Ultimate Frisbee Puts On Its Game Face

After years of jokes, Ultimate Frisbee players say they're finally getting some respect. This year the sport received provisional recognition from the International Olympic Committee, and Ryland Barton of KWBU in Waco, Texas, reports that this weekend its national championship will be broadcast live on ESPN3.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When you think of Frisbee, throwing a plastic disc to a dog, or playing catch at the beach probably come to mind. But it's a bit more intense than that at this weekend's Ultimate Frisbee National Tournament in Frisco, Texas. And for the first time, the competition is also being broadcast live.

Ryland Barton of member station KWBU reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIDELINE SHOUTING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Cowboys. Cowboys. Cowboys...

RYLAND BARTON, BYLINE: There's a lot of shouting in Ultimate Frisbee, a lot of diving bodies and arguments.

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BARTON: The game is played seven-on-seven and teams score by catching the disc in an end zone - kind of like football. And players make their own foul calls. Officials only step in when an argument can't be resolved.

The fans are usually players themselves. But sometimes it's a parent like Patti Bigoni. Her son Dan plays for the Santa Barbara Condors. She'd never heard of the sport until he returned from college saying he'd started playing.

PATTI BIGONI: I was amazed. I've never seen people throw the Frisbee and run as hard as these kids do.

BARTON: Ultimate Frisbee was invented in 1968 at a New Jersey high school. Today, there are more than 45,000 registered players - and technology has kept pace with the sport's growth.

Some players even keep track of their stats using an iPad app.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible) Up field to - these are up field to (unintelligible).

BARTON: It's called UltiApps. It records throwing yards, receiving yards, scores and turnovers.

The sport's been on a roll this year. The International Olympic Committee gave ultimate provisional recognition, the first step to including it in future Olympics. Also, ESPN 3 will broadcast the national tournament live.

Tom Crawford, CEO of USA Ultimate, says the sport's fan base is desirable to advertisers.

TOM CRAWFORD: So the people that really love it and are competing in it and want to watch it are right in that sweet spot that all the networks are after and that the IOC is concerned about getting in the future because people aren't watching some of the other Olympic sports like they used to.

BARTON: Players in USA Ultimate pay their own way, but two upstart professional organizations have started in the last two years. They pay for jerseys, travel and even salaries, about $25 a game.

Tyler Kinley, the captain of the Seattle Sockeye, says for now, it's still a hobby.

TYLER KINLEY: You should call it that, right, in your life. Like, no one's making money yet, so it is a hobby, it's not a job. But I think a lot of people treat it as a lot more than a hobby for them, it's a passion.

BARTON: And you'll be able to hear some of that passion this weekend - officials will be mic'd up so ESPN's audience can hear arguments between the players.

For NPR News, I'm Ryland Barton in Waco, Texas.

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