Why Pro Ultimate Should be Mixed

by | October 2, 2017, 2:20pm 37

Earlier this summer, I was struck by a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that Markham Shofner posted on twitter. To summarize the message: If you want to see change, you cannot wait for a better time; change only happens when you make it happen.

It is time for men’s players to speak up. The gender imbalance in sports in our society is a much bigger issue than just ultimate.

Playing sports—especially ultimate—has greatly enhanced my life. Ultimate gives me a sense of pride and purpose; I’m able to express passion and release stress on an almost daily basis. I would argue that I am a much healthier, happier, and more confident person because of sports. Ideally, these benefits should be available to everyone. However, as a male, I was given a leg up in sports: not only did I have every opportunity to play sports as a kid, I had publicly revered male idols to look up to.

In my second year of little league, I was on the “Red Sox”, had long messy hair, and played center field. Johnny Damon had long, slightly less messy hair, played center field, and was a rising star on the real Red Sox, so he became my idol. Johnny Damon’s Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years (breaking Babe Ruth’s curse) the same year my team won our little league championship. I was an undersized, underdog kid, but if my hero could accomplish the impossible, so could I.

Damon’s success gave me the hope that I could play pro sports someday. So I worked hard to be the best athlete I could be, and in a fortunate turn of events I was led to play ultimate my senior year of high school. Now, as a member of the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds and the USA U24 Open team, I have proven to myself that I can accomplish my goals. Though my teams are not quite as popular as the Red Sox, I believe I can inspire kids, and as a “pro” athlete I’m occasionally afforded the opportunity to do so.

Following a Thunderbirds home game, the announcer named me the “Player of the Game”. My mom — who had been excitedly dancing in the stands the entire game — approached me alongside a little girl, no older than five. She was wide-eyed and seemed starstruck. As cool as that moment was for her, I couldn’t help but imagine the impact a female role model would have had in my place.

A female player could have been to the girl what Damon had been to me. However, the lack of playing opportunities for women in the AUDL not only prevents this, but also supports the notion that the best athletes can only be men.

This is why pro ultimate needs to be mixed, now. We cannot wait for a male league to succeed before a mixed or women’s league is formed. (Almost) all the role models in the AUDL are male, strengthening the message that women are not as valued in sports as men. A mixed league, showcasing hundreds of elite female athletes competing on the same field as men, could begin to change this oppressive narrative.

I used to think that mixed gender play at the professional level would not be feasible, but I have changed my mind. The mixed version of the sport is played at an elite level across the country, has been on ESPN, and is played at the highest level because of the World Games. If you include pickup and seasonal leagues, the majority of ultimate is played mixed. On top of these reasons, pro teams would have twice the athletes to choose from during tryouts. If there were no pro single-gender leagues to compete with, just like the World Games, the talent across the board should rise.

The AUDL’s goal is to break into the mainstream sports fan base (mostly men), but ultimate is a niche sport, so maybe we should try to attract new sports fans: females. There are almost unlimited options for fans to consume sports, so why watch ultimate? A sport whose highest level includes men and women on the same field might be more likely to create a fan or recruit out of women/girls who would not normally watch sports.

Though I cannot force the AUDL to transition to a mixed league, I would still like to support women’s ultimate. I will be donating my past season’s Thunderbirds salary to support women’s U24 athletes in their travels to Perth, and I ask that other AUDL athletes do the same to support women in their community. It is not right that men can play for pay when women do not even have the chance to play for free.

Ultimate is changing. Whatever happens in the next couple years could determine the future of our sport for decades. Let’s set our sport up to positively impact the world we live in, rather than strengthening prejudices. Maybe, eventually, more women will play ultimate than men. That should be the goal. That would be equity in ultimate.

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  • 20stone

    Another lazy zealot who cares so deeply but not deeply enough to actually do anything. Oh great. You threw a couple hundred bucks at a U24 team. How noble.

    If this cause is judged by the actions of its advocates, then it really is the joke its detractors declare it to be.

