Ultimate Frisbee Seeks Greater Awareness

June 14, 2024


The league, which gained use of the Frisbee trademark earlier this year, aims to grow the appeal of a niche sport that gained prominence on college campuses years ago

By Jon Springer. Published on June 14, 2024.

Wilson Matthews of the Chicago Union (left) and Jake Carrico of the Madison Radicals battle May 31 at Martin Stadium in Evanston, Illinois

Wilson Matthews of the Chicago Union (left) and Jake Carrico of the Madison Radicals battle May 31 at Martin Stadium in Evanston, Illinois. Credit: Tyler Hoff

The sport colloquially known as ultimate frisbee requires only one piece of equipment—a frisbee. But nearly everywhere the game is played, there are few Frisbees to be found. It reflects a longstanding conflict: Frisbee is a trademarked brand name for a toy, and ultimate’s various amateur and professional governing bodies have sanctioned discs made specifically for the sport, from brands like Discraft, X-com, Aria, Daredevil, Yikun or Eurodisc.

The arrangement has long led to awkward phrasing, with many simply preferring to call the sport “ultimate” or using the more generic “disc,” although the latter became problematic once disc golf took off and people came to associate “disc” with that sport. The state of affairs left the sport’s leading U.S. professional league, the American Ultimate Disc League, unsure of what to call itself and eager for a solution.

“No one was ever particularly happy with the acronym AUDL, which is a mouthful—it doesn’t feel great,” said Tim DeByl, the league’s CEO. “Four-letter acronyms aren’t super popular for sports … it doesn’t feel like a league, at least in the U.S.”

The league solved its problem in January, as a result of a deal that allows it to use the Frisbee moniker. And now the newly named Ultimate Frisbee Association is leveraging the name as part of a new sales and marketing approach. It’s hoping to bring momentum to its long task of turning a participatory game played on college campuses into a spectator sport, all while battling for the attention of young fans in a marketplace of emerging sports such as omegaBall, pickleball and cricket.

The new identity follows a licensing agreement announced on Jan. 17 between the AUDL and Wham-O, parent of the Frisbee brand, and a separate acquisition that gave the league the intellectual property of Aria, a disc brand sanctioned by the sport’s major governing bodies.

The deal turned the UFA into a manufacturer of branded Frisbees using Aria’s mold. It plans to use Wham-O’s sales and marketing teams to get them into stores, while using designs on the discs and packaging to market the league, its teams and its players. Wham-O will receive a portion of revenue from the sale of the Frisbees and the potential to recapture an ultimate-playing audience that long abandoned it.

“We are so excited to be bringing frisbee back to the official sport of ultimate by partnering with the UFA,” Kurt Rios, president of Wham-O parent Sport Dimensions Inc., said in the January announcement. “I couldn’t be prouder to see frisbee as part of professional ultimate.”

The new identity for the league includes a logo and wordmark created in-house. It marks a new beginning for the league—and comes as advocates for the sport seek broader recognition, such as inclusion in the Olympics.

Behind a licensing deal with Wham-O, the American Ultimate Disc League rebranded as the Ultimate Frisbee Association. Credit: UFA

Highlight factory

The UFA’s 13th season is now underway, with 24 teams in the U.S. and Canada. Most pro ultimate players have day jobs—the league requires players be paid a minimum of $50 plus travel and other expenses, for the 12-game season, which began in late April and concludes with championship weekend scheduled for Aug. 23 and 24 in Salt Lake City.

Said to have been invented at a Maplewood, New Jersey high school in 1968 (and co-founded by the noted film producer Joel Silver), ultimate grew primarily as a college club sport, before expanding internationally in the 1980s.

The sport’s international governing body, the World Flying Disc Federation, is pursuing inclusion in the 2032 Olympic games in Brisbane, Australia, which would be a first for the sport. (A bid for mixed-gender ultimate fell short of approval for the 2028 Los Angeles games.

Resembling a mix between football and soccer, ultimate is a fast-moving game featuring soaring blocks and diving catches, which at the pro level, are on near-constant display.

“We’re a highlight factory,” said Ryan Pierce, UFA’s senior director of product marketing and communications, noting the sport’s frequent appearances on ESPN’s “Top 10” plays.

Plays like these have helped ultimate establish a considerable online following. DeByl describes ultimate videos as “easily digestible and highlight heavy,” allowing UFA to develop a strong presence on social media, with 1.5 million followers across platforms and 150 million views of its highlights in 2023.

That social audience is much greater than that of larger pro sports rivals, such as the Premier Lacrosse League, DeByl said.

