Thursday, June 14, 2012

DISC-OVERING A NEW SPORT


Baby boomers remember it as a simple pastime in which they engaged on so many college campuses.

Several generations later, the skill of making an accurate toss with what remains universally known as a Frisbee has become part of an evolving professional sport, and New Britain is a cornerstone.

The sport once called Ultimate Frisbee with rules made up as you went along is formally known as Ultimate Disc. The Connecticut Constitution, members of the professional American Ultimate Disc League, play their home games at CCSU’s Arute Field.

The team is being operated capably and modestly by the players themselves.  General manager/coach/leading scorer John Korber leads by example. Vice president of marketing and sales Rafe Steinhauer, a former cross country and track athlete, plays a position known as “cutter,” but perhaps more importantly answers inquiries into the sport’s burgeoning position.

“The professional league will help the sport as a whole,” Steinhauer said. “It’s always been uphill battle to get the general public to buy into the game as legitimate. We’re battling a short history.

“Lots of people play just for fun recreationally without cleats and with tie-dye shirts. There’s nothing wrong with that. People play softball in beer leagues. It’s the same split. There’s nothing wrong with either form but they’re very different. Our version is a spectacular spectator sport.”

BRIEF HISTORY: The Ultimate game was invented in 1968.

For the first 20 years, play proliferated primarily on college campuses, where it developed what Steinhauer called, “a hippie stigma.”

The first competitive development occurred in the late 1980s when the Ultimate Players Association was born. Four years ago, it was “rebranded” as USA Ultimate. It became the governing body for competitive amateur play and established national championships at the high school, college and club (adult) levels.
Such tournaments have been going on for 25 years, Steinhauer said, yet the stigma remains.

“There’s definitely a generational divide,” he said. “As anybody 40 and up and they’ll say it’s just a bunch of hippies. Ask anybody in their 30s and it’s an intensely competitive and perhaps the most aerobically challenging team sport. It’s a split we deal with on a daily basis.”

THE GAME: Steinhauer has multiple reference points when he evaluates Ultimate’s aerobic challenges.
The teams play 7-on-7 over the wide-open space of a football field. Players cannot run with the disc; it must be advanced via the pass. “It’s a constant series of sprints,” Steinhauer said.
A team earns a “point” or goal when its player catches a pass in the end zone, which is 20 yards deep, twice as big as the area allotted in football.

Substitutions are allowed only after points or between the 12-minute quarters. Points come much more frequently than soccer goals or touchdowns. The Constitution’s last game played on May 27 produced a 28-21 victory over the Columbus Cranes. In other words, the teams successfully crossed the goal lines nearly 50 times in 48 minutes.

Steinhauer said sports fans familiar with similar team sports will pick up the game almost instantly.
“Anybody familiar with basketball and football would totally get it,” he said. “It’s a very intuitive game. Any incompletion is a turnover. The other team picks it up immediately. There’s no stopover with a change of possession. Once you catch it, you have seven seconds to throw it, kind of like a shot clock. It’s a lot of action and constant cutting.”

THE LEAGUE: The AUDL presently consists of two divisions.

The Constitution, 5-1 at press time, competes in the East Division with the Philadelphia Spinners, Rhode Island Rampage and Buffal Hunters. The West Division includes the central Ohio-based Cranes, the Detroit Mechanix, the Indianapolis AlleyCats and the Louisville-based Bluegrass Revolution.

The season runs April through July. Divisional playoffs begin in mid-July. The inaugural league championship is slated for the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., on Aug. 11.

THE TEAM: Steinhauer said the Constitution have an amicable relation with its landlords at CCSU.
The games have attracted an average of 600 people. The first game of the year drew 1,050. Unlike other professional teams, the financial needs of the organization are much less. Steinhauer said the team can function by drawing 700 per game with 500 per a first-year goal.

“Having the players chip in is absolutely vital,” he said. “John Korber selected a team with an eye toward product. It’s an easy decision to take the best 25 athletes who don’t care about the sport or the organization but John chose 25 who are very good on the field and have dedicated themselves to helping the sport and growing the business.”

He said the team’s strategy is based on the phrase, “Our motto is product.”

“We have to represent our product, represent our organization and the players have bought into that,” he said.

The team has access to all the amenities at Arute, providing a comfortable setting for fans.
“Central has been very helpful,” Steinhauer said. “We pay a good amount of rent but it’s a very nice facility. In my mind, it’s the best facility in the league.”

Philadelphia plays at Franklin Field, the former home of the NFL Eagles. Detroit plays at the massive Silverdome, once the Lions’ domain. Neither team is averaging substantially more than the Constitution, which gives those stadiums a rather cavernous look on game day.

“Arute is a great atmosphere,” he said. “You’re right on top of the game. We wouldn’t trade with anyone.”
Ticket prices have a Rock Cat-like affordability at $6 per game. The Constitution’s strategy mirrors that of the highly successful minor league baseball team across town.

 “I head a speech by [NBA Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban,” Steinhauer said. “He said everyone thinks the Mavs are about basketball, but they’re selling a form of entertainment that people can’t get at a movie theater.

“At the end of the day, people don’t go to minor league baseball games because they are interested in detail. It’s just an experience they can’t get anywhere else. The players have conversations with the fans. We have activities between quarters. If we put a lot of effort into the fan experience, familiarity with the game doesn’t matter.”

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