Updated: Sep 24, 2019
By William Stanistreet
Ultimate Frisbee (colloquially known as just ‘Ultimate’) has a pretty laid-back reputation. Throwing a frisbee is largely seen as a leisurely activity. That laconic floating disc is one that I associate with long-haired, tie-dye clad hippies and university campuses. It seems relaxed and progressive and honestly, just not very sporty.
I’ve organised to meet up with Joe Hoppe, a man who recently travelled with his club team to the Ultimate Frisbee World Club Championships in the United States, to set the record straight about the people chasing those discs around a rectangular field. Before I head along I figure it’s probably polite to do a bit of research. I scroll through some of the more outrageous highlight videos on Youtube and land on a replay of the bronze medal match of the 2017 World Games (the competition for all the sports that just missed out on Olympic status) in which Australia went up against Canada.
The two teams line-up on a long rectangular field, each with seven on the field and around another ten on the sidelines. Players shake their legs out and check their studs as they warm up with sprints and star jumps. It has all the hallmarks of a high-level team sport. One thing instantly stands out however; the competition is mixed gender.
There are some obvious rules that the commentators start to wander through: you score by taking possession in you’re scoring zone (think American Football), once the disc is in your possession you cannot move (think Netball), if you drop the disc or miss a pass you turn over possession (think Touch Football). I absent-mindedly enjoy the mechanical tone that the commentators use for explaining the basics for what is surely the thousandth time.
I skip forward to an arbitrary point just as someone on Canada’s team launches a full field pass that lands perfectly in the outstretched arms of a teammate, in the end-zone. That completion makes the score 9–6 the Canadians’ way. The camera cuts back to the thrower quietly celebrating and to my surprise, his Australian counterpart gives him a high five. I thought this was the world stage?
Joe is waiting for me in the park. I’ve brought a couple of beers as a thank you for walking me through what is already becoming my new favourite niche sport (sorry croquet). To start Joe gives me a quick rundown of ‘Ultimate’, filling the gaps missed by the commentators. There is an offensive and a defensive team that rotate (again think American Football). Ultimate is a non-contact sport. You’ve got ten seconds to throw the disc after you take possession. Games are usually first to 15 (the World Games are different for some unknown reason). There are both mixed and single gender competitions. Generally, in mixed competitions, players will mark opposition of the same gender but it comes down to what strategy the defensive team adopts.
So far, the terms and conditions of play are all fairly relatable to other sports but one rule really stands out; Ultimate Frisbee in Australia is self-refereed at all levels.
In what I’m sure is the usual reaction for anyone that hasn’t played Ultimate before, I question Joe on how on earth this works.
“If you foul someone or if you’re fouled, you just put your hand up and say, ‘nope that’s a foul’.” Joe explains.
It’s a simple concept really that is underpinned by an overarching theme of Ultimate; honesty and respect for the game. The game even has built in a latency: if you disagree you just go back to the most recent point of agreement. What this means is that if you’re running for the disc, and interference is made, and both players think the other person is at fault then possession will revert back to the person who threw the pass.
Self-refereeing hasn’t just been lumped onto the game, rather the rules of the game seem to have been built around it.
My gut reaction, having played competitive sport for a number of years and having tiptoed through the loopholes and grey areas of rules across various codes, is that people would cheat. But not according to Joe.
“I’ve played about two hundred games over the four years and only maybe two or three times people have made calls that didn’t sit right, but then again that’s just my perspective.”
It’s impressive and almost unbelievable.
When I question Joe about this he has a perfectly reasonable answer that still feels alien.
“It’s the culture behind the game, it’s all run off this spirit. At the end of the game, you all get in a big circle, with the opposition, to chat and basically reflect on the spirit of the game. It’s really open and communicative. So I guess if a player is shit and cheats all the time it gets called out. I mean if you really wanted to win you could dope, it’s an easy enough sport to cheat in. But why would you?”
This commitment to the spirit of the game runs contrary to the ‘whatever it takes’ mentality that has pervaded sport in the last century and as a result Ultimate feels like an odd combination of wholesome and amateur. A sport whose players value integrity above victory.
According to Joe, this honesty policy works because of the kind of people who make up the community of Ultimate players.
“We get a lot of well-educated university graduates. It’s a lot of pretty progressive people I suppose.”
