Many doubts surround the viability of the AUDL. Will they draw a mainstream audience? Will they have a quality product? Will refs and rules tweaks ruin the game? Will it last? Though doubts may still remain, for certain the opening night for the Philadelphia Spinners was an enormous success. The number of fans and the enthusiasm of the crowd far exceeded everyone’s expectations. The Spinners delivered a polished performance of both ultimate and sporting event experience.
Earlier in the week, the spinners Facebook page mentioned that they had blown by their goal of selling 450 advanced tickets and had sold over 700. Players came from at least as far as York, Lancaster, and even State College just to see opening night. When the final count was in, over 1700 fans made an appearance at Franklin Fields. The great majority of the crowd were ultimate players, though from overheard conversations about basic rules, it seemed as though many players brought non-ultimate playing friends along.
In typical ultimate fashion, lots of fans showed up to the gates just minutes before the game was supposed to start. The start of the game was delayed a bit to allow the last minute onslaught of fans to purchase tickets and get through the gates.
The event had many of the trappings of other professional sporting events – programs (reasonably priced at $1), announcers, a DJ, silly games with fans between quarters, t-shirts thrown into the crowd, and even cheerleaders. Of course, being opening night, there were some imperfections. The program had no mention of the Buffalo Hunters or their roster. The announcer did not know the names of the opposing team’s players and did not announce any of their names when they scored. The gates only accepted cash prompting a last minute dash for many to an ATM a few block away. But these flaws were minor in comparison to the professional execution of the event overall.
Ultimate culture and professional sports culture blended seamlessly together with the exception, perhaps, of the presence of the Fly Girls. In uniforms reminiscent of what the cheer team at my local high school wore 15 years ago, they seemed a bit of an anachronism at a sporting event who’s roots of origin are post-feminist movement. This dissonance was not helped by the song selection of Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” for the halftime dance routine. If the AUDL is successful and if this is how the mainstream gets introduced to ultimate, where will the women be? Does anyone even care? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure if girls ran the world, we’d not prefer the sidelines to the field.
But for this game at least, being in the stands was alright. The fans at Franklin Field were ready to give players the professional ultimate experience at least as much as the players were willing to give it to us. The Buffalo Hunters started their professional ultimate debut to a large booing Philly crowd. Booing an opposing team? This might be new behavior for ultimate players, but normal for Philadelphia sports fans. Clayton Coltman showed off dance moves to rival any of the Fly Girls. Can someone get that man a foam tornado suit or something? The wave was obligatorily done and a beach ball bopped around the stands.
The atmosphere was definitely about the home team versus “the enemy” moreso than any other ultimate game I’ve ever spectated. I was surprised by the relative silence of the stands as a Buffalo Hunter made an amazing layout grab early in the first quarter. I was among the awkward minority who expressed excitement. I guess we cheer for the home team only now, not for all amazing athletic displays.
The ultimate ethos of the importance of good and fair play over winning was not completely forgotten however, and new rules opened up opportunities for new heckling. In a concession to SOTG, players are allowed to overturn calls of the referees if they feel that a call was made (or not made) unfairly in their own favor. This ability is called “the integrity rule.” Early in the second quarter, Tery Katzenbach (Spinners captain) bobbled and caught a pass while on his way out of bounds. It was obvious to the stands that control of the disc was not obtained until he was far out of bounds, yet no call was made. After a moment of bewildered silence (did he really get away with that?) a few chants of “integrity, integrity” went up from the crowd.
Chants of “integrity, integrity” were brought back in the fourth quarter, this time directed at the refs, when it appeared that Katzenbach did not want to take a yardage gain on a foul called against Buffalo for an accidental bump from behind on the mark. The players shook hands and it appeared that Katzenbach was about to check the disc in where he was following the call, but the ref whistled again and pointed to the spot ten yards up field.
Overall the ultimate was acceptable and the game was fun to watch. Refs moved things along nicely. Having more points with no calls or calls made quickly definitely increases watchability. Despite the good ultimate and fast pace, every single person I talked to after the game mentioned that the game felt too long. Quite a few fans left after the third quarter. One fan suggested that 10 minute quarters would be more appropriate. Perhaps a running clock would work better. The availability of two timeouts per quarter seems a bit much. If all timeouts are used, this is really no shorter than listening to eight arguments per half in regular ultimate. Maybe regular ultimate just needs dancers to distract us while we wait.
Post game consensus from those I spoke with in the stands was that being in the stands for this first professional game was a momentous occasion. Regardless of the sustainability of the AUDL, we all got a taste of what professional ultimate can look like and it’s something we won’t soon forget.
The first point featured two dropped passes in the endzone by the Spinners and at least one unforced error by Buffalo. It was clear that the players were a little unnerved by the excitement of opening night. With the first score by the Buffalo Hunters, everyone thankfully snapped out of it and remembered how to play again.
Major differences in AUDL play include having four 12 minute quarters. Travel calls are actively made by referees and results in a turnover. Fouls are also called by refs and involve yardage penalties. The field is larger (80 yards plus 20 yard endzones. 53 ⅓ yards wide). The stall count is seven.
Of these changes, the larger field size appears to affect play the most. There is a lot of space to cover and this makes man to man coverage much more difficult. For the offense the length of the field, though only ten yards longer, seemed to make the endzone somehow not within hucking distance from everywhere. Many times cutters ended up with the disc downfield and no continuation cuts. I wonder if any offenses will evolve to having two depths of cutters rather than one horizontal stack with all players at the same depth.
The width of the field did interesting things to the offense as stacks and cutters were always very clearly shading toward the sideline with the disc. The width of the field and more horizontal open spaces will make swinging the disc an even more important part of offenses who can execute it well. Buffalo experimented with four handlers across and only three cutters in the horizontal stack. This allowed them to move the disc better across the entire width of the field. In contrast, the Spinners seemed more prone to jamming it up the sideline.
The score at half was Spinners 14, Buffalo Hunters 9. In the first half, both teams played horizontal stack offenses and man to man defense. With a decent lead going into the fourth quarter, the Spinners experimented with a vertical stack offense and some sort of zone/clam defense. I have not read the entire AUDL rulebook but it appears that there no rule against double teaming the thrower. With so much space to cover, it is unclear how effectively zone defense will be used in the AUDL. A preliminary look at it says, not very. Despite a double team on the mark Buffalo had no trouble with whatever type of zoney defense the Spinners were attempting.
What separated The Spinners from the Buffalo Hunters was legs. The Spinners were faster and played excellent man to man defense with several successful layout D’s from across the roster. Buffalo wasn’t helped by bringing only about 15 players instead of a full roster of twenty. By the end of the game, Buffalo looked slower than at the start whereas the Spinners were still running strong. Buffalo did not force The Spinners to do anything outside of their comfort zone. With faster players and plenty of space to work with, The Spinners had options underneath and deep. Excluding the first point, they appeared in control of their destiny for the entire game.
Final Score Spinners 26, Buffalo Hunters 14
The Spinners franchise is off to a promising start with enthusiastic support from the Philadelphia ultimate community. It remains to be seen if they can hold the crowd’s interest for a full season or even a full four quarters. They’ll have a chance to prove their product again this weekend versus the the Connecticut Constitution.