Ultimate: The fast-moving sport that’s gaining momentum in metro Atlanta

Antoine Davis, #80, a player for the Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, passes during a game against Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. The Hustle won 24-17. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Antoine Davis, #80, a player for the Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, passes during a game against Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. The Hustle won 24-17. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

While most of us have been focused on the NBA playoffs and the Summer Olympics, another sport is picking up speed — and a large following. It’s one of the fastest-growing sports and it involves only a disc, coupled with good aim, agility and reliable hands by the people playing it. Ultimate (formerly known as Ultimate Frisbee) is the game and AUDL (American Ultimate Disc League) is the North American professional league aiming for it to become the next big action sport. Audiences have increasingly latched onto the aerodynamic sport, especially in Atlanta, where it’s gaining more and more traction.

“It will be one of the hottest sports over the next 10 years and the reason why is because it checks a lot of boxes,” said Steve Hall, the league commissioner. “Number one, from a media perspective, the layouts and acrobatic plays are often featured on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays which people like to see. It’s equivalent to the dunk or home run. Number two, it’s a fast-moving sport. ... Number three, it’s a sport that can be consumed around that 2-to-2 1/2-hour mark, which is super important to the media and fans.”

Part of the attraction of the non-contact, constantly moving 7-on-7 game of ultimate is its similarities to other sports. There’s the offensive maneuvers of soccer, the defensive coverage of basketball, the deep throws of football and the detailed timing of baseball.

The matches are usually played on modified football fields with a playing area that is around 70-80 yards long and 40 yards wide, with the games divided into four, 12-minute quarters. Players can throw the disc in different ways — including forehand, backhand, overhead and sidearm throws. As far as catching the disc, securing it with one or both hands works just fine.

The epitome of ultimate is “hustle” and the magnetism Hall sees most in the sport stems from the accessibility factor. “It’s a low-cost and low-concussive sport that’s easy to learn,” said Hall. “Any community can access it and it can be played on turf or on grass. It’s good for the young and old.”

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The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, scores with Matt Smith (left), #12, catching the disc with teammate Antoine Davis, #80, ready to move in if needed against Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, scores with Matt Smith (left), #12, catching the disc with teammate Antoine Davis, #80, ready to move in if needed against Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, scores with Matt Smith (left), #12, catching the disc with teammate Antoine Davis, #80, ready to move in if needed against Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Atlanta’s other professional team

With the league currently in its 10th season, ultimate is quietly becoming one of the hottest sports attractions in a city that’s fully occupied with the Braves, Falcons, United and Hawks on the professional level. The local team is named the Atlanta Hustle, and members of the ultimate squad strongly feel their team can compete with all the others.

“What I like about ultimate is that you don’t have to be tall or have a huge vertical jump to excel at it. You might see someone thicker or smaller out there. With the pro league, we’ve been kind of marginalized because we’re this fringe sport,” said the Atlanta Hustle head coach Miranda Knowles, currently the only female coach in the league.

Peter Thomas, co-owner of the Atlanta Hustle, cites the game’s simplicity as part of its draw.

“Ultimate frisbee is appealing because you’re playing in the grass, with no equipment and all you need is a disc,” he said. “Ultimate frisbee shines as this inclusive, very competitive sport that holds above all the spirit of the game. That’s maintained in AUDL and on the Hustle.”

Since AUDL’s inaugural season in 2012, the league’s exposure has only risen. The league started with eight teams; now there are currently 22 teams in the U.S. and Canada. Their social media presence (combined Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok) has skyrocketed every season from 6,000 followers in 2012 to 704,000 in 2020, along with over 30 million minutes of videos viewed, according to the league commissioner and WeFunder.com, a crowdfunding service that connects startups with investors. AUDL’s annual revenue growth has climbed from $98,000 in 2013 to $1.45 million this year; that’s generated from advertising, tickets sold, merchandise sales, sponsorships, concessions from league-run events, video streaming subscriptions from the league’s streaming platform, AUDL.tv, and more. The average attendance per game is about 350-400 people, with the top-tier teams likely having over 1,000 in attendance and the average ticket prices ranging between $10 and $25 per ticket.

