If you think the sport of Ultimate Frisbee is the sole domain of shirtless, barefoot co-eds, think again. Ultimate Frisbee is one of the world's fastest-growing sports, and competition is getting serious. Boise's Big Sky Ultimate Master's Team (BIGS) has emerged as one of two top teams in the Northwest Region who will battle 10 other clubs from around the nation at a fierce yearly tournament: the nationals competition in Sarasota, Fla., which culminates in an intense battle for bragging rights between the final two teams.
BIGS is ranked fourth going into nationals, and is already well-known in the Ultimate world as being tough to beat.
"They're always a strong team," said Sandie Hammerly, executive director of the Ultimate Players Association (UPA). Of the 45 masters teams spread across six regions in the United States and Canada, Hammerly said the Northwest Region has begun to dominate the sport in recent years, yanking the prestige from the Northeast Region and particularly teams in Boston and New York.
"They know each other's moves and each other's personalities," said Hammerly by phone from her office in Boulder, Colo. "It makes them a very strong team."
BIGS player Michael McCarrel, 36, agrees that his team "is like family." Not only do they play together three times a week, he said, but they also "drink beer together, ski together, party together." McCarrel says he has been hooked on Ultimate since about 1993. Since then, he says he's seen the sport's popularity soar like an upside-down dream throw.
"[Ultimate in Boise] evolved from being a four- to six-league team playing one time a year to a 10-league team playing 10 times a year," McCarrel said. Now, the Boise area boasts a spring league, men's and women's leagues, draft teams and the fall league. McCarrel and BIGS form the masters league, a team of 30 men that requires a minimum age of 33.
"We're trying to keep the 25-year-old guys from kicking our ass," he said. The team's average age this year is 38.
The nationals event is sanctioned every year by the UPA, the governing body of registered Ultimate leagues and clubs across the nation. A regular membership in the UPA costs $40 annually and even less for college students and youth. The fees directly feed administrative costs at UPA headquarters in Boulder, where seven staff members exist solely to serve the Ultimate community.
"It's the ultimate network for finding jobs, friends," McCarrel said of the UPA Web site, Upa.org. He says he uses the site whenever he is traveling or thinking about moving. "You can find Ultimate games going on everywhere ... including contacts for just about every single city that is playing Ultimate around the world."
In addition to UPA dues, BIGS and other Ultimate players fork over their own cash for uniforms, gear, plane tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars. According to McCarrel, total costs for an out-of-town trip can average about $1,000, and BIGS might play eight to 10 tournaments annually. Sometimes, lack of funds can block players from attending important games. In 2002, for example, BIGS triumphed at nationals but couldn't afford to compete in the world championships in Perth, Australia. Some years, the team has a sponsor to help pay for expenses, the way that clothing manufacturer KAVU did from 2002 to 2005.
This year, BIGS wasn't so lucky. That's one of the reasons McCarrel has designated himself as team salesman.
"I'm just out there trying to get anything, anything at all," he said of searching for sponsorships. "Even if it's just $5 a player, it helps." McCarrel, who works seasonal jobs to support his Ultimate schedule, doesn't begrudge the amount it costs to be able to play professionally. "It's all for the love of the game."
According to Hammerly, Ultimate's popularity is rising due in part to a code of ethics the UPA refers to as "Spirit of the Game." In Ultimate, all plays are decided by the players, equalizing the burden of responsibility among the 14 people on the field. It not only means having good sportsmanship, but also that players must police themselves with "respect" and "joy." It isn't always easy to keep a cool head in a game without referees. In higher-level games, an observer stands in to reconcile any disputes that the players can't solve themselves.
Sometimes those disputes can turn ugly, said McCarrel.
"You can cut a freaking hole in the air, it's so intense," he described about the nationals competition, where fistfights have been known to erupt. BIGS, he said, has "heated, heated rivalries" with the Boston and New York teams, Death or Glory and Above and Beyond (A&B). He named them as being the possible teams to beat this year, even though BIGS delivered a crushing blow to A&B in last year's nationals competition.
A&B player Arnold Sanchez calls McCarrel's assessment "kind words from a quality team," and agrees A&B will be hard to beat. "Any team facing us can count on a hard-nosed, battle-tested team," Sanchez, 37, said in an e-mail. "I certainly think that our tough, athletic brand of Ultimate can make us one of the top contenders this year."
McCarrel has another way of describing A&B's tough, athletic brand: "Those guys are assholes!" he said.
Despite aggression that can sometimes boil over during serious competitions like nationals, McCarrel says the hallmark of the BIGS team, and of Ultimate in general, is a sense of camaraderie. BIGS especially, he says, has managed to maintain Ultimate's roots by remaining open-minded and jovial, while at the same time transforming the stereotypical image of Ultimate—"college dudes smokin' weed," he said—into something more competitive and professional. A groundswell of players is now rooting for the sport's induction into the Olympics.
That acceptance will be hard, says Hammerly.
"Ultimate just isn't that big yet," she said. Although about 850,000 people play Ultimate in the United States and numbers are rising in other countries like Germany and Japan, it is still a small sport compared to other team sports like soccer that have a gargantuan international following.
The nationals competition is therefore considered the highest-level tournament in the world, Hammerly said. Even the world championships, which take place in August 2008 in Vancouver, B.C., aren't as famous "because if we're there, we win," she said. The nationals competition, established in 1975, is the longest-running Ultimate competition in the world.
"It is the ultimate of where [anybody who plays Ultimate] wants to be," said Hammerly.
McCarrel says the supreme reward would be not only winning nationals this year, but also getting to sport the U.S. jersey at the world championships next year. The honor of wearing the national jersey "literally sends shivers down the spine," he said.
After nationals, BIGS will take the winter off.
"Every year, there's burnout, and there's talk of this being our last year," he said. "But we just keep coming back."
For more information, visit BoiseUltimate.org.