Ultimate Frisbee

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The game of Ultimate Frisbee would not exist had it not been for the invention of the flying disc, or "Frisbee," as it is commonly known today. In 1871, William Russell Frisbie moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to manage a pie company that he soon took over and named the Frisbie Pie Company. The origin of the earliest Frisbee stems from this baking operation; Yale college students who purchased pies from the nearby company were observed throwing leftover pie tins across campus, shouting "Frisbie" to alert potential receivers and others in close proximity.

While students continued to throw pie tins across Ivy League school campuses, it wasn't until 1948 that Fred Morrison, in an attempt to capitalize on the unidentified flying objects (UFO) craze in the United States at the time, found plastic to be the ideal source for crafting a flying saucer. By the early 1950s, Morrison had vastly improved his model and soon came out with the first mass-produced flying disc, called the "Pluto Platter." Produced by the Wham-O toy company of California, the "Frisbee" became a registered trademark for the company's flying disc products in 1959, after Wham-O discovered that "Frisbie-ing" had existed on Ivy League college campuses for years. Five years later Wham-O introduced the Professional Model Frisbee, designed by Ed Headrick; during the same year, Headrick formed the International Frisbee Association (IFA) in Los Angeles, California, to better coordinate and showcase the fledgling Wham-O's Frisbee-related games and activities to the general public. Frisbee was now on the world map.

A Brief History of Ultimate Frisbee

In 1967, Joel Silver and others invented Ultimate Frisbee, also known as "Ultimate," at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. In 1968, the staff of Columbia High's school newspaper and members of the student council played the first known game, and they continued to play the following year. Buzzy Hellring, a Columbia High School student, drew up first and second editions of the official rules. In 1970, Columbia and Milburn High School students competed against one another in the first interscholastic Ultimate Frisbee game. A conference of high school Ultimate Frisbee teams was created in 1971, and, by the following year, Ultimate Frisbee had found its way onto nearby college campuses in New Jersey.

The first intercollegiate game saw Rutgers University defeat Princeton University by a score of 29 to 27 in front of 1,000 fans on November 6, 1972. In 1975, Yale University hosted the first organized Ultimate Frisbee tournament; eight teams took part. That same year, Ultimate was introduced at the World Frisbee Championships; the following year, the Yale tournament was expanded and renamed the National Ultimate Frisbee Championships. During this same time, disc sports began to spread to Europe and Asia; numerous disc associations were founded in the 1970s, including the Ultimate Players Association (UPA) in the United States.

The UPA was the first national governing body for the game of Ultimate Frisbee; prior to the UPA, the International Frisbee Association ran and sponsored Frisbee-related events. In 1979, the UPA sponsored their first National Ultimate Frisbee Championships in State College, Pennsylvania, while the first European Ultimate Frisbee Championships took place in 1980. By 1983, the first World Ultimate Frisbee Championships took place in Gothenburg, Sweden. The following year saw the first Ultimate Players Association College–only National Championships held at Tufts University, where eligibility requirements were imposed to distinguish college players from other club team players around the United States. Another new era in Ultimate Frisbee had begun.

In 1984, the World Flying Disc Federation was founded, a year after the International Frisbee Association disbanded, and it was charged with governing all disc sports throughout the world. By 1989, Ultimate was showcased as an exhibition sport during the World Games in Karlsruhe, West Germany, and, in 2001, Ultimate became an official medal sport at the World Games under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee. By the early twenty-first century, an estimated 100,000 players in over thirty countries played Ultimate, with the UPA registering over 13,000 members. Included in the membership are high school-aged youth, for whom membership provides opportunities to play in "junior-level" national and international competitions.

The Game of Ultimate Frisbee and Its Unique Contribution to Society

According to Official Rules of Ultimate, Ultimate is a noncontact disc sport played by two teams of seven players, whose object is to score goals by catching a pass in the end zone that a team is attacking. The game observes many different rules and calls of conduct (see sidebar "Ultimate in Ten Simple Rules") and has similarities to soccer, American football, and basketball, although it is distinctly different from each, with varied types of individual throws and team strategies commonplace. One aspect of the game that is commonly described by participants with great enthusiasm is the notion of getting horizontal or "getting ho." "Getting ho" to make a catch or to fairly deny an opposing player a reception generates excitement much the way a "slam dunk" does in the game of basketball. While players can vary or modify rules pertaining to game length, final score, field dimensions, and number of players, what players refer to as the "Spirit of the Game" cannot be negotiated. The Spirit of the Game places on each player the responsibility of monitoring his or her own and one another's sportsmanship (see sidebar "Spirit of the Game"). This Spirit of the Game is what makes Ultimate unique from other team sports; neither referees nor judges are utilized at any level of play, from simple pickup games in a local park to the World Ultimate Frisbee Championships hosted by the World Flying Disc Federation.