The league signed a two-year deal with Fox Sports in January 2020 to broadcast every AUDL Game of the Week on Wednesday nights on Fox Sports 2 (FS2). AUDL’s 2021 Championship Weekend (two semifinal games and championship game) will air on Fox Sports (premier channel FS1) on Sept. 10-11, for the first time in league history. In the 2019 season, AUDL held its first all-star game in Madison, Wisconsin. AUDL’s reach has even gone global, as the league has formed a media rights partnership with EuroSport India, the premier sports channel of India and South Asia, to broadcast the AUDL Game of the Week.

“It’s crazy to see the development and the skill level has gone up,” said Atlanta Hustle player Matt Smith, AUDL’s third all-time leading goal-scorer heading into this season. “The attitude of the community has shifted. Footage is 100 times better and highlights have contributed to the popularity. There’s more media attention and the game day experience is better for fans.”

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Fans of the Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, including Zach Ohnstad (spinning a disc), 14, who plays ultimate himself, watch the professionals win against Philadelphia 24-17 at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Fans of the Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, including Zach Ohnstad (spinning a disc), 14, who plays ultimate himself, watch the professionals win against Philadelphia 24-17 at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
Fans of the Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, including Zach Ohnstad (spinning a disc), 14, who plays ultimate himself, watch the professionals win against Philadelphia 24-17 at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The Atlanta Hustle play their home games at St. Pius X Catholic High School in Chamblee.

Fan appeal

For fans who have attended Atlanta Hustle games, the overall experience and atmosphere is ideal. “For us, it’s close to home. It’s very family-friendly. There’s free parking. You get in and get out. It’s a professional team experience, yet it’s very reasonable budget-wise,” said Bernice Scott, a first-year Atlanta Hustle season ticket holder. “I am a big fan of the Falcons, Hawks and Braves, but on a family level, this is way more intimate and satisfying. It’s big-time professional but it feels small and local.”

Some of the charm of Hustle events is the level of fan engagement where you will see kids on the field tossing around a disc before the game, at halftime and even after a game. There’s usually some kind of game or challenge to encourage fan participation, and raffle prizes are given out during games.

“Ultimate has always drawn a great crowd of people that are good-natured, that have good spirit. You’re never going to see a fight at an ultimate game. Ultimate has a rule about the spirit of game that if you’re unsportsmanlike, you can be ejected just for that,” said Dr. Judd Weinberg, a chiropractor in Sandy Springs who played ultimate for the men’s club team during his college years at the University of Delaware. “Many of the people here played in high school or college, and they bring that spirit and camaraderie to the games.”

Combined ShapeCaption
During halftime, fans, including 7-year-old Benjamin Litner, are allowed to come onto the field to toss a disc with the professionals. The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, competed against Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. Atlanta won the game 24-17. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

During halftime, fans, including 7-year-old Benjamin Litner, are allowed to come onto the field to toss a disc with the professionals. The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, competed against Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021.  Atlanta won the game 24-17. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
During halftime, fans, including 7-year-old Benjamin Litner, are allowed to come onto the field to toss a disc with the professionals. The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, competed against Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. Atlanta won the game 24-17. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

That connection extends throughout the league.

“No one is out of reach because of stardom. That’s something really nice because you feel like you know who you are watching and you feel like you know who you’re sitting next to at a game,” said Frankie Fernandez, who currently plays for the ATLiens YCC (Youth Club Championship) Under-20 club team in Atlanta. “If you’re coming to a Hustle game, that means you’re a part of the ultimate community.”

One area of interest has been player compensation. Players are compensated, but most have full-time jobs in addition to their commitment to their AUDL club. While AUDL players’ contracts are confidential and an average player salary per season isn’t calculated, Hall says it “ranges anywhere from the absolute minimum of $50, to a living wage.”

“Most players are paid based on games they play, but we’re seeing greater numbers being paid based on the season, regardless of games played,” said Hall.

Every player’s contract is not the same, with more multiyear contracts becoming the norm, and while trades are a major part of other professional sports leagues, trades in AUDL aren’t really a concept yet. Still, the fourth-year commissioner is optimistic about future salaries. Said Hall, “We are already looking at living wages as a key component in our 10-year plan.”

