Every July, players flock to the same groomed beaches to celebrate a new summer by playing a little Ultimate. But these teams aren’t overlooking the Pacific in Santa Monica or even from the Atlantic in Wildwood, New Jersey. Instead they are gathering in the heart of the country, looking out over Lake Michigan. Sandblast, is returning to Montrose Beach, minutes from downtown Chicago, for its 12th consecutive year this July 7-8. Despite boasting a number of familiar teams returning year after year, this tournament is almost unrecognizable from its original self. What was once a small-scale tournament for Chicago players to get together has transformed into a major Ultimate event that attracts spectators, sponsors, and teams from around the country.
Beach Ultimate … in the Midwest?
Before anyone in the Ultimate Chicago community thought to bring organization and structure to the beaches of Lake Michigan, beach Ultimate merely existed as spurts of “elite level pickup” for club and league players around the city, said Levy, who was involved with Sandblast even before taking over in 2003. It was a while before the hype of organized beach Ultimate traveled to the Midwest, and caught the attention of Jet Quenemoen. After learning about emerging tournaments such as Lei-Out in Santa Monica and Wildwood in New Jersey, Quenemoen, who had never played a sand tournament himself, decided to bring this new fad to the Midwest.
“I thought, why don’t we get something started here because it sounds like something that people are really stoked on the east coast and other places,” said Quenemoen.
With minimal TD experience, and a handful of dedicated volunteers, and six months of prep, Jet was able to throw together a sixteen team, two-day tournament in July, 2001, complete with a tournament party.
If running a beach tournament was a foreign concept to Quenemoen, playing in one must have seemed from a another world to the very first participants, about 90 percent of whom had never played beach Ultimate at all, said Quenemoen. Many of the players came from the Chicago area, including many of Quenemoen’s teammates from Z, the primary open club in Chicago (later re-founded as Second Wind, then Machine). One established beach Ultimate team even made the trek from Washington D.C to attend the event. Mostly, the tournament gave the Chicago Ultimate community a chance to shake up the divisions that can form over time.
“It’s a great chance to mix and match your team and to break out of the cliques that form in an ultimate community,” said Nate Volkman, who worked closely with Quenemoen in setting up Sandblast.
The primary concern of everyone involved was having fun and experiencing Ultimate in a new environment. Competition and organization were left to unfold on their own.
“People were just happy to be doing something different. Trying something new with Ultimate Frisbee,” said Quenemoen.
The flowing Fall, Quenemoen moved out to Colorado, and the fate of the fledgling tournament was left up in the air. Luckilly, Volkman offered to take over the director duties for Sandblast 2002.
Volkman remembers handing out yellow fliers at Poultry Days, weeks before Sandblast 2002, in an attempt to spread word and bring in fresh competition. This was the tournaments first attempt at “marketing” itself.
Outside of this simple marketing strategy, the tournament remained low-key and was run with the same hands-off demeanor as the previous year.
“I’m not an event planner type. I wanted to play … the tournament kind of just ran itself,” said Volkman.
Adam Levy, who played on Second Wind and Machine and participated in previous Sandblasts, saw the hidden potential in a fun, competitive, beach Ultimate tournament set the middle of one of the countries biggest cities. Levy asked Volkman if he could lend a hand in managing what would be the third annual Sandblast. Volkman, who didn’t see himself as much of a director in the first place, saw Levy’s enthusiasm and offered to pass the title, and responsibility, on to him.
More than a Tournament
Levy set out with two goals in mind: to expand the tournament’s reach, and to add value to the experience.
Like with any tournament, word of mouth can often attract teams faster than any marketing strategy. Before long, Levy found himself increasing the size of the tournament to accommodate 28, 32, 60, and now 64 teams, some competitive than others and some spirited. Teams began to trickle, then pour in from surrounding states. What was once a dominantly Chicagoan tournament is looking to be 40 percent out-of-towners this year with attendees from New York, Philadelphia, Dallas and Denver.
How Levy went about reaching his second goal, adding value, is what has set Sandblast apart from many tournaments for years. Most tournament directors would agree with Adam’s aspiration: “My goal is to make sure the Ultimate player has to bring as little as possible.” But while many of them understand this as providing bagels and water, Levy envisioned full meals (breakfast and lunch), drinks, entertainment, medical assistance, and a tournament central that fostered a community by allowing players to truly relax and hang out. Levy realized that this experience wouldn’t come cheap, especially not for out-of-town teams were already paying for Chicago hotels. He spent years strategizing how to increase the entertainment value while changing entrance fees as minimally as possible.