Ultimate in 10 Simple Rules

Published by the Ultimate Players Association

  1. The Field: A rectangular shape with end zones at each end. A regulation field is 70 yards by 40 yards, with end zones 25 yards deep.
  2. Initiate Play: Each point begins with both teams lining up on the front of their respective end zone line. The defense throws ("pulls") the disc to the offense. A regulation game has seven players per team.
  3. Scoring: Each time the offense completes a pass in the defense's end zone, the offense scores a point. Play is initiated after each score.
  4. Movement of the Disc: The disc may be advanced in any direction by completing a pass to a teammate. Players may not run with the disc. The person with the disc ("thrower") has ten seconds to throw the disc. The defender guarding the thrower ("marker") counts out the stall count.
  5. Change of possession: When a pass is not completed (e.g. out of bounds, drop, block, interception) the defense immediately takes possession of the disc and becomes the offense.
  6. Substitutions: Players not in the game may replace players in the game after a score and during an injury timeout.
  7. Noncontact: No physical contact is allowed between players. Picks and screens are also prohibited. A foul occurs when contact is made.
  8. Fouls: When a player initiates contact on another player a foul occurs. When a foul disrupts possession, the play resumes as if the possession was retained. If the player committing the foul disagrees with the foul call, the play is redone.
  9. Self-Refereeing: Players are responsible for their own foul and line calls. Players resolve their own disputes.
  10. Spirit of the Game: Ultimate stresses sportsmanship and fair play. Competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of respect between players, adherence to the rules, and the basic joy of play.

With the Spirit of the Game comes a challenge for those who play to respect calls made by the opposing team. (Note: A call or violation occurs when one player accuses another player of an action that results in unfair advantage.) While the history of Ultimate has seen many changes over the years, from rules to participation to disc of choice for play, the Spirit of the Game has not changed. Indeed it may be the "spirit clause" in the rules that has engendered growth of the game into places as diverse as church and corporate leagues, summer, winter, and fall city leagues, intramural college leagues, and physical education classrooms around the world. While the game continues to have a committed and serious following of players who officially compete in sanctioned tournaments at state, regional, national, and world levels, the untold thousands who play unofficially around the world in parks, on beaches, and in school yards are the ones who quite possibly represent the future of the game.

As evidenced by the 2002 World Ultimate Club Championships in Hawaii, where over 2,300 players and 120 teams from twenty-four countries competed in men's, women's, and mixed (coed) divisions, the sport is alive and well. While spectatorship of the sport is still in its infancy, the large number of teams and countries being represented is testimony to the profound effect the game has had on thousands of people around the world. By the early 2000s, both serious and casual Ultimate Frisbee players and nonplayers alike could benefit from specialized Web sites, newsletters, magazines, and electronic mailing lists. Ultimate Frisbee clothing and accessory retailers and manufacturers were commonplace at tournaments throughout the world as well as over the Internet, selling anything from cleats to jerseys to specially stamped flying discs.

Spirit of the Game

Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship which places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of the mutual respect among players, adherence to the agreed-upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate adverse conduct from the Ultimate field. Such actions as taunting of opposing players, dangerous aggression, belligerent intimidation, intentional fouling, or other "win at all costs" behavior are contrary to the spirit of the game and must be avoided by all players.

From the Official Rules of Ultimate, 10th Ed., published by the Ultimate Players Association (UPA).

While the economic impact of Ultimate Frisbee is possibly quantifiable, the social implications of the game are less quantifiable but clearly positive, for Ultimate Frisbee has that special quality known as the Spirit of the Game. Players can transfer this "spirit" into their lives off the field. Encouraging participants to place their faith in others to do right or to be fair in the face of adversity may be the greatest contribution of the game.

See also: Extreme Sports


Caporali, John. "Ultimate's Twenty-Year Chronology." Ultimate Players Association 22, no.1 (Spring 2002): 23.

Iacovella, Michael E. "An Abbreviated History of Ultimate." Available from http://www.wfdf.org/ultimate.html.

Johnson, Stancil E. D. Frisbee: A Practitioner's Manual and Definitive Treatise. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1975.

Ultimate Players Association. Official Rules of Ultimate. 10th Edition. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Ultimate Players Association, 2002.

World Flying Disc Federation. "Timeline Early History of Flying Disc Play." Available from http://www.wfdf.org.disctime.htm.

——. "Ultimate." Available from http://www.wfdf.org/disculti.htm.

Eric Frauman