    • Guest

      What would you prefer Carl do? Isn’t writing an article and starting a conversation a good start?

      • Johnny Walker

        found a league, or be willing to pay ticket prices that would enable to have a mixed/women’s league be financially viable.

        ps those tickets would cost thousands of dollars.

        • Liam

          Not everyone has the resources and knowhow to found a league.

          Carl lays out some reasons why a mixed pro league wouldn’t inherently be less profitable in the article. In a smaller market like Pittsburgh, like Lucy explains above, going mixed could potentially increase community buy-in as you’d get more female fans and female family members who might go out of their way to watch their friends/family play in a unique opportunity.

          In any case, no one should be shamed for contributing in some way towards what they believe in.This is akin to the weak “If you don’t like America, why don’t you just leave” arguments of the early 2000s.

          • Johnny Walker

            i am answering the question ‘what would you prefer carl do?’. both my answers are perfectly acceptable responses, and there is no shaming being done.

          • Diogenes

            There are less than a quarter million ultimate players in the entire US.

            If you think a sports franchise will be profitable trying to eke out a following from the handful of ultimate players around it then you are a fool.

            These articles make it plain as day: catering to one of the most high-maintenance and parsimonious subset of sports consumers is a short term migraine and a long term disaster.

          • Trent Simmons

            There is actually about 5 million people who play Ultimate occasionally in the US; the quarter mil you refer to are the ones who play in actual leagues and tournaments. Not saying that mixed would necessarily draw in more of those occasional players but wanted to clarify your point.
            Regarding catering to the existing club and league Ultimate community, you are absolutely right, Ulti players are a huge pain in the butt for any large scale organizing. Which is why the AUDL needs to get mainstream support to succeed. And its much harder to break into the already very crowded pro and semi-pro sports market without something to set yourselves apart.

            playing frisbee aint going to do it

            Self refereed with some rules/attitude tweaks to speed up the game is one way to present a unique product, going mixed is another.

    • Julia Wallace

      Please share how you are contributing as an example.

      • Diogenes

        It’s a joke.

        And that’s proven every day in every way by all these slacktivists who are so full of words and so empty everywhere else.

        “Something must be done!!!
        …..by someone else with someone else’s money and someone else’s time.”

        • Koho

          Hmmm – I have to say I’ve been skeptical of trying a mixed “pro” league. But the advocacy and obvious passion of the ultimate community – as well as some very hot recent mixed games in Worlds and the Season – make me think it could work. But one thing’s for sure – you’re “slacktivist” crack is way off the mark. The USAU as well as players in all divisions walk the talk – with coaching, youth leagues, GUM, putting on women’s all-star games during the “pro” season, and on and on. Just because no one’s yet to establish a mixed pro league – yet – doesn’t mean they aren’t invested in it, and may be ready to try.

  • Lucy Bender

    Awesome article Carl! Thanks for contributing to the conversation AND donating your T-birds pay.

    Creating opportunities for women to play ultimate at a higher level is vitally important to gender equity. I definitely felt the burn when you said, “It is not right that men can play for pay when women do not even have the chance to play for free.” Playing on Alloy (Pittsburgh mixed) this summer I have to admit that I was envious of my male teammates who played Thunderbirds. It seems like a dream to have extra opportunities to travel and play ultimate at a high level…not to mention get paid for it!

    On the business side of the AUDL, it makes financial sense to incorporate women. I agree with your point that, “A sport whose highest level includes men and women on the same field might be more likely to create a fan or recruit out of women/girls who would not normally watch sports.” Transitioning to mixed ultimate would be a way for the AUDL to garner a larger fan base, increase community buy-in, and also bring in more profit. Mixed Thunderbirds = More fans in the stands!

    There’s a lot of conversation happening in the Pittsburgh community right now about how women can break into the Pro scene. I am curious and excited to see what the Thunderbirds & AUDL have to say to this article and to the women who want the opportunity to play at the professional level.