Levy executed his strategy with an effectiveness that many would say was unparalleled at the time. One of the simplest solutions was developing mini-games such as trick shot competitions off of the fields, hosted by Ultimate Chicago Board Members including Zach Grossman. This made Sandblast more than a tournament, but it didn’t combat the costs, so Levy reached out to Chicago businesses to help cut costs and provide food and other amenities. He highlighted the unique demographic of Ultimate tournaments and explained why sponsorship would be profitable; Ultimate players are typically college educated (likely meaning higher income) and there are more even ratios of men and women at mixed tournaments. By doing so, Levy has been able to secure a number of sponsorships, including Potbelly sandwiches, MillerCoors beverages for the party, ZICO Coconut Water and PopChips among many other giveaways.
“To go out there and see chipotle and beverages was very new and very unusual,” said John Hock, who captains Team Drazba and has attended every Sandblast as part of the game division.
These corporate sponsorships have by no means made the tournament self-sustaining – a team bid still runs around $600 – but they have attributed to the high quality amenities that can be scarce at other tournaments: impressive for $40 per player.
Of course, no tournament, no matter how many amenities they have, can retain teams if the Ultimate itself isn’t quality. And judging by the core of teams that have been returning for over ten years, Sandblast offers some great Ultimate.
One of Sandblast’s most notorious teams is Red Stripe, which is made up of mostly University of Illinois alums and is lead by Jacob Dee. Many would say this spirited squad embodies what Sandblast is all about: relaxation, competition, and team Speedos.
“We have a great time every year at Sandblast, and really feel it is a great place to be expressive and just be who you are,” said Dee.
After a few years of organizing the tournament and expanding its reach, Levy realized that not all teams were coming for the same reasons. Some teams were more focused on demonstrating their Spirit of the Game through themes, costumes, cheers, and “winning the party” rather than the number of points they scored. To ensure that everyone could get what they came for out of Sandblast, Levy invented a “spirit division,” in which winners are decided using the Spirit of the Game Rating System as established by BULA and not by game wins and losses. The name of the division was later changed to the Jim Burfisher Spirit Division in memory of the premature passing of this Ultimate Chicago community member.
“Having a Spirit Division where the focus is more on spirited games against other teams that have developed costumes/themes have made the experience more enjoyable,” said Ernie Miyashita, captain of From Under the Grass (previously Who Brought the Grass). This team is a staple of the Spirit division, and is known for their grass-themed costumes and awards for opponents. They have even stopped midgame to break out into the Thriller dance. Other notable themes have included American Gladiators, Birthday Party and Pirates of Lake Michigan.
This event doesn’t only draw players out to the beach, but spectators as well. A concrete retaining wall lets spectators sit or stand while watching games that spread in every direction.
“It’s just a lot of fun. You can watch Ultimate, it’s a great spectator event,” said Quenemoen.
Is There More on the Horizon?
Levy’s tenacious pursuit of sculpting the ideal beach tournament was so successful that the project finally grew too large for one man to handle. This year, Levy has enlisted the support of Midwest Ultimate and Ultimate Chicago, who will provide personnel and some logistical oversight, as they have with other regional events including Camp I-Wanna-Huck-It and Wisconsin Swiss.
Ultimate Chicago members should also get psyched for another major partnership; Sandblast is serving as the launch pad for the Windy City Wildfire, Chicago’s new AUDL team. The franchise will be hanging out in their tent where Ultimate fans will be able to sign up for an email list as well as ask questions about Chicago’s professional Ultimate team.
And as for the future? Levy will probably put a hold on expansion of the number of teams for a while in order to maintain the current value and keep a balance of local and traveling teams. Teams from the Ultimate Chicago community have been such a staple of this tournament, and one of Sandblast’s priorities is that those teams who have whether almost every tournament are able to return. Likewise, Sandblast has been successful at providing value for each and every player, and they don’t want to see resources spread to thin.
Whether or not Sandblast continues to grow as one of Ultimate’s most well-marketed tournaments, it has certainly outgrown and outshined the vision of Quenemoen and a few Chicago Ultimate players looking to try something different with a disc.
“I never would have foreseen something like [this]. I think it is a testament to the Chicago Ultimate community and having a few motivated people step up.”
Feature photo by David Hwang