Attending sports live gives you a clear sense of what type of athletes play the games at their highest levels. The best soccer players are, for the most part, surprising small. Their bodies could blend in pretty much anywhere. Not so with football players, though the range on an NFL sideline is significant. I’m six feet tall, and I loom over a few guys on any given team and am dwarfed by others. And on an NBA court I’m shorter than everyone. Even someone who plays small like Steph Curry looms over me. At the Seattle Rainmakers 20-17 win over the San Francisco Dogfish, I saw that I was at most 10 pounds away from being an average-sized professional ultimate player.
Regardless of my size, (and also with the caveat that I understand MLU isn’t the sole venue for the game’s best athleticism) I could also see that I wouldn’t have the quick burst speed to keep up. Watching ultimate live (as opposed to on YouTube, which broadcasts the game with only one camera angle) you see how much of the strategy comes down to how teams stretch the field vertically and how defenses react. The simplest way to score quickly is to beat a guy one and one for speed, have that run get spotted, and then huck the disc long with just the right amount of float for the receiver to run under it without the defender being able to recover. As a mediocre runner, I’d never get open enough to be valuable at high level ultimate (let’s not even get started on my disc skills…).
So a big question I have is, what type of athlete be the most valuable?
For context, I like to think about the way Seattle Mariners general manger Jack Zduriencik has in the past referred to baseball players who hit for both power and average as aircraft carriers. A strong baseball farm system will have a few of these players coming up at any given time (Zduriencik had this when he was the head scout in Milwaukee, when Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun developed in tandem). These are the most valuable prospects you can develop; they’re projectable, indestructible and help you win in many ways.
In talking to former Rainmakers player Skip Sewell in the stands at the match, it sounds like 6’3” DI athletes with a full array of throws are the aircraft carriers of ultimate. They force you to defend them in ways that will stretch any opponent, and also have the size and speed to make plays on defense. And while these guys have not totally proliferated through the pro ranks, they certainly could. The sort of football players who are forced to convert away from quarterback at the pro level (think Kordell Stewart, Brad Smith or… ugh… Tim Tebow) would be excellent ultimate players. So too shooting guards without the height to play defense at the NBA level. Also, track and field athletes would obviously have a ton of value if their skills developed.
And that’s because as important as athleticism is, there’s also so much skill in the game. I imagine the most skilled throwers start young. Now, I don’t think that throwing a frisbee is like swinging a tennis racket (where the assumption is you have to have done it a certain number of times before you turn six to have a chance of playing professionally), but boy does it help to have a deep familiarity with the disc.
Which was why the other great part of watching a game live was seeing how kids engaged with the atmosphere. The place was full of children, and during halftime they all blitzed an adjacent practice field and hucked the disc around. Some of the older kids were trying to bust out hammers and were diving for tough catches, while the younger ones were just trying to keep up. It was fun. And the presence of an Ezell’s Fried Chicken truck (famous in the Seattle area for the perhaps apocryphal rumor of being Oprah’s fried chicken of choice twenty odd years ago) only made the whole thing feel more like a complete event than just a regular season match of a spectator sport.
And I bet amongst those kids some will develop into high-level athletes. The fact that they’re throwing hammers before they hit puberty means they could one day be pretty incredible ultimate players.
Now some quick hits:
- The weight distribution of the MLU disc is different in a way that I understand leads to some unforced errors for players used to a different disc. This sounded reminiscent of the Jabulani in the 2010 World Cup to me. The way forward from that ball wasn’t backwards to an old ball, but forward to a happy medium. I wonder if disc technology will chart a similar path.
- San Francisco hit a buzzer beating hammer that gave me a bit of an understanding as to why the clock adds an element of drama to ultimate matches. Also, the rule that has pulls go from midfield after scoring timeouts added a bit of clock strategy. Still not totally sold on the clock though.
- There is a minor league baseball feel to the event in that the players and fans, to a large degree, know each other. It had the same supportive vibe as arts events I’ve attended in Seattle in the past. Also, the sacrifices it takes to be a professional athlete in a sport where most players are at best breaking even felt like the life of a high-level artist in a mid-sized city.
- The announcer at one point said, “nice work boys,” after a Rainmakers score. This was a quaint level of homerism that I quite enjoyed.
- There was a four-point swing that went down late in the game when the Rainmakers dropped a potential goal, and then got a D going the other way only to see a tipped disc land in the hands of a Dogfish player. It was cool to see narrow margins of athleticism increase the drama late. There were a few tipped/deflected goals and they all were incredibly dramatic.
- I liked that instead of t-shirt cannons, there were just children throwing t-shirts. Classic labor vs. capital moment right there.
The Rainmakers are off this weekend, so I’ll be talking to a few ultimate experts in the next week to try and learn a bit more about how the game is developing.