Baseball. Basketball. Football. Soccer. The top professional sports with huge fan followings are focused on a ball. The way it’s batted and dribbled, thrown and caught, kicked into goals or lobbed into nets is the stuff of bated-breath anticipation, merriment or mourning, and fan frenzy.
But fans of Ultimate are focused on a Frisbee with a seemingly unpredictable flight path, one that players fling through the air and leap to catch in the end zone to earn their team points.
The Washington, D.C. area is home to the DC Breeze, an Ultimate team that will open its second season of play in the professional-level American Ultimate Disc League this Saturday at George Mason High School.
The physics of the game appeal to Don Grage, a longtime D.C.-area businessman and managing partner of the DC Breeze. Spectators, he explains, can predict the course of a ball when it’s thrown. They can tell if the ball will hit its target. But a Frisbee’s path isn’t so easy to predict. Add some windy conditions and it’s all the more difficult.
“It’s that trajectory difference that adds a whole new dynamic to the sport,” Grage says.
He explains that an Ultimate player could let loose the disc for a 100-yard pass, with the receiver relatively close to him. But the Frisbee floats. Spectators – even seasoned spectators like Grage – might think the pass is wild as it arcs out of bounds. But then it swings back onto the field, the receiver appears in sprinting distance, and they realize the pass was perfect all along. These professional players know how the Frisbee operates.
“It’s a really exciting, fast-paced, dynamic sport,” Grage says.
Grage, an amateur-level Ultimate player himself, considers the sport easy to understand for first-time spectators and even novice players.
While the flight of the Frisbee sets it apart from other sports, Grage explains Ultimate in terms of its more widely recognized compatriots. Game play starts with two teams of seven players, one on each side of the field; a Frisbee pass is made to the opponent, much like a football kickoff. Players must pass the Frisbee down the field and may only pivot while holding the Frisbee, like in basketball. A pass caught in the end zone results in a point scored, again like in football. For the team on defense, the goal is to prevent those passes by limited-contact means, and possession can change at any place on the field, like in soccer.
“It’s a cool display of physical movement and athleticism,” says Jonathan Neeley, an Arlington-based freelance journalist and Ultimate player who’s joining the DC Breeze this season. He and his teammates will be traveling across the continent in their 14-game season – with away games as near as Philadelphia and as far as Montréal – and devoting their weekends through July to Ultimate competition.
The DC Breeze, which played its inaugural season last year at Anacostia High School, is based at the University of Maryland this year but wanted to schedule a game in Northern Virginia. Thus the team will be starting its season with a special game at George Mason High School, and is expecting fans from across the D.C. area to attend.
At George Mason, the DC Breeze will take on the Toronto Rush, last year’s league champions. The Rush went undefeatedlast season in franchise play, but Grage says he’s confident that with new talent on this year’s team, the Breeze can do battle with the Rush.
Some games in the league see turnout in the thousands, and others in the hundreds. Grage trusts that the devoted Ultimate community in the D.C. area, the fans who know the sport and its players, will come out to the games. But he hopes to expand Ultimate to a wider audience locally.
“I want to grow the sport,” Grage says.
He plans to build a festival atmosphere around the sporting event, with activities, concessions, and added entertainment to entice potential spectators. At the game at George Mason, those in attendance can enjoy concessions by local vendors such as pie-tanza and Clare and Don’s Beach Shack, a performance by the local band Mandatory Practice, a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by local musician Claire Cho, and an assortment of entertaining activities and mini-games.
“We want people to come out and enjoy the festivities, but also see the sport, because the sport will sell itself, but only when people are familiar with it,” Grage says. “When they see the sport, I know they’re going to love it.”
The DC Breeze will play the Toronto Rush this Saturday, April 12, at 3 p.m. at George Mason High School, 7124 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12.50 at the gate for general admission, and $6 in advance and $10 at the gate for Falls Church City Public Schools students. For more information, visit the-dcbreeze.com.