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The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, wins against Philadelphia at St. Pius XField on Saturday, June 26, 2021. Fans, including Ken Hill of Decatur, show up and support the team. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, wins against Philadelphia at St. Pius XField on Saturday, June 26, 2021.  Fans, including Ken Hill of Decatur, show up and support the team.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, wins against Philadelphia at St. Pius XField on Saturday, June 26, 2021. Fans, including Ken Hill of Decatur, show up and support the team. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Plans for more diversity

Hall calls AUDL “cheap family fun” with the league’s core audience being families and young people. Ultimate has always been a culturally white sport, but Hall’s goal is to reach a wider demographic audience in communities across North America, especially kids at an early age. In the league’s efforts to bring more diversity and equality to the sport of ultimate, AUDL formed the Inclusion Initiative in fall 2019.

“Our marketing strategy is directed towards the youth. Youth outreach,” said Dr. Christina Chung, the co-chair of the AUDL Inclusion Initiative. “The league felt like it was important to highlight and market people of color in our league like players of color, coaches of color and owners of color. Once younger people of color see someone like them do something, it makes them say, ‘Hey, I can do that too.’ That’s what our focus is.”

A part of that diversity outreach is the formation of a nonprofit foundation called IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity and Education in Action), whose mission is to promote engagement and education in AUDL and in the broader community; and partnering with Rise to Win, a national nonprofit sports organization that works specifically in the sports community on diversity issues.

The league’s plans to diversify ultimate were on display in 2019 in Atlanta, as the AFDC (Atlanta Flying Disc Club) partnered with the Hustle and the pro women’s ultimate team, Atlanta Soul, to host “The Color of Ultimate: ATL,” an all-star game that showcased the most talented male and female ultimate players of color from Atlanta, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and other American cities, as well as Medellin, Colombia.

“Atlanta is a big city, so I think there’s a lot of room for a lot of sports,” Thomas said. “AUDL and the Hustle are really invested in increasing visibility of minority groups on the field, in ownership, partnering with the AFDC to help start teams in underprivileged areas and just get awareness out to places, not just Black places, but places where ultimate doesn’t exist right now.”

Chung said that the Inclusion Initiative is looking to work with the Hustle to attract more youths from Atlanta’s HBCUs through sports programming. “We have people in Atlanta who are developing programs there. We’re hoping to have a combine event there and want to target youths of all levels.”

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John Stubbs (center), #19, a player for the Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, passes around Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. Atlanta won the game 24-17. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

John Stubbs (center), #19, a player for the Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, passes around Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. Atlanta won the game 24-17.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
John Stubbs (center), #19, a player for the Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, passes around Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. Atlanta won the game 24-17. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

More focus on health, safety

Another key focus this season has been how the league is dealing with COVID-19. With the 2020 season being canceled due to COVID, the league has since put into place specific guidelines for every franchise to follow for the 2021 campaign. An Athletic Care Network made up of specialists, physicians and epidemiologists was formed before this season to help provide continuous health and safety strategies.

“There is this lack of awareness for the medical needs of athletes in the entire ultimate community. For people who play, there are tons of injuries that happen, but there’s never been an organized way to address it,” said Chung, a doctor and AUDL’s chief medical officer. “We got to thinking that if we’re really going to grow this league in terms of being a professional sport, what we want to be in five years and paying players a living wage, we can’t ignore the health and safety of our athletes.”

A part of their plan of action this season is that AUDL assigned each team a head physician that’s trained in medicine and an athletic trainer. “COVID has brought on a level of complexity for all organizations and especially high-performance athletes,” Chung said. “I am as close to 100% confident that we have created COVID protocols that will be executed at the highest level of safety, and when I look at the data now, it looks like all the teams have been compliant with all of our policies.”

Combined ShapeCaption
During halftime, fans, including 9-year-old Estee Litner, in pink, are allowed to come onto the field to toss a disc with the professionals. The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, competed against Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. Atlanta won the game 24-17. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

During halftime, fans, including 9-year-old Estee Litner, in pink, are allowed to come onto the field to toss a disc with the professionals.  The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, competed against Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. Atlanta won the game 24-17.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
During halftime, fans, including 9-year-old Estee Litner, in pink, are allowed to come onto the field to toss a disc with the professionals. The Hustle, Atlanta's American Ultimate Disc League team, competed against Philadelphia at St. Pius X High School Field on Saturday, June 26, 2021. Atlanta won the game 24-17. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman