea of the community around us and the importance of it. I even mentioned it in an interview at the National Championship tournament.

Burning Skirts 2018-2019 team post regionals at Cal Poly Slo, where we finished 3rd and secured the last bid to Nationals in Milwaukee WI

Through the next year we all got much closer both with our team, the men’s team, and the greater community which includes club, local, and professional teams and more. I started to see how involved the community is. At Nationals, we had talks about inclusivity of different identities through intersectionality workshops. At practice, an alum lead a sprint workshop. On our media, more and more members reached out. Over summer, many players did club and played with school year rivals. Personally, I followed a lot more accounts and got, yet again, much more involved. I started to see the community on a much bigger scale.

The Community on a Much Bigger Scale

While there are too many things to list, as far as elements to the ultimate community, there are some that I have left unmentioned so far, that stand out.

First is a twitter account called @being_ulti. It is an ultimate account where someone different runs the account every week. They post whatever they want but usually, (though not always,) it relates to ultimate. Ultimate now, strengths it has, problems it has, and where it can go. All sorts of people from the community have taken over: parents that never played, professional players, rookies, current college stars, twitter stars, ‘nobodies’, you name it. Though more often than not it is unproductive, espcially in actually advancing the sport directly, it definitely brings the community together on many levels whether you love it or hate it.

When looking at things @being_ulti retweeted, I found a great article by a UNC star, Anne Worth, who shared her experience with the ultimate community but at UNC. This reaffirmed my belief that high level ultimate, more than other sports, is fostered through the communities it is shared in. Our national community also works to promote it for all types of people. There is a huge Girls Ultimate Movement (GUM) that supports female participation in sport. One of my teammates was recently part of The Color or Ultimate, which showcases the talent of players of color.

People supporting each other and helping them grow for no personal gain is completely common in ultimate. I see all over the Santa Barbara ultimate community. My coach is a former men’s team player who spends the little spare time he has, being a graduate student, coaching 30 female college players from novices to a nationally competitive team. The Black Tide (men’s team) coach is also an alum. Other community members have started a Sunday Night Adult Pickup League (SNAPL) which gets people of all levels connected. It seems to be never ending.

Women’s Professional player Maggie Ruden making a huge grab in a final.

My favorite example though, is found in the staring of the women’s pro-ultimate teams. There are two leagues, the Premier Ultimate League and the Western Ultimate League, and they both rely on fundraisers to make the league possible. In exchange for sponsoring a player, fans who donate get a custom jersey and/or other gear from the team. The community wants to promote the sport so much that it is a significant part of the financial support of the team. This allows women to be among those professional athletes pushing ultimate further.

Pushing Towards Widely-Accepted Legitimacy

The teams and players doing things like get onto Sports Center’s Top 10 Plays or ESPN broadcasted games are often the same ones giving back tot he community. Those high exposure highlights paired with that support, are a large part of what gets more people interested in, playing, and promoting the ultimate as a legitimate sport. There, I said it. Ultimate is a Real Sport.

Ultimate as a Real Sport

Started in the late 1960s and on the rise ever since, ultimate (frisbee) is a sport that is a hybrid of many others. Most describe it as a mix between basketball, soccer, and football. With a description like that you can tell at a high level it would be athletic. And if you look at highlights from any elite competition, such as club nationals, you can see how athletic is really is. Unique to ultimate it is self-refereed and relies on sportsmanship and “Spirit of the Game“. It has also been growing rapidly since its beginning. Over 800 college teams compete in the postseason championship season every year. The men’s professional ultimate league, the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) started in 2012 and expands nearly every year with new teams. Women’s professional leagues, the Premier Ultimate League (PUL) and Western Ultimate League (WUL) have even more recently started and continue to grow the sport. In 2015 ultimate was recognized and inducted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

All of this progress can be pointed back to the incredible community that surrounds ultimate. Their love of this game and these is the lifeblood behind the sport and the reason for it’s progress since the beginning. As a player who is hopefully just starting to get their footing in the ultimate community, it is incredible to experience. I are incredibly lucky to be part of my team, loved and supported by this community, and pushed by the sport.

About the Author

My name is Leah Forester, welcome to my multimedia Final for WRIT 105M. As a player for and co-captain of the Burning Skirts, I am passionate about Ultimate and felt inclined to take this opportunity to share about the community with a broader audience.

Celebrating like we do after scoring in our Presidents Day tournament in a game against UCLA

I joined ultimate at UCSB on the women’s team, the Burning Skirts in Fall of 2017. I played the 2017-18 and 2018-19 season and am now in the 2019-20 season as a captain but the season was also sadly cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Why write about the Ultimate community?

  • I am becoming more involved in it and aware of it’s impact on the sport as it strives for legitimacy
  • Ultimate is also finding a place in the sports world with Professional leagues being formed, it being added to the Olympic council, and potential for it being included in the 2028 Olympics in LA, it is also becoming a more relevant topic for all sports fans
  • I believe ultimate is a unique sport in how it approaches difficult issues and promotes community, and love it for that

Though this is likely just for my final project, I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I expected, so I might continue to document my journey in ultimate and promote the team and the Santa Barbara Ultimate community.

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