I’m Going to be an Ultimate Fan

by | April 13, 2015, 7:00am 0

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I’m Spike Friedman. I’m a sportswriter for Grantland and The Stranger, and I’m going to do my best to become an ultimate fan this year covering the Seattle Rainmakers.

Some background:

I love sports and have built my life around watching and analyzing them. I write about Seattle’s professional sports teams for The Stranger (focusing much of my energy on the Seahawks) and soccer (with some light football and baseball work) for Grantland. I’ve been a passionate Seattle sports fan since childhood, and over the past decade, I’ve become an equally rabid supporter of Liverpool  in the English Premier League.

Right now, I know pretty much nothing about ultimate. I have some friends who play in college, and I probably once watched part of a game under the influence of something at said college. I know ultimate exists. But in terms of understanding it as a burgeoning professional sport? I am a total neophyte.

My not-knowing is what makes the project I’m about to embark upon so exciting: I’ll be following the Seattle Rainmakers this season, going to games when I can and following online when I can’t. I want to put together a full understanding of ultimate as a professional sport, and, with an open heart, become a supporter of the club and its players. I’m genuinely excited.

Part of what drew me to English soccer about a decade ago was the novelty. I played soccer as a kid, but hadn’t been an obsessive fan. Instead I was a stats nerd, and through college put much of my energy into building (admittedly rudimentary by any current standard) baseball projection systems. I didn’t get soccer; I thought the pace and rhythm of the game didn’t appeal to me.

The problem was that I didn’t care. I watched some of the professional game in college with friends, and played a healthy amount of FIFA, but my fandom and understanding of the game was haphazard at best.

Then I was sick and unemployed during Euro 2008, which was a brilliant tournament both in terms of thrilling matches and stunning individual performances. This led me to caring about Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres, which led me to Liverpool. An extended work trip the next year to Amsterdam led me Luis Suarez (who was at Ajax at the time), which eventually led me to Liverpool as well. Then, suddenly, I was a big Liverpool supporter, and the rhythms of the professional game started to make sense to me. Before I was a fan, I didn’t have a way in. But with a reason to care? I became obsessed.

Now, though? Seven years later, I’m a soccer writer and the novelty of the game has worn off. I still love watching matches, but I watch them critically. I’m keeping up with tactical and analytical innovations, not unearthing what is for me a brand new sports fan experience.

So this year, I’m going to dive in with the Rainmakers. I’ll be reporting back weekly with details on what happened and what I learned in each match. I’ll also check out some practices and some road games to get a real feel for the team’s culture. Hopefully, I’ll gain a new obsession.

Before this begins though, for the purpose of laying out the basics of this experiment, let me detail what I know about the game, what I don’t know and think I’ll need to learn, and some preconceptions I feel like I’m going to have to dismiss over the course of this season.

The Seattle Rainmakers hosted the Vancouver Nighthawks in Renton, WA. Vancouver defeated Seattle 29-24 in double overtime. (Scott Houghtaling - UltiPhotos.com)

Last year, the Seattle Rainmakers hosted the Vancouver Nighthawks in Renton, WA. Vancouver defeated Seattle 29-24 in double overtime. (Scott Houghtaling – UltiPhotos.com)

What I know:

The disc is round. Seriously, guys, I’m starting from zero.

Two teams play. I’m guessing 11 a side?

Ultimate is an invasion sport; players are attempting to move possession of the disc into the opponents endzone. (Note, I do not know if endzone is the proper jargon)

You can’t run with the disc.

Um, there is some number of points you get for getting in the endzone?

The disc changes possession if it hits the ground.

There are lots of diving catches and throws.

I throw a disc like a child; professional players do it that other way… seriously, guys, bear with me here…

What I don’t know:

The rules of the game. Clearly that’s a starting point.

Where athleticism shows up at the professional level. I’ve seen highlights of diving catches and big time throws, but I’m not sure if the typical great frisbee player looks more like a wide receiver or an attacking midfielder in soccer. Perhaps both? Perhaps somewhere in between? In fact…

How much positional specialization is there? I don’t expect bodies that look as different position to position as say American football or basketball, but is this like soccer where height only matters at a couple spots on the field, and generally players look the same regardless of position, or is this like rugby (which is to say football-light in terms of specialization).

How often does the game stop? And then derived from that, how important is coaching on a play-by-play basis? Are coaches implementing broad strategic ideas, or are they managing the action of the game?

What’s the deal with substitutions? Soccer style limits, or basketball style rotations?

How professional are the leagues? What are the attendance numbers like? What does training look like? How well compensated are the athletes?

What I’m trying to put out of my mind:

Preconceptions about the sport. Specifically cultural ones (Ultimate is just an excuse to listen to Phish and drop acid) and athletic ones (Ultimate is a sport for dudes who couldn’t hack it playing the skill positions in football/soccer at the college level). Those things may be true for some players, but I don’t want the stereotypes to define my understanding of the game.

This a starting point. A place to jump off from. The first step is learning the game though. The Rainmakers start their season on April 18th, and I’ll be watching.

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