Ultimate is Madison's Alternative Sport

Ultimate Frisbee
Photo by Madison Radicals

Warning—this story may cause you to grab a Frisbee, run out your front door, leap into the air, and whip the disc as hard as you can. Or at least I wanted to after talking to two of Madison’s ultimate leaders: Madison Radicals Owner and Head Coach Tim DeByl and Madison Ultimate Frisbee Association President (MUFA) Pete Schramm.

These two have been living on the isthmus and in the ultimate scene for more than two decades. Airbenders (an exceptionally good disc handler) across Dane County can feel the growth in awareness as well as the connection the sport brings to the community.

The biggest buzz is the announcement of the seventh American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) Championship Weekend at Breese Stevens Field on August 11 and 12. The tournament was held in Madison two years ago and had the highest attendance in AUDL championship history.

Since 2013, the Radicals have made it to the final four tournament every year. There are four divisions in the AUDL, allowing each divisional winner to face off in the tournament. Game attendance continues to grow thanks to the sport’s affordability. Regular season tickets are $9 and kids 12 and under are free, and tickets for the AUDL Championship Weekend are $20 for all three games.

MUFA, a nonprofit founded in 1993, is dedicated to providing opportunities for people to play ultimate. The league offers spring, summer, fall, and winter leagues. Pete says the sport is unique in that there isn’t a barrier to play it. “You can pick up a Frisbee, lace up your shoes, and find an open space.” In other words, no gear or shoulder-breaking gym bag to haul around.

Photograph provided by Madison Radicals

This year marks a milestone for MUFA: the league’s 25th anniversary. Pete notes that over the years many players met their spouses in the league, including himself. He met his fiancé, Lindsay, during the 2014 fall league. This leads to why MUFA wants to pursue a youth program. “Many of our players have children growing up around Frisbees and the sport.”

Aside from a conversation about youth, ultimate focuses on equity. The Radicals and AUDL have partnered to host a women’s game for the first time, where local women’s team Madison Heist will take on a team of European all-stars during the week of the AUDL tournament. “It’s awesome because we are trying to do more outreach,” Tim says.

The same goes for MUFA. While the league has had mixed play, this summer a new rule has been instated that says the ratio of men and women playing on the field will rotate, giving everyone a fair chance of game time. “We have the opportunity to be a leader at the local recreation level to demonstrate and use equitable practices,” Pete says.

Teams made up of a minimum of six individuals of each gender must be registered by May 15 for the summer league. In the summer of 2017, over 200 MUFA teams and 4,000 players competed on 14 Madison area parks. Parks were worn so much you could see spots on Google Satellite. Pete says the city has developed a strong plan at rotating parks to ease wear and tear, and allow them to recover.

Tim has been playing ultimate for nearly 20 years. In 1993, the World Flying Disc Federation played its final tournament at Warner Park. At that time, there were less than 400 MUFA players. When Tim started playing in 1997, summer leagues were already becoming more popular, with nearly 800 players.

Photograph provided by Madison Radicals

From Green Bay, Tim attended the University of Wisconsin Madison to study math and programming. After finding that creativity was his calling, he graduated with a B.S. in creative writing, and in 2004 he became co-owner of Distillery Marketing + Design. Seven years later, he came across a Craigslist ad for an AUDL ultimate league franchise. “I called the guy who started it, and he told me it had just been bought.” After being connected with the buyers—David Martin and Chad Coopmans, who were also from Green Bay—they became partners and, to Tim’s surprise, even more. “Chad ended up being my second cousin; we had never met before.”

Each AUDL franchise is owned and operated locally. The Radicals play in the Midwest Division with five other teams. Their first season was in 2013, and they went on to achieve an all-time regular season record of 64-8, taking home Midwest Division Champion titles in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Last year, the Radicals averaged over 1,000 fans a game, compared to its first year of about 550 fans. The first time ultimate was on ESPN was in 2010. Last year, the AUDL was on Sports Center 16 times. Ultimate is now in the media more frequently, people understand the sport more, and coverage of the sport has grown.

At the time of this writing, the team prepares to kick off the 2018 season. “Anytime you know the championship is at home, it’s a different vibe,” Tim says. On January 20, more than 90 people from Iowa to cities across Wisconsin attended tryouts—the highest attendance to date. During the 2015-2017 seasons, the Radicals have been number one in attendance in the AUDL. They plan to continue this trend in 2018.

Photograph provided by Madison Radicals

Pete was born in Madison and started playing ultimate in 1999. He started the way a lot of people started—with a friend who played. In the last 10 years, Pete became a MUFA league coordinator, was elected to the board, and, in 2015, was elected board president. “What I love about ultimate isn’t so much the sport itself, it’s the sport and people,” he says. “Playing ultimate, for me, is more of a way to spend time with a group of people I like than just about the sport that I’m playing.”

Pete says Madison is known around the country for having one of the largest and most vibrant ultimate communities. Since the league has only one sponsor, Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. since 2001, that’s where the team gathers after games. At the end of the summer league, MUFA holds both the championship game and a festival, allowing the two top teams to play in front of a crowd.

Likewise, as soon as the games are over at Breese Stevens Field, kids run onto the field with their discs ready to throw around with the players. Keeping activities like this incorporated in games is intentional. The sport is meant to be low cost and accessible for everyone.

The sport won’t break your bank, it’s not hard to follow, and it has a community with a big heart. Pete also points out it’s an alternative. “It’s a noncontact sport in an era where sports are dealing with concerns about concussions.”

For more information on MUFA, visit MUFA.org or MUFA’s Facebook page. For more information on the Madison Radicals or to buy tickets, visit radicalsultimate.com .

Chelsey Dequaine works as director of social media strategy for designCraft Advertising and is a freelance writer.