CINCINNATI -- You're going to be seeing a lot of small flying saucers about head-high or so zipping around these parts soon. Don't be alarmed.
The reason: Ultimate Frisbee is big here in the Tri-State. “Ultimate” pickup games, youth and adult leagues and even high school and college teams have expanded throughout the area as the sport continues to grow in popularity across the globe.
The Queen City will also play host to a couple of the sport’s really big upcoming tournaments: The USA Ultimate 2017 Division I College Championships will be held in Mason this May. And in 2018, the best clubs in the world will gather here for the World Flying Disc Federation’s 2018 World Ultimate Club Championships.
For local fans, it doesn’t get any better.
“It’s really exciting, because events of this scope will help us introduce more people to Ultimate (Frisbee),” said Ryan Gorman, president of the Cincinnati Ultimate Players Association (CUPA). “When you see these world-class athletes compete, and games going on as far as the eye can see at these big events, it draws you in.”
Millions of kids and adults are already hooked on the sport and “chasing plastic” in countries all over the world, Gorman said. Ultimate Frisbee started in New Jersey in the late 1960s and remains most popular in the U.S.
Participation here is at an all-time high, in fact. About five million Americans played the game last year, according to USA Ultimate, the national governing body for the sport.
For some, that stat begs the question: Why all the hoopla over chasing a plastic flying disc?
Despite its growth, Gorman admits Ultimate Frisbee is still pretty misunderstood among nonplayers. When people hear about the sport, most still picture a few friends clumsily throwing a disc back and forth at the park, he said.
To understand its popularity, he suggests people take a closer look at the sport.
“It’s actually a dynamic and compelling, competitive sport,” he noted.
The Linwood resident describes Ultimate Frisbee as a seven-on-seven, fast-paced, noncontact sport. It’s played on a field (about the size of a football field, but narrower) where each team defends one end zone. Players score when they catch the disc in the opposite end zone. The most challenging part: The player with the disc can’t run with it; it must be passed to a teammate. And accurately throwing a disc from point A to point B takes some skill.
The game often draws comparison to soccer and other popular sports.
“It shares some similarities with soccer but also requires the hand-eye coordination of basketball and athleticism of football,” said Gorman.
What sets Ultimate Frisbee apart from other sports is what players refer to as “spirit of the game.” There are no referees, and players are responsible for following and enforcing the rules.
That might sound crazy in a nation where a foul on the basketball court can result in a couple of free throws for the opposing team, and football players and fans alike await officials’ calls with bated breath to settle disagreements over things like knee and elbow placement during a play. But it’s a big part of Ultimate Frisbee’s charm, Gorman said.
“In some sports, drawing a foul can help you win,” he explained. “In our sport, that’s not how you succeed.”
He says Ultimate players call their own infractions and try to play fairly.
“When you get everyone to buy in, it just works,” he added.
While teams are certainly competitive and players like to win, he said the sport remains pretty laid back.
That’s one of the things that draws so many people to Ultimate Frisbee, according to longtime local player and coach Nick DiNardo.
He started playing the sport back in the early 1990s and has coached the Ultimate team at Walnut Hills High School since around 1999.
Over the past two decades, he says the sport has spread rapidly across the Tri-State, especially among youth.
“Back when I first starting coaching, I think we had about eight high school teams,” said DiNardo, of Pleasant Ridge. “Now we have more than 40 local high school teams. It’s a pretty expansive group.”
He said the sport is attractive for youth and their parents: It’s fun but a noncontact sport, which lowers the risk for injury. And it’s inexpensive to play.
“All you really need is a field, eight cones and a disc,” he noted.
Adult leagues have also exploded in recent years here in Greater Cincinnati.
“You can play as a kid, and you can play up into your 50s and 60s,” DiNardo said. “It’s a lot of fun, and it is really great exercise.”
DiNardo is also CUPA’s vice president. The nonprofit has been around since the late 1990s and aims to promote the sport locally. CUPA organizes pickup games throughout the area, and hosts a variety of men’s, women’s and co-ed leagues for nearly every skill and age level.
The all-volunteer group is also helping to organize both of the upcoming tournaments.
The Division I College Championships will be held May 26-29 at Heritage Oak Park and nearby Mason High School.
About 750 teams and more than 14,000 athletes will compete in the 2017 college regular season and fight to qualify for the championships. Teams from some local universities will try to earn a spot, including the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University.
The upcoming world championships event, set for July 14-21 in 2018, is expected to showcase club teams from nearly 50 countries. It will take place at the Lebanon Sports Complex, which has 28 full-sized Ultimate Frisbee fields.
The huge Ultimate event is held every four years. The 2014 championship was hosted in Lecco, Italy, and attracted a record 160 teams and nearly 4,000 athletes.
Seasoned local tournament director Dale Wilker will serve as director of both the upcoming college and world championships.
Both Gorman and DiNardo say they hope the big events here help give the sport some more visibility.
Participation continues to grow in communities throughout the U.S., they said, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. There is even a professional Ultimate league. Cincinnati actually had a pro team for a few years, but it recently disbanded.
But avid players would like the sport to reach one more milestone: the Olympic Games. Ultimate is one of the sports being considered for the 2024 summer games.
“I think there’s a good chance," said DiNardo. “There’s definitely a lot of interest.”