  • Trey Katzenbach

    Great article Carl. Thanks for putting this to paper. To answer some of the comments below, I would bet that most top level women, like their male counterparts, play the game to compete and excel and for the camaraderie that you can only find playing on a sports team. The pro game does an excellent job of optimizing the game experience for players and fans alike and I am confident that women would cherish the experience. The AUDL American Ultimate Disc League has been an amazing opportunity for me and I appreciate every point that I play out on that field but I wish that it were open to all of the elite players in our wonderful sport. To say that the league as it is configured now is “open” is to show your ignorance. I think we have a great opportunity to do something special with our sport that goes beyond the obvious impacts of doubling the talent pool of players and doubling the fan support, but more importantly distinguishing our sport from all of the others out there…and it also just feels like the right thing to do.

  • Michael Dexter Palmer

    Great Article. It should be mixed because it would be more commercially sucsessfull and they should dump the reffs for the same reason.

    I dissagree you can’t force the AUDL to go mixed. AUDL players have more power than you think. #playerstrike

  • Teddy Sall

    I am pretty sure there is nothing that stops women from playing in the league. So it already is mixed…

    • Michael Dexter Palmer

      That is not the point and you know it….

  • David

    100% right. Mixed is definitely frisbee’s competitive advantage

  • Geoa Geer

    Ugh, amazing. Thank you.

    I LOVED attending two Thunderbirds games! I was also creepily hit on by drunk, non-ultimate guys at both games. Wtf? By mimicking other pro sports, we’re re-creating the culture, as well. What a surprise.

    Make it mixed. Please. I would fucking love to play, I would fucking love to throw money at that shit to watch. Make it 6v6, 3:3 ratio – less players to pay and it’s hella unique and awesome. Unique product = good.


    • Michael Dexter Palmer

      Oh I like the 6v6 idea… smaller field too…

    • David

      or since it’s already a larger field, 8v8 so it can be a 4:4 ratio?

  • Mike Hawkins

    Really appreciate the article Carl – beyond fairness point, as a marketing guy, I’m also struck by the ability for elite mixed ultimate to stand out in our crowded sports landscape. Other folks have already pointed out – more females playing, more female roles models, more female fans. Better for the sport, better for society.

  • Mark D. Hauser

    You maybe right since it may 50 years (or never) for there to be a big enough demand for women’s and men’s (or all 3) professional leagues to be truly successful (real salaries). But, it is not clear that a co-ed league would be more popular than a open/men’s league. Too bad it is so difficult to know for sure.

    • David

      Seems like it’s not clear to you because you’re a dude? Do you honestly think men would be so turned off that it would outweigh the increase in enthusiasm among female fans? Sigh.

      • Mark D. Hauser

        Wow, double sigh. So much for having a intelligent, constructive conversation. Your comment is incredibly arrogant (that you know for sure that it would be more popular) and accusatory (that I must be sexist since I don’t have the imaginary crystal ball that you have). You act like I was being negative, which I wasn’t. I think “you maybe right” suggest there is probably greater than a 50% chance that he is correct. How does that bother you for heavens sake? I am merely acknowledging the reality of the situation that we don’t know for sure right now and that someone has to risk their money to make this change. And it isn’t a question of being turned off — it’s a question of what more people will watch overall. And you have to consider what men and women, both the serious (like people who played Ultimate before) and the casual fan. That’s 4 different demographics to consider since even fans of the same sex may have different preferences on what they want to watch. For example, casual fans MAY be less receptive to watching co-ed Ultimate than a men’s/open leagues than the serious fan. And without the casual fan too, the league will never successful. Many people might prefer to watch men’s/open game because they find the men’s athletic ability to be more exciting (this is more likely to happen with 7 men on the field than only 4). The NBA is way, way more popular than the WNBA and it would still be if there was co-ed league too. (I get that men’s athletic ability is not always more exciting than women’s, but the rare exceptions such as gymnastics and figure skating are different types of sports because they including dancing and artistic movement and Ultimate does not.). Do you have statistics or any indication to show that currently people would prefer to watch, for example, the co-ed world championship game over the men’s/open championship game? And what if we increased more casual fans to that scenario? Now do you see how unclear it is? There was nothing wrong with my comment, but maybe, just maybe, it was more well thought out than yours.

