Photo by Jason Honyotski – Ultiphotos
At the New York Rumble’s first practice, Chris Mazur and Joe Smash looked around our huddle and warned us the season would fly by.
“It goes by fast,” they said. They were right.
Now that the year is over, there has been some time to reflect on my first experience as a professional Ultimate player. There is no doubt what we are experiencing now is an incredible part of Ultimate history. To have the opportunity to help professional Ultimate take off is not just a privilege, it’s a historical experience.
But with the firsthand perspective of Major League Ultimate and the rise of Ultimate in general, I’ve also gotten a chance to soak up the many pros, cons and question marks surrounding our sport and the way it will continue to evolve. I’m going to try and tackle those here by breaking my experience into three simple categories: things I loved (sub category of rules), things I didn’t like (sub category of rules) and things I can’t make my mind up on. When necessary, I’ll elaborate on my reasoning.
Things I didn’t like
Well-behaved fans. Hey, I’m not looking for hockey fans, but I was seriously disappointed by the MLU fans’ rowdiness this season. The attendance was awesome. The kids who were waiting around for autographs were one of the coolest parts of the experience. The cheers, foot stomping on the bleachers in the nest and general elation at Pro Ultimate was all fantastic. But, I heard maybe three good heckles all year. Aside from one Philly game, I didn’t hear about any tailgating. I love respectful fans, but I was hoping for some more personal barbs and obnoxious cheering. We have such a small community, take advantage of knowing opposing players weaknesses!
Being on a field with field goal posts. It just looks silly to have a giant eye sore on the field that we aren’t even using. Going forward, it might be worth looking into soccer or lacrosse fields. Never mind having the obstruction in the back of the end zone.
Isolation of divisions. Keeping the league small is great. It keeps people focused on our eight teams and, I imagine, is the best way to maximize our resources across all teams. But I think it’d be awesome to see one big travel game, just to break up the monotony of playing three teams 10 times. I would have loved to see one of the west coast teams even (especially) if it meant traveling there for a weekend.
Strictness on spikes. The only reason a spike should be penalized with unsportsmanlike conduct or a delay of game is if you bomb it out of the stadium (Iggy) or hit an opposing player with it. I think, other than that, we should shy away from the NFL’s (No Fun League) approach and encourage goals to be celebrated more. Break buckets and Frisbee-prop spike celebrations would be a great addition to Pro Ultimate.
Integrity rule. As it stands, I think it is too technical. It should be this simple: two opposing players agree on something, they overrule the ref. If they both look at a ref after a call and tell him he got it wrong, that should be the end of the conversation. The whole raising your hand, explaining yourself in a formulated way, is just too difficult to do in a game. It should just be a fluid mutual decision between players.
Rules I didn’t like
Silent stall counts. This was not just terrifying but seemed unnecessary. The refs were inconsistent giving the “stall 5” warning throughout the season, and as a thrower it was eerie not knowing how much time you have. I understand the comparisons to a sport like basketball, where no warning is given, but in basketball the clocks/scoreboards are also much more visible. At the least, I think the “stall 5” warning should be exclaimed on each mark.
Inconsistent marking violations. Throughout the year, contact on the mark seemed to go over differently with every ref. Sometimes, you’d see three straight marking fouls in a row that tallied up a thirty yard penalty. Other times you’d see guys get trucked and every ref on the field would swallow their whistle. I don’t know if marking violations need to be defined more clearly or the refs need more training, but it was definitely an issue.
The lack of travel calls. Ultimate players, by rule, travel a lot. I think there were three games I saw a travel called in this season. I don’t know what else to say except that it is simply ludicrous to believe there were only that many advantageous, play-changing travels throughout our season.
Things I loved
Being on YouTube / cable television. This proved superior to an ESPN deal in almost every way. We got instant and full access to all of our live streamed games on YouTube. During our Spinners game, someone asked where people were watching from…the response was incredible: Colombia, Australia, Canada, Belgium, Italy, Africa, and more. Add to that the tens of texts I got from friends in the Philadelphia area, “dude, I’m watching Ultimate on TV right now!” and this approach seems the obvious one for exposure. But nothing was better than sitting down on my own couch for dinner, turning on the TV, and having one of Rumble’s games pop up on the last channel that had been left on.