DeByl, who took over as CEO and commissioner of the league this month and is also the owner of its Madison Radicals franchise, said the league is focusing marketing efforts on overarching brand awareness and local relevance.

“We’re past the point where we are worried about operational things like, how do we get referees at games? How do we get stadiums rented? How do we stream games? How do we get broadcast? How do we get sponsors? I think we solved 90% of that stuff,” he said. “And now we feel like we’re at a good spot to grow and get more fans.”

The league is on the lookout for potential catalysts. Marques Brownlee, a star player for the UFA’s champion New York Empire team, is better known to the world as MKBHD, a tech reviewer with 19 million followers on YouTube (and another 13 million combined on X, Instagram and TikTok) who occasionally shares highlights.

A “Caitlin Clark moment” is difficult for ultimate as many of the best college players are already pros, reflecting the tradition of ultimate as a club sport and not a varsity sport, with rules (for now) preventing athletes from turning professional.

A documentary-style series or film—like those that helped to raise the profiles of sports such as Formula 1 and Professional Bull Riding—is a possibility, DeByl said. One filmmaker is currently shopping a sizzle reel to streaming networks.

“We think there’s something really interesting in the way the sport has progressed with these weekend warrior players who also tend to be fairly well educated since they learned the game in college or grad school,” DeByl said. “My team at one point had five doctors.”

Brand partnerships

Since 2022, pro ultimate’s national sponsorship business has been in the hands of the sports marketing firm Legends, which also took an undisclosed equity stake in UFA. Today the league belongs to its Legends Growth Enterprises portfolio, which also includes other emerging sports such as Spikeball, USA Pickleball, the International Axe Throwing Federation and the American Cornhole League.

Fragmentation in TV, globalization and a growing consumer appetite have made this a good time to be in alternative sports, said Gabby Roe, president of Legends Growth Enterprises. Brands like Red Bull have demonstrated that it can be good business to back them, and breakout successes like UFC show what’s possible, he added.

“There’s a massive appetite from just about every segment—the general public, the media, sponsors—on high-growth sports at the moment,” Roe said. “My personal philosophy is that these are the tech stocks of the sports industry. They’re small now, but with proper management and proper strategy and planning and execution, they can take off.”

Legends’ approach aligns brands with sports based on the characteristics of the audience they draw. There tends to be little cross-sport branding.

“In the case of UFA, it became very obvious from our data that the desires, needs and attitudes of the UFA fan were predominantly outdoor, active, health-minded enthusiasts, primarily in their 20s and 30s, and pretty even male and female,” Roe said.

It led to a national deal announced in March with the upscale trail mix brand Power Up, whose branding adorns the uniforms of all league teams, and has engaged in sampling at UFA events.

Other UFA national sponsors include Vktry sports insoles, Tokay cleats and Two Towns Ciderhouse, a craft cider brand. Local teams support themselves with their own sponsors.

Keeping sponsors in the fold is another challenge. A 2021 deal with DraftKings, which included betting lines and support of a weekly streaming broadcast, ended when the online betting giant cut its emerging sports team in a reorganization.

“A lot of sponsors look at an emerging sport, and they want to get involved, but then they realize that it’s not as big as the NBA or whatever their expectations are,” DeByl said. “I think from our end, we execute well on the opportunities. And it’s definitely hard to keep a sponsor … it’s a lot of one- and two-year deals.”

Media deals

UFA fans can purchase a subscription allowing them to stream the entire 155-game season for $11.99 a month, available on Amazon Fire, Roku, or online at watchufa.tv. The league also promotes a “super series” of free games broadcast on YouTube. A previous deal to broadcast games on Fox Sports 2 was not renewed, reflecting that the cable channel did not align with the sport’s younger viewers, DeByl said.

Growing the UFA’s over-the-top TV subscribers is one of DeByl’s top priorities, with an eye on making it the top revenue driver for the league. Attendance at local games is another area of emphasis, with the league aiming for 2,000 fans a game. Most teams are in the 1,000 to 1,500 range currently but 2,000 “feels really good,” DeByl said, and “looks like a real sports event” on TV.

Having overcome the language barrier with the Frisbee deal, UFA has also gradually softened the sport’s longstanding cultural resistance to professionalism—a stance that dates back to its counter-culture origins, no-referee rules, and abhorrence to commercialization.

“For a long time club play was seen as more prestigious than the pro game, but I think that perception is shifting with this generation,” said Alex Rubin, senior staff writer at UltiWorld magazine, which covers the sport. “At one time it was taboo for national or club team players to play with UFA. Now, it’s seen as a viable competitive path that’s just different.”

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