        • David

          I don’t think it was incredibly arrogant. Standard-arrogant if anything. And for good reason. If you want people to read all of your sentences, try paragraphs!

          • Mark D. Hauser

            Never a good reason to be arrogant, anyways, there’s your paragraphs.

    • xADROCKx

      Finally, we’re getting close to the crux! Actions that may benefit less privileged groups must be “clear,” “for sure,” etc., but when it comes to actions that may benefit those already with great advantage, it’s like, “Well, let’s give this thing a shot and see how it goes.” That’s how the AUDL and MLU, like any original enterprise, started. It’s a shame that the guys in charge aren’t willing to take the same (or even less) risk for women.

      • Mark D. Hauser

        That’s unfair, see my response above. And nothing is stopping you from taking the the chance, time, and energy to get the sponsorship that is needed for the co-ed league. And I never said it had to be for sure, but the reality of any sponsorship is that the more likely that you can show that it will be popular the better your chances of you getting the sponsorship. This is true no matter if you are more or less privileged.

  • Laura Kathryn

    Have a lot of feelings about this topic… but im just gonna stick to sharing an idea 💡 what if the audl put on double headers once every couple weeks? Normal open audl games followed by an elite mixed club game. Mixed club teams play for free anyways and i guarantee theyd love an opportunity to showcase their team and play under the lights with a cheering crowd (maybe be offered a comped drink for bringing in their followers?) – i think theyd even pay for whatever the extra field time costs if they haddd to. Might be a good way to test the waters for the naysayers, and a good marketing scheme for the audl to see what draw mixed will have with little expense. Just and idea!! And if replying to this post, sotg rules apply, dont be a d*ck.

    • Tanys Haye

      I think this is a great idea to help test the waters!
      When just as many people, if not more show up for the mixed game it’s going to speak volumes to the demand for mixed ulti!

  • gregory

    Yes the time is now! I am reminded of a whacky ultimate tournament in Versailles Ohio; Poultry Days. An Open tournament, officially, though at some point along the way a team or two didn’t just field men, but women too. The tournament quickly turned into a coed affair and when a mixed team faced a hold-out all male squad they’d buckle down and beat them anyway (sometimes). The teams can lead!

  • mike gerics

    seems a giant waste of time and effort and consideration. pro ultimate’s not going mixed.

  • K West

    Mixed gender competition is what’s going to make ultimate the most popular sport in the future. Some people need to stop thinking like a ball.

  • Hey Leonard

    If the main goal is to showcase more female role models for young girls, why is the battle cry “Mixed,” and not “Women’s?”

  • xADROCKx

    Excellent article, Carl, and nice MLK selection! Here’s perhaps the quote or at least a related MLK quote that’s relevant here: ‘Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”‘

  • xADROCKx

    Unfortunately, I’ve had multiple female non-ultimate-playing friends, knowing that I play mixed gender ultimate and upon being told that ultimate has a pro league, express strong interest in attending pro games only to change their minds once I tell them that the pro league is (almost) all dudes. Hearing about the cheerleader thing only serves to solder that door closed. Image if we looked past the current ultimate community as a core audience and saw the much larger non-playing audience ready for mixed (and ONLY MIXED) pro ultimate! You think the NFL (a morally bankrupt but highly successful organization) has Justin Timberlake perform because that’s what football players want to see? ESPN, when they put ultimate on the air, is rightly thinking past the ultimate-playing community (something our community has trouble doing), but they fail to see the untapped female (and male) non-playing audience that’s just waiting for an exciting sport that can be played mixed-gender at the highest level.

  • Noah

    Why watch Ultimate? Because it’s a great sport with an incredibly unique apparatus that takes a specific type of athlete to use. Mixed Ultimate is great, but there needs to be a men’s pro league to be a dominate pop culture sport.

  • Steve Dempsey

    When Flatball becomes an Olympic sport, it will be mixed. The pro league should feed that.