Jersey restrictions. At first, when I had to cut off a string bracelet I got in Egypt, I was pretty down on these. But as the league went on, and after going to club Ultimate tournaments, I realized how awesome it was. MLU jerseys, MLU shorts, MLU socks, MLU warm-ups. We looked great. I felt professional. I’d even take it a step further and say they should make players wear the same color schemed cleats. One thing I would like to see, though, is for us to be allowed to wear hats. Some people need them not just for sun exposure but to see. Sports like baseball, basketball and football all allow headwear, and as long as the hats have some kind of regulation I think it’d work great.
National anthems. With the exception of one or two games, the national anthem singer was the most talented person in the stadium.
Halftime shows. It was great seeing entertainment and competitions throughout games and during halftime. All of our games this season had a really professional feel and looking at the kids, I could tell they sensed no difference between what we were doing and what they would find at an NFL or MLB game. The presentation can still improve, but we’re in a fantastic spot.
Autographs. Need an ego boost? Try leaving the field at New York Rumble’s stadium after a game. The line of kids there to get autographs surprised me into laughter the first time I saw it. This was so cool, knowing these kids cared enough to run over with discs, jerseys, cleats and sharpies trying to pick up their favorite player’s autograph.
No scheduling conflicts. It was not hard to make every game of this season. The only real “sacrifice” I had to make was missing the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. Other than that, we avoided tournaments, major holidays and just about anything else you can think of. This was a perfect time to have the season (unless you’re a college player).
Rules I loved
Basically everything. Double teams, wider field, moving during fouls, subbing on timeouts, re-setting stalls on timeouts, receiving after a Callahan, pylons for cones, less time between pulls, all proved superior to “regular” Ultimate rules. The game was faster, more challenging and more exciting thanks to all of these rule changes. If I had a vote right now I’d vote to work these rule changes into every form of Ultimate with one exception: the field width. I could see this hurting opportunities for tournament play and also being way more exhausting if you’re playing seven games in one weekend.
Where I’m torn
Our shorts. Yeah, you probably remember them. In the beginning of the year, I hated them. I mean I really, really loathed them. But I have to admit, when I threw on my Patagonia’s at the end of the year, they almost felt – dare I say it – too big. I think we could still move the Puma’s up a size or two, but shorts above the knee may not be the worst thing.
Some parting words: We should have trades, and trade deadlines, and more fluid rosters. How cool would it have been to have teams swapping stars to make playoff pushes mid-season? Personally, I would have loved to see it. Look how exciting Philly’s season was by bringing in all those Pitt guys at the end of the year. It causes drama, creates story lines and brings in more fan attention. The best spike of the year I saw belonged to Mike Hennessy, who stood straight with his feet together, chugged imaginary beer out of the Frisbee and then spiked it. Quinn Hunziker had the best D our first game of the season, when he covered more ground on Jeff Graham than I’ve seen someone make up in a long time. Philadelphia was the most fun team to play, and DC had the best home stadium (other than us, of course). I think if I could trade for one jersey it’d be the Whitecaps’ baby blue, and if I could take one opponent onto our team it’d be Danny Clark. The most dominant performance I saw all year came from Alan Kolick, who tore us to shreds each time we played him. The best refs were in Boston, and our best win was beating Boston on our home turf. If I could take one throw back it’d be my first huck on our first offensive point against D.C., when I pushed it out the back to Jack Marsh. I still think if we had put that disc in we might have won that game and our season would have a different story. The most heartbreaking loss was the overtime defeat in Philly. It’s true that our most underrated player was David Vuckovich, but our most underrated teammate was Milo Snyder. Despite being hurt all year he may have had the most consistent sideline voice and positivity of anyone on the team.
Finally, a special thank you and shout out to Michelle Kondracki. I don’t know what other team’s management was like, but Michelle was awesome. She communicated, she looked out for us, she ran a great show at our home games and she was always willing to listen if you had something you needed help with. I can’t say enough about how friendly and communicative the entire Rumble organization was. It was a great experience and I hope it isn’t the last!