Sports

Pro Frisbee players don’t make much money, but love their game

Seamus Laffey is defended by Sean Dolan during an ultimate Frisbee game, Wednesday, July 15, 2015 in Sacramento. ... The game itself has gone professional and a league includes 26 teams across the U.S. and Canada.
Seamus Laffey is defended by Sean Dolan during an ultimate Frisbee game, Wednesday, July 15, 2015 in Sacramento. ... The game itself has gone professional and a league includes 26 teams across the U.S. and Canada. aseng@sacbee.com

The professionals in the American Ultimate Disc League call it the “barbecue backhand.” It’s the way 99.9 percent of the world throws a Frisbee.

The average person at the beach or park flicks the disc with their wrist and it hopefully flies somewhat level and more than a few feet. Dogs sometimes are better at catching Frisbees than people.

Ultimate Disc players chuckle at this, because what they can do with a Frisbee has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

In a fast-paced team game that combines soccer’s flow, basketball’s passing and football’s throw-and-catch skills, Ultimate Disc pros can “huck” a disc 80 yards or more. They have an overhand throw called the “hammer” that could knock a soda can off a fence from 30 yards. They produce athletic, leaping and diving grabs that would make an NFL wide receiver proud.

Several times a year, their highlights make the top 10 plays of the day on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

And thanks to a trio of disc-loving entrepreneurs, they’re getting paid as professionals to do it in San Diego.

Founded on the East Coast, the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) expanded to the West Coast a couple of years ago, and friends and disc players Will Griffin, Justin Goodman and Ryan Slaughter ponied up a franchise fee of $15,000 – a bargain compared to teams in the NFL, NBA and major league baseball – and founded the San Diego Growlers.

There are 26 teams in the U.S. and Canada, in most of the largest cities.

Teams play a 14-game schedule that runs April through July. The Midwest Division’s Madison (Wisc.) Radicals and Dallas Roughnecks of the South Division are the league’s unbeaten teams at 12-0. The other end of the success spectrum includes the 0-13 Cincinnati Revolution in the Midwest and the 0-12 Philadelphia Phoenix in the East.

The Growlers (1-11) have a slick website (sdgrowlers.com) and a cool Coyote logo in their colors of gray and orange.

Through grassroots marketing done mostly by the players, who sell tickets for $15 apiece, the team has drawn between 400 and 600 fans for games. They believe they’d have a much larger following if people saw them play just once.

“Once people see it, they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s cool. You guys make some really cool plays,' “ said Growlers player Dom Leggio, 25. “Very few people outside of the Frisbee community know about it.

“They’re skeptical at first with it. ‘Are there dogs? Is this disc golf?' Then they see it, and it’s really good athletes competing at a high level.”

People throwing a flying disc between each other dates back to 1938, when a couple in Connecticut first tossed a pie tin on the beach. Their friends liked it so much they started making a more aerodynamic form. That bred copycats, including the Pluto Platter, eventually sold to Wham-O, which renamed it and began producing “Frisbees” in 1957.

Playing Frisbee with teams began as a counterculture sport in the ‘60s, the participants even embracing a hippie ethic of disdaining referees for a self-policing ethic. It grew quickly in the Bay Area and Northeast as a club sport on college campuses, and the Sports and Fitness Industry Association estimated in 2012 that 5.1 million people were playing the Ultimate team game.

Growlers co-owner Goodman, 34 and a government project consultant, didn’t take up Ultimate until his sophomore year in college at William & Mary in Virginia. The club made the national tournament all three years he was there.

“It was an inclusive group, very friendly,” Goodman said. “I think that’s what draws a lot of folks to the sport – the sense of community. Everyone is welcome. The friends you make are going to be friends for a lifetime.”

Ultimate seems to attract athletes from a variety of backgrounds – basketball, baseball, soccer, track. Many of them are tall and lanky – the best build to snatch passes, block throws and run almost constantly over a game’s 48 minutes.

Steven Milardovich, a 26-year-old SDSU grad, is 6-foot-2 and played baseball through all of his youth, but was burned out by college and got involved in Ultimate his sophomore year as a way to compete and make new friends.

“Over time I got better and better, and then I got addicted,” he said.

Learning a throw like the “hammer” – gripping the rail and flinging the disc overhand like a baseball – is “not hard to learn,” Milardovich said, “but difficult to master.

“When you’re new to it, you see how far a guy can throw it and say, ‘Wow, how did you do that?' “

The basics of Ultimate Disc: teams have seven players on the field, 80-yards long with 20-yard end zones; passes are made in any direction, but you can’t run with the disc; seven seconds is the maximum time to hold it; defenders can guard players but not touch them.

A completion into the end zone is worth one point, and the scoring can come at a frantic pace. In a recent close loss, the Growlers fell to the Vancouver Riptide 25-23. That’s 48 different scores.

There is no blocking or tackling, but it gets physical. Goodman has had to sit out this season because of a badly broken ankle he suffered in a game. And though there are referees, there’s also a “spirit of the game” ethic, and players sometimes call fouls on themselves.

It all adds up to what the Growlers owners hope will become a growing local attraction for fans. The owners have three- and five-year business plans.

“The thought process is that if you come to a game, you’re going to have a great time. There’s no reason not to,” said Griffin, 30, a co-owner and one of the team’s top players.

The players are clearly competing for the love of the sport. They are paid between $15 and $35 a game – the real perk coming on the road when all of their expenses are paid. Most of them have full-time jobs anyway and have been playing for free anyway.

“I know this doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but I’m proud of what I do,” said Milardovich, an IT specialist for a retail company. “I’m proud of the owners and everyone else for making this happen.”

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