New York City's Ultimate Frisbee Community
If you walk by the Upper East Side of Central Park on a Tuesday or Thursday evening and cast your eyes over the stone wall to the grassless valley known affectionately by many as the dust bowl, you may witness one of today's fastest-growing sports phenomenons taking place: Ultimate Frisbee-or simply, Ultimate.
To people unfamiliar with the sport, the dustbowl pick-up game might look unruly. As players scramble after a flying disc, a dust cloud forming around their ankles, they utter strange phrases like, "No breaks!" "Clear out!" and "Dump and swing!" Most people have never heard of Ultimate, and most who have associate it with a laughable stereotype, characterized by Birkenstocks, tie-dye, and pot-smoking. Nonetheless, 40 years after it was invented in Maplewood, New Jersey by Columbia High School student Joel Silver (who later became a major Hollywood producer) and other members of the school newspaper, in 1968, Ultimate is quietly but surely growing.
Today the sport is played on a regular basis by over 1.3 million people in the United States alone and in over 42 countries. Not only is Ultimate becoming more competitive, it is also helping to form real communities, bringing together diverse groups of men and women in cities all the globe, including New York, under a single noble pursuit: merely, to play.
According to those familiar with Ultimate's history in New York, the local community has truly begun to flourish in the past few years. "There are more skilled players and more high-level pick-up games, and now league activities and tournaments, than ever before," said Keith Piaseczney, a 20-year veteran of New York City Ultimate. Indeed, from Central Park to the Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, from Astoria, Queens to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Roosevelt Island to the Lower East Side, Ultimate pick-up groups can be found on different days of the week on open spaces all over the city.
Run by Piaseczney, the online yahoo group for New York City Public Ultimate League, or NYCPUL, provides information about New York Ultimate to well over 500 people. That is just one of many New York Ultimate communities online. "We are in our glory [days] now. I can play three or four games a week, on different fields, with different sets of players."
For you rookie players, here are the basic rules: Played by two teams of seven on a surface similar to a football field, the object of Ultimate is to score goals by catching a disc thrown by your teammate in your opponent's end zone. You may not run with the disc and can only hold onto it for ten seconds. Most games are played to 13 or 15. There are many women's teams and men's teams at the college and non-college or club level, but Ultimate at the pick-up or community league level is usually played with co-ed teams, using a male to female ratio of either 4-3 or 5-2. One of the most unique aspects of Ultimate is a tradition of sportsmanship known as "Spirit of the Game," which places the responsibility for fair play on players themselves. Fouls are resolved by players on the field and there are no referees, even at the most competitive levels of the game.
As evidence of the increased popularity in New York, in the past two years, three new club teams, which travel outside the city to play competitively at weekend tournaments, have emerged from three different New York pick-up groups. In the fall of 2006, a couple of recent college graduates, Kevin Collier and Mateo Mead, who had been playing in a recreational pick-up group at Central Park's Great Hill, an odd field with a large hill in middle of it on the Upper West Side of the park, decided to form a club team out of the most competitive members of that group. They called the team The Grey Till, a phonetic reference to their origins. About a year later, members of the dust bowl pick-up group, led by Fred Merkel and Emily Noton, decided to start their own club team. Referencing their history of being banished from grass fields all over the city, they named their team, No Grass For You.
The third team, based out of a pick-up group in Astoria Park in Queens, formed about seven months ago, when, according to Ultimate player Cassandra Schaffa, people "got tired of playing on crappy fields," pooled their money, and purchased a permit for a nicer field. Also deciding that they wanted to improve their game, the group began spending the first half of pick-up time doing throwing and cutting drills. Eventually, the club team Hellgate formed, the name being an homage to the bridge under which they play. On the weekend of September 20-September 21, 2008 all three of these recently-formed New York City teams competed, along with eight other teams based in and around the city, at the Metro North Sectionals Tournament in Middletown, New York, for a chance to advance to the Northeast Regional tournament.
"The [New York Ultimate] community used to be divided between the club players, the upper class, and the pick-up groups, the lower class," said John Kim, who has played in the dust bowl since 2001. "As a result of the sport's current popularity in colleges, a rising tide of Ultimate players is washing up on Manhattan's shores and the community has become much more cohesive. Ultimate now has a large middle class that bridges the club and pick-up groups."
New York's local Ultimate league has also recently experienced a kind of rebirth. Founded in 2001 by the late Amir Lopatin, the recreational summer league was run by members of NYCPUL from 2002 to 2007. Played on Sundays in the dust bowl-the only place for which NYCPUL managed to get a permit from the New York City Parks Department-the league was made up of eight teams and open to players of all levels. As the only Ultimate league in Manhattan, it became quite popular. But there were problems. For one thing, the field was, and still is, riddled with hazards, including rocks, pieces of glass and other debris. Tree branches loom over parts of the field, and on hot dry days, the dust flung up during play can be unbearable. Many solid players refused to play there because of the conditions. Another problem with the league was that, because organizers used a draft system to allocate players to teams, the skill level of teams was often decidedly uneven.
"Players would misrank themselves to rig the system in order to play with each other," said Kim. When Catherine Burnett, the league coordinator of NYCPUL, stepped down after the 2007 summer league, Kim and fellow player Venu Manne decided to take it over. Renaming it the Manhattan Ultimate Disc (or MUD), Kim and Manne endeavored to find soft grass fields and to solve the team inequities issue. Through diligent negotiations with the Parks Department, they were able to secure permits for lush green fields in Inwood Park and a grass field on Riverside Park at 72nd Street. They also figured out a better way to form teams. "Instead of a draft, we distributed skilled and less experienced players equally throughout the league," Kim said. "The main focus was on 'spirit of the game' as opposed to competition. We also selected captains who we thought would best foster spirit of the game and a sense of community."
Nine teams competed in the successful spring and summer MUD leagues and six teams are currently competing in the fall MUD league. The increased field space has allowed more people to sign up and the grass fields have brought back those players who were averse to playing on the sometimes-treacherous dust bowl. Kim expects that the MUD leagues will continue to grow in popularity in the coming years. He foresees that it may be necessary to expand the league to include 12 teams or to create two six-team leagues. The only limitation in sight, according to Kim, is the scarcity of open field space, which has always been a major obstacle to the formation of New York's Ultimate community. Complicating the issue of limited field space in Manhattan is the fact that more mainstream sports, like soccer and baseball, have historically had an easier time, than lesser-known sports like Ultimate, in securing permits from the Parks Department. Given such difficulties, Kim said, "The Parks Fund and Parks Department has been accommodating and supportive."
As Ultimate becomes more popular, its status as a fringe sport may be changing. Certainly the past few years show us that hundreds of New Yorkers now consider Ultimate to be, perhaps, the perfect hobby-a way both to stay active and to make friends in a unique and diverse social scene. "While I have many friends in the city," Kim said, "Ultimate has been community."
1. Mateo Mead and Shane Samuels go up for a disk while playing pick-up at the dust bowl.
2. Josie Pratt guards Brittany Kaplan during the Summer League Championship game.
3. Arrak Bhattacharyya throws a forehand on Angelo Aconcia during the 2008 Summer League Finals held in Inwood Park.
4. The winning team of the first MUD Summer League, captained by League Commissioner John Kim (center).