And it’s this demographic of people that aren’t usually associated with a high-level sport that he finds so addictive.
“They’re all kind of these ‘socially-awkward-slash-not-socially-awkward’ kind of gaming athletes that are progressive. It’s this weird mix of Fitzroy, [read: hipsters] country and maybe university. Everyone loves board games, hiking and activities.”
The statistics back Joe’s experience up. In a survey run across the American and Canadian Ultimate Players Associations, more than 90% of players were educated to a university level and weirdly enough over 70% listed camping as a crossover activity. It paints a particular picture of the typical Ultimate player and seemingly, they do indeed share a lot of the inherited qualities from their tie-dyed forebears.
A game that was concocted by university students who didn’t fit with the traditional sporting codes appeals to people who feel the same now.That’s not to say Ultimate has stayed the same. Joe recounts just how much the sport is changing.
“You talk to all these guys, who back in the day used to just get stoned and play. The best team was just who could hold it together. But now, people are starting in high school and playing it four days a week from when they’re sixteen.”
By Joe’s approximation, Ultimate is definitely becoming more and more professional.
“It’s an interesting thing to be involved in at the moment. When I started, we were one of the best teams around, without training or trying too hard we could be involved at a pretty high level but over the last two years, that’s been weeded out. Now if you’re not training and gym-ing you’ll get found out pretty quickly.”
This professionalism has come out of the desire to win. The United States team ‘Revolver’ have dominated the World Club Championships; winning the last three Open Championships (which are played every four years, that’s twelve years of domination).
In response, other teams have had to step up their game. This year in Cincinnati the Sydney mens team ‘Colony’ took the silver on the world stage. Joe sees them as the standard bearer of professionalism in the Australian men's league.
“They’ve won like 8 of the last 10 National Men's Championships. They’ve been the most professional for the longest. Melbourne has this crazy talent whereas the Sydney teams approach it with a real professionalism.”
That could be changing as clubs demand the professional approach from their players in order to keep up, and Joe is no exception. His first game isn’t until February but Joe has already started his preseason training.
But professionalism demands time and effort and in an amateur context (all Ultimate players in Australia are unpaid) that has its own set of problems. Joe sees this rear it’s head in a couple of different ways.
“If you’re [an athlete and] halfway decent then you’re trying out for a footy team. If you can get paid $200 a week then that’s your rent, you get to play footy for your rent.”
It’s something that makes Ultimate both attractive to potential newcomers and intrinsically capped to its current participants; it’s full of transferable skills.
A great Ultimate player needs to be explosive on the sprint, have a good vertical leap and be able to read the movement and play of an opposition. It’s why someone like Cat Phillips can thrive in both AFLW and Ultimate. It also means that the potential reward for a rising Ultimate athlete has a natural ceiling at which point other codes are able to offer a monetary incentive to switch.
Moreover, with the rising professionalism, the sport has seen a period of growth at the top level. More players trying to break into the top echelon has meant that expansion clubs have been able to poach some of the middle talent from other rival clubs.
Joe is, however, fairly ambivalent about these new challenges.
“The big clubs in Melbourne have been developing players and now there’s a new club and it’s this question of should I jump ship if I can get a gig somewhere else? It’s not like in footy where you can chase a paycheck. Is it okay to leave just to try and win a title?"
It’s yet another unexpected outcome from the increased seriousness with which people are approaching Ultimate.
Professionalism in sport means sacrifice, it means passion, and rigour, and the driving desire to win. The next few seasons of Australian Ultimate will be worth watching as the newly professionalised approach collides with the underpinning spirit of a self-refereed sport.
As for Joe, he’s not giving up on Ultimate any time soon and it’s the ethos behind Ultimate that has him hooked.
“I can’t go back to a refereed sport. As soon as there is a referee involved people stop caring about being legitimate themselves. In footy, if you coathanger someone and the ref doesn’t say anything, it’s like you beauty. But you’ve coathangered someone.”
Can this once super niche disc sport maintain the wholesome, community feeling of a self-refereed sport in the face of increased buy-in from the time heavy demands of a professional approach? The desire to win and empathy for your opponent rarely walk the same path. Progression has always been at the core of Ultimate and I hope for Joe’s sake, progress towards a more athletic level of Ultimate doesn’t mean moving away from honesty and respect.