Most people tend to think of ultimate frisbee as a fairly casual, everyday sport. We play in parks and pick our teams for recreational leagues, and some play in fairly competitive clubs and organizations in college. But that’s about the extent of it – it is not, as most people see it, an official or “major” sport.
That said, every now and then we see a sport grow up beyond and above its perceived boundaries. In fact, we may be seeing it right now in a few cases. Rugby, for instance, is catching on across the United States in a bigger way; lacrosse is seeing growing popularity in the Midwest, having long been viewed primarily as a sport of wealthy suburbs in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. In an organized sense, those sports are further along than ultimate frisbee is. But their progress still makes one wonder what it might look like for ultimate to become a more “major” sport. So we considered some of the factors.
The single most important aspect of any potential journey to mainstream sport status for ultimate frisbee would likely be acceptance from the NCAA. To be clear, college ultimate is quite active already, and there are even college-based teams playing in organized competitive leagues. However, it still isn’t an official NCAA sport, which – in most people’s estimation from the outside looking in – means it’s essentially a hobby.
Acceptance as an NCAA sport would immediately legitimize ultimate frisbee as something to watch and follow – something to pursue, work at, and aspire to. Naturally this doesn’t mean that it would reach the level of, say, college football or basketball overnight. But those sports aren’t necessarily the realistic standard. More realistically though, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine NCAA acceptance leading to ultimate gradually gaining a place in the sporting world similar to the one lacrosse has currently.
If indeed ultimate frisbee ever gains status as a college sport, the hope would be that by that point, sports gambling would have expanded and improved enough throughout the U.S. to allow for betting interest. As many are by now aware, the state of New Jersey effectively brought gambling back onto the U.S. sports scene via new legislation that was passed back in 2018. However, many are <em>not</em> aware of how the emergent betting platforms have spread since.
Pennsylvania’s new sportsbooks were some of the first to emerge following New Jersey’s lead, and now include some of the biggest names in the industry (DraftKings, Unibet, and so on). And after Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, and Iowa joined in, with other states poised to do so shortly. Right now the sportsbooks in these states primarily offer odds listings for major professional sporting events. However, as they grow and spread into new states their coverage will only increase, and college sports will likely become more prominent within that coverage. If, by the time this happens, ultimate frisbee is an official college sport, it could stand to attract more attention. Sometimes the mere availability of betting options can draw eyes to a smaller sport, so this could legitimately help the growth of ultimate.
A Bigger Pro League
The most organized of existing adult ultimate leagues can best be described as semi-professional. Some might dispute that statement, and it’s true that the AUDL in particular appears to be growing (with games set to be broadcast on FS2 beginning later this year). But it’s still not a profession for the players, and doesn’t have the clout of what we would typically consider to be a professional sports league.
Clearly, a bigger and more prominent pro league would go a long way toward further establishing ultimate as a legitimate, major sport. As for how such a league could come about, the most natural course of events would still likely be through college. Should the NCAA accept ultimate frisbee, it will lead to more player development, and thus more of a market for highly skilled players following college.
A bigger pro league would gain even more relevance through significant sponsorships as well. This is actually something that was brought up as a big step for eSports not so long ago, and many now consider eSports to be approaching “major sport” status. It’s a simple idea, but a crucial one: If and when ultimate begins to attract more attention at the college and professional levels, significant sponsors would stand to pump more money into the sport, attract more eyes to it, and increase advertisement and brand exposure.
All of this is likely a long way off, if it’s in the cards at all. But with ultimate seeming to gain more popularity with each passing year, it can certainly be fun to think about where the ceiling might be, and how the sport might get there.