Anthony Nuñez has helped coach the New York Empire to back-to-back championships in the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), the world’s largest professional ultimate Frisbee league.
Ultimate is a 7-on-7 field sport that combines elements of football, basketball and soccer — not to be confused with Disc Golf or Frisbee Golf (or Frolf, as George Costanza would say), which is golf with a series of discs — often through the trees — into a chain basket.
But when Nuñez wants to talk with friends and co-workers about what he and his players do, the discussion often gets complicated by the name of the league. People often get Ultimate confused with Disc Golf.
“I don’t know how many times I would have to say to someone, ‘Well, it’s just called Ultimate because Frisbee is a name that is owned by Wham-O. We refer to it as a disc,’” said Nuñez, a Maplewood, N.J. native who played at Columbia High School, where the rules to Ultimate were first codified in the late 1960s.
Now life will be much simpler for Nuñez and all the players and coaches in the 24-team league because it has officially changed its name to the Ultimate Frisbee Association (UFA).
The league, which is owned by sports investor Rob Lloyd and his family and based in Los Gatos, Calif., has entered into long-term licensing agreement with Sport Dimension Inc. (SDI), owner of the iconic Frisbee® trademark, for use of the name ultimate Frisbee, but declined to say how much it paid. The league, which also has individual ownership of each team, declined to provide financials, but UFA CEO Steve Hall said in a phone conversation the league is not turning a profit.
“Correct, we’re still in growth mode,” Hall said.
Virtually all of the current players have regular jobs because the league does not pay enough to live on. Some teams are getting more creative with compensation such as housing or other paid positions with the team in order to attract top talent.
As part of the partnership with SDI, which Hall said took about a year to put together, the company will supply frisbees to Walmart,WMT +1%WMT +1% Target and Dick’s Sporting Goods, among others retailers, which, in turn, will spread awarenesss of the sport of ultimate frisbee. Hall said the timeframe on that looks like 2025.
Asked if the UFA will benefict financially from the sales, Hall said, “Both SDI and UFA benefit from sales of the Pro Frisbee, regardless of who made it and which distribution channel was used.”
Several types of discs will be available at these large stores: both a traditional, cheaper frisbee that you toss to your dog or with your dad in the backyard, and the new Professional Ultimate Frisbee™ — also known as the Aria disc — which the UFA will use for all games starting in the 2024 season. Hall said a UFA player and coach committee will “be at the heart” of innovating and “tweaking” new designs and technological innovations. (The league has previously used the Discraft Ultra-Star.)
Some of the new frisbees, in turn, will be branded with the names and images of top UFA players like Jack Williams of the Empire.
“It’s general awareness,” Hall said in a phone interview. “The biggest thing is awareness in the broad community and we just don’t have that awareness now. But using that familiar phrase of ultimate Frisbee, which most people know about, then that helps elevate our sport and at the same time, it helps elevate that frisbee brand from a toy to a sporting good.
Wham-O, which also invented the Hula Hoop and the Super Ball, trademarked the word Frisbee in 1958, about a decade before students at Amherst College and Northfield Mount Hermon began to pioneer a team sport they simply referred to as Frisbee but which later became known as Ultimate Frisbee. The rules of the sport were eventually codified by students at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., one of whom was Joel Silver, who went on to produce The Matrix, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon movies.
As the former Columbia High players went off to college, many in the Northeast, they became the Johnny Appleseeds of the sport and helped spread the game to college campuses.
“Over 60 years ago, Wham-O launched a new product called the frisbee and not long after, a new game sprung up across college campuses and sport fields throughout the USA,” said SDI President Kurt Rios in a statement. “We are so excited to be bringing frisbee back to the official sport of ultimate by partnering with the UFA. I couldn’t be prouder to see frisbee as part of professional ultimate. Working with the UFA and their amazing athletes, we look forward to the next generation of competitive frisbee products used by the best players in the world.”
The new UFA now has a three-letter acronym similar to the NFL, NBA and MLB, and also presents a much simpler and clearer vision of what sport it represents.
“This is a play for both the future of the sport and the future of the frisbee as a sporting device — that to me is the most important element,” said author and filmmaker Tony Leonardo, with whom I co-wrote ULTIMATE — The First Four Decades. “This story is that this is a bet for where this sport is 10-20 years from now.”
(Leonardo is currently working on a documentary about the history of Ultimate called “The Lot,” which focuses on the birth of the sport and its survival in the 1970s with and without Wham-O when frisbee was a phenomenon and fad.)
Hall says the UFA has its eyes on global expansion, and mentioned China (which has a fledgling pro league), India, Latin America and the Middle East.
“We do have global rights, so we have been in talks with people around the world to create more pro leagues, whether it’s under our banner or another banner, we would like to see professional ultimate Frisbee grow around the world,” Hall said of the UFA, adding that he likes the concept of having various overseas leagues under the rubric of the UFA.
Ultimate seems like a prime candidate for the Olympics, but was not admitted in the 2028 Los Angeles Games. The hope is that the partnership with SDI will help grow awareness for inclusion in the Olympics down the road.
“I think it certainly doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure,” Hall said. “If you look at the sports that made it through for LA 2028, they certainly had a big sponsorship or economic backer to them and so I think as we grow in size commercially and we start to get sponsors, that’s going to give us the push that we need to get to Australia 2032.”
The UFA says that over the past decade, it has amassed a global social media audience of 1.5 million followers, and generated viral highlight videos that logged more than 150 million views in 2023 alone. Highlights of the league often appear on ESPN’s SportsCenter even if the average person still doesn’t know a whole lot about the sport. (No, it’s not played with dogs and generally not on the beach.)
The UFA unveiled a new logo that features a silhouette of a player laying out for a disc which it says is “inspired by the thousands of ultimate professionals who have sacrificed everything to move our game forward, bidding for one more game-changing possession.”
There’s an old expression that, “When a ball dreams, it dreams it’s a frisbee,” and the new logo epitomizes that sentiment.
“Maybe the logo will be the thing that makes it easier for the general public to accept and drive ultimate to the mainstream,” said Ben Jagt, a two-time AUDL MVP. “But in my option that feels backwards — a good product will lead to logo recognition, not the other way around.”
The 2024 UFA schedule will be officially released in February, with opening weekend slated for April 2024. The league’s thirteenth title weekend, now called the UFA Championship, will culminate at Zions Bank Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah, on August 23-24.
And if Nuñez's team wins the title again, it will be a lot easier to explain to everyone what he and his team accomplished.
Across an ultimate career that has lasted more than 35 years, Adam Zagoria has competed in College, Open, Mixed, Masters, Grandmasters and Great Grandmasters Nationals. His teams won the Westchester Summer League title in 2011, ‘13 and ‘21.
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