It’s hard to believe now in this day and age when an entry-level player in football/baseball/basketball/hockey can earn $500,000 for a season, but there was a time when a professional athlete received just a modest stipend and played only for the love of the game. Many athletes worked jobs in their offseasons to supplement their income. There’s a new professional sports league that has cropped up in the past four years that is harkening back to simpler times when sports were sports and not the cold-hearted businesses they are today.
The American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) is that league and it is a group of 26 professional, paid teams in the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. The Pittsburgh Thunderbirds, our city’s entry in the AUDL, is entering their 2nd season of operation. The Thunderbirds’ owner is Dr. Tracy Neuendorf, an anesthesiologist from Ohio who bought the franchise’s rights in 2014. The Thunderbirds play in the Midwest Division, against teams from Detroit (Mechanix), Cincinnati (Revolution), Chicago (Wildfire), Indianapolis (AlleyCats), Madison (Radicals), and Minnesota (Wind Chill). Their first game of the season is on the road this Saturday against the Detroit Mechanix, but their home opener is April 23rd at Founder’s Field in Indiana Township off of Cove Run Road, across from Emmerling Park.
Maybe when I mention ultimate frisbee, your first thought goes back to the dirty hippies that would play it on your college’s recreational quad or in the park by your house. But in actuality, the practices and games show the level of athleticism that is required to get through a full game. This highlight from last season, of A.J. Nelson from the Chicago team, made SportsCenter. Some AUDL games are streamed on ESPN3, as well. This isn’t like the movie PCU (starring a much younger Jeremy Piven and a very-unknown Jon Favreau) where hippies played against feminists and a border collie was prominently featured on the team.
Let’s get some things out of the way right up front. These guys get paid, but they’re not getting PAID. As per Tad Wissel, player compensation varies from team to team (and even player to player), but most guys receive around $50 per home game and a little bit more for an away game to cover the travel expenses. “In a lot of ways, it feels weird to travel to a tournament and have somebody else foot the bill, unlike all the club teams where I had to pay out of pocket.”
Wissel, 30, is one of the elder statesmen of team and described himself as “more of a Crash Davis than a Nuke Laloosh at this point” for you Bull Durham fans out there. There is one high school kid on the team from North Allegheny (Aaron Buss, 18) up to a 31-year old as the oldest member of the 30 player team.Ultimate Frisbee has its own lingo and vocabulary. Wissel told me that his position is called a handler, “sort of like a point guard.”
As someone on the upper end of the age spectrum, I asked Wissel what it is about Ultimate that has appealed to him all these years of playing it. “There’s a great sense of community and, really, empathy. Ultimate is not overly specialized like football or baseball. Everyone has the same difficulties and triumphs which I think brings people together. I think when you distill it down, every time you play you have a chance to do something sweet. You can make a spectacular catch or an insane throw every time you take the field. A frisbee is not like a ball. Frisbees float. And when a disc stays in the air for a long time goofy stuff can happen.”
AUDL launched in 2012 with eight teams, but just four short years later there are now 26 teams, including four in Canada. As per Wissel, in 20 years “the league could be as big as anything. Ultimate is growing rapidly at the youth level. The number of kids playing today in high school and middle school leagues as compared to 20 years ago is exponential. Also, the ‘big play’ potential that makes people ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ is there. You don’t have to know the intricacies of the sport to know that a sick layout catch is indeed sick, the way you might not be able to identify something that makes a lacrosse shot special. Once people see something like that, they can get hooked.”
Even in a league where the pay scale is quite modest, there is a fair bit of player movement. According to Wissel, three of the Thunderbirds’ players hail from Detroit’s club team circuit, three of the best players in metro Chicago play pro for D.C.’s team, and the new team in Dallas actively recruited some of the country’s best players to come play for them. The Dallas Roughnecks new owner even provided jobs to some of the players in an effort to entice them to relocate full-time to Dallas.
In their inaugural year of 2015, the Thunderbirds finished the regular season 12-2, then went 1-1 in the playoffs, eventually bowing out to Madison in the Midwest final. The Thunderbirds’ high flying offense returns two of the top five goal scorers in the league (Ethan Beardsley, 1st and David Vatz, 4th) as well as the AUDL’s all-time single season record holder for assists, Tyler DeGirolamo.
The Thunderbirds play at Founder’s Field, the only grass surface in the Midwest Division. The setting allows (and encourages) tailgating prior to the games. The seats keep you close to the field and with tickets only $8 each, it’s a cheap and different type of family-friendly activity to do on the weekends.
So try and head out this year to support a team of athletes that may just end up having a beer with you in the parking lot after the game. And know that when you spend your money on a ticket, it’s really going to impact directly how a team is run. The Thunderbirds may be the purest professional team left in the city.