WASHINGTON — The World Cup is over for the United States and the NFL season doesn’t begin until September. But if you’re looking for an athletic, high- scoring sport to bridge the gap through the dog days of summer, you don’t have to travel vary far.
The D.C. Breeze, one of the area’s two professional Ultimate Frisbee teams, is contending for an American Ultimate Disk League playoff spot and will wrap up their home season at the University of Maryland Lacrosse and Field Hockey Complex on Saturday.
Not to be confused with Frisbee golf, Ultimate has long been a college staple both for recreational and competitively, and organizers are making a serious run at establishing it on the professional level across North America. The AUDL has 17 active teams from Toronto to San Francisco and is looking to expand to eight more cities, including Boston, Kansas City and Los Angeles.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen is a huge jump in credibility,” says Don Grage, co-owner of the Breeze, now in their second season.
“Unfortunately, the thing I haven’t seen is a huge jump in awareness outside of the Ultimate community, and that’s obviously what I’m going to spend my entire offseason working on.”
The crowd at the Breeze’s June 14 game against the New York Empire looked to be in the hundreds, rather than the thousands. But they were enthusiastic, cheering for the home squad and ooh-ing and ah-ing at the athleticism on display. It’s a good show, but one that Grage knows people have to experience to understand.
“We have to sell an event,” says Grage. “The sport is not going to sell itself to people who haven’t seen it.”
Fortunately for Grage and the Breeze, the athleticism required in Ultimate lends itself to highlight-reel plays, some of which have been featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10.
Seeing clips of college- and professional-level Ultimate interspersed with Major League walk-off home runs and thunderous dunks from the NBA can only help the sport’s awareness, especially as longtime anchor Stuart Scott opines that the plays should rank even higher on the list.
The Breeze play in Maryland for now, after spending their first season at Anacostia High School. As the sport continues to grapple for a foothold professionally, fellow co-owner Aaron Foreman works out agreements where he can.
“D.C. is a pretty field-starved city,” he says, but that’s not keeping him from trying to get the team back within the city limits.
“Next year we’re going to be looking for another facility, hopefully back in D.C.”
And while it may be difficult to find a field as large as the one the Breeze play on, a pickup game doesn’t require much space at all. Or, for that matter, much of anything else.
“Ultimate’s a fantastic sport,” says Grage. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money in equipment. Inner city kids can learn it and love it. You need a disk, and sneakers are nice, and cones are nice.”
“And a flat-ish piece of ground,” chips in Greg Esser, the Breeze’s P.A. announcer and a player on the team last season.
Breeze Co-owner Don Grage is an Ultimate lifer and hopes the sport can succeed in D.C. (Courtesy D.C. Breeze)
And therein lies the hook — the reason why D.C. could be a perfect breeding ground for this budding sport.
“Not a lot of kids can pay $1,200 for hockey equipment and then another $2,000 for the rink for the year,” says Grage.
The sport is growing at the high school level, too, albeit more slowly. Two D.C. high schools have already adopted Ultimate as a club sport, with both Wilson and School Without Walls fielding coed teams. But the city needs at least three schools to qualify for funding from DCPS.
There are 15 other high schools with enrollments of at least 280 students in the District, enough to support a team. Unlike lacrosse and field hockey, which the DCPS has avoided due to expense, the push-back to Ultimate thus far has centered around a survey of students from several years ago that indicated there was not enough interest to start teams at other schools.
Terry Lynch has helped bring several club sports into the fold in D.C. Public Schools, and is hoping Ultimate can get to the point where it receives funding. For now, he says he’s been told the District is looking to invest instead in bowling and flag football, as well as the existing sports.
“I think they’re just trying to justify their ongoing pouring of resources into the traditional sports,” he says. But he believes it’s only a matter of time. “I don’t see any stopping the Ultimate Frisbee wave that’s coming.”
Until then, the Breeze are trying to do their part to grow the sport from the ground up, at every level of the game. For each college and club team member who purchases a ticket to a Breeze game, the team donates $3 back to their program by a coupon code.
Grage is an Ultimate lifer, having played the sport for recreation in college at UCLA. When Foreman is asked about his history with the sport, he laughs.
Aaron Foreman bought the Breeze after his professional football playing days ended. (Courtesy D.C. Breeze)
“I’m a football player,” he says.
The D.C. native played two years professionally and wanted to be involved in professional athletics after his playing days.
“This presented a great opportunity for me to continue to be around a sport which is competitive, because I’m competitive,” he says.
The particular style of AUDL Ultimate appealed to Foreman’s football roots. Those familiar with the sport are probably used to a 40-yard wide field, a 10-second defensive count and a game played to 15 points. In the AUDL, fields are 53 yards wide, the defensive count is just 7 seconds, and there are four 12-minute quarters.
This leads to higher-scoring games, with the winning team often nearing 40 points. As Foreman and Grage have learned from other sports, more offense often equals more interest.
“American sports fans want to see numbers go up,” says Grage.
On this June night, the scoring is plentiful, with the Breeze notching 19 points by halftime. As the sun sets on the turf field — and the New York Empire — the Breeze walk away with a hard-fought, 31-26 victory, bringing them one step closer to playoff contention.
With three regular-season games remaining, the Breeze sit a half game behind New York for the second playoff spot, which would earn them a home postseason game.
Saturday’s contest against the Empire will be nationally televised on ESPN 3. General admission tickets are $10 in advance and $12.50 at the gate. For more information, visit the D.C. Breeze website.