When ARIA Ultimate was founded in 2015, the company decided to focus on a few key points: 1) making a new, elite disc for the sport ultimate, 2) improving upon the current market offerings without reinventing the wheel/disc, and 3) propelling the sport of ultimate to a level where it would make a difference in the lives of not only current practitioners, but everyone in the world. To borrow the phrase, ARIA believes that Ultimate is intrinsically good for the world, and we are out to prove it.
At first glance, we’d wager you have some guesses about whom our title is referring to. As a fledgling disc company, ARIA faces a bit of competition in the market. The new disc has unique features compared to other discs; it’s specifically engineered with temperature extremes in mind, has flight rings specially designed for control, and is manufactured from a unique plastic blend. All of this is before you take into account the one-for-one model and founding basis of making Ultimate more accessible and widespread.
Unfortunately for you confident guessers out there, we’re not out to strike fear into Discraft’s (or to be fair, Wham-O’s) heart. Sure, they’re the competition, and ARIA is the current underdog, but competition is key to both the free market and any form of athletics. Tournaments are no fun if you’re the only one in your bracket. Discraft has been around for a long time making discs for disc golf, general recreation, and ultimate. By having a hand in a variety of disc sports, they’ve seen the sport of ultimate grow in reach and importance over the last two decades. Now ARIA is getting into the game, specifically dedicated to the sport of ultimate, and we are excited to join the other disc companies in leading the charge to grow the sport.
So, no. Disc competitors beware, but just a little bit. We’re thinking bigger.
Let’s be clear: we love sports. We’re pretty big on them. This is what we do. But it takes a specific set of blinders to delude oneself into thinking that a) all sports are created equal, b) that by dint of being a sport, some activities are exempt from criticism and/or improvement, and c) that in the sporting world, popularity needs to equal merit.
Given the extremely wide and varied contingent of sports and athletic activities that fill our stadiums and leisure time, it’s impossible to properly compare any sport to all of the others. But all things considered, we think ultimate puts on a pretty good show when compared to pretty much any sport we could come up with. As far as the game itself goes, ultimate and its players can be seen as a combination of many of the best parts of other sports: the running game of soccer, the massive leaps of basketball, the aim and accuracy of baseball, the field layout and play strategy of football, and the unencumbered play of rugby. At the same time, ultimate manages to avoid some of the pitfalls that prevent other sports from being the be-all-end-all human activity (or, like, having ‘ultimate’ in their name…). Contact sports are becoming less and less popular as medical science advances and discovers how harmful they have the potential to be, and ultimate - though not risk-free by any means - is often viewed as an equally athletic but safer alternative. We’re fresh off the US Open, one of the biggest weekends of live-streamed ultimate ever, the world (and the US in particular) is beginning to realize that ultimate is a pretty awesome spectator sport - just enough goals are scored to keep fans entertained, while avoiding overwhelmingly high scoring matches. It’s also easy enough to understand, and even newcomers are more or less able to follow a game or join in.
We’ve reached a point in mainstream sports, at least in the United States, where, to put it mildly, sports becomes more about entertainment and less about athletics every day. The industrial sports complex is one of the biggest money-makers in the world, and it’s no secret. Every time a news article comes out about some pro’s multi-million dollar salary, every time a company drops $5 million on a 30-second Super Bowl ad, and every time we all tune in, we feed the monstrosity that professional sports has become. It’s not all bad - the popularity of these sports, and the money behind them, means a bigger audience all the time. Anything that has the potential to inspire future or up-and-coming athletes is a good thing. The problem lies in the hierarchy of motivations for putting sports in the media: spoiler alert, ‘inspiring people’ isn’t near the top. More shocking stories abound: one need only to look up the NFL’s tax-exempt status and the money that cities pour into their sports teams - taxpayer money - to keep the money flowing (and not always successfully) to see how far things have come from simply sharing the love of the game.
But it’s not just one professional sport, it’s most of them. As ultimate makes strides towards becoming a mainstream professional sport, it stands to reason that the same temptations that have led other pro sports astray would become more of an influence. Currently, the American Ultimate Disc League has 24 teams across the US and Canada. It’s been around since 2012, survived and outlasted a competing league, and is steadily growing in popularity. It’s no NFL, but ultimate is putting on a good showing as a professional sport, so all eyes are on whether or not it can avoid the economic seduction other pro sports have faced. While it’s too soon to tell, there are a few key signs that this sport might break the trend.
First off, ultimate is new. Unlike many of the other big pro sports, ultimate has only been around for the last 60 years, and on a national and global scale for the last 40 or so. This has the fortunate effect of making it less of an old boys club than some of its competitors, and more likely to reject what a lot of people see as a feudal money-making system. Pro sports seem more economically focused every year, so a sport that was founded in an age when people were already starting to question the motivations behind the sports industry has a leg up on the sports that created the need for questioning.
Adding to that, the ultimate community is special. Unlike some other sports, ultimate has always been viewed as an inclusive game, since the barriers to participation are low in comparison to many other sports. A league founded on this mentality doesn’t leave a lot of room for the exclusivity touted by the big businesses that run sports - a pricey ticket or fancy viewing box just doesn’t match the ultimate ideal. That’s not to say it’s impossible, merely that when one looks at the ultimate community as a whole, money-hungry would not be the first descriptor. Ultimate still faces challenges at the highest level, and the ultimate community (at all levels, including youth) is appropriately critical and vocal about issues that other sports institutionally sweep under the rug. In ultimate, the money answers to the people, and let’s hope it stays that way.
As mentioned previously, ultimate’s relative newness has enabled it to be more ‘with the times’ than certain competitors. One of the areas in which it excels - or has at least made marked progress - is that of gender equity, one of those topics where someone usually says something like ‘how is this still an issue? It’s 2017.’
Well, mainstream sports, you tell us.
Women’s sports have become more and more popular as time goes on: fast forward from Title IX and the advent of women’s pro sports, and today more girls are participating in organized sports than ever. But it’s not enough. As a related note to the previous section, those big pro players and sports making all that money? Those are the men and the men’s leagues. For example, only one woman - Serena Williams - is among the 100 highest-paid athletes - and she’s number 51. And it’s not that women don’t have leagues; they do. It’s that sometimes it can feel like there’s an inherent bias against women’s sports: that somewhere along the line, the patriarchy decided women weren’t athletic, and then when women started to play sports, men in charge had to quickly reaffirm that they couldn’t possibly be as fun to watch as men, and then when people started to see that women were actually doing cool things, had to throw advertising dollars at the men’s leagues to keep their revenue flowing. So the under-representation of women in sports is a) economic, b) ingrained in our society, and c) preventing more women, especially young girls, from pursuing sports and pushing the scale further towards tipping point, because they don’t see people like themselves on the field.
Slow progress is being made, but nothing even coming close to the potential women’s sports have. But ultimate has become a beacon of hope by breaking the mold. High-level ultimate does indeed have men’s and women’s divisions, but that’s not all it has. Ultimate also has a mixed division - and not just in rec leagues, but at the highest non-professional level. The most recent US Open tournament, one of the biggest club tournaments in the world, was both streamed online and televised, and the main event - a championship match shown on ESPN2 - was between two mixed teams, Seattle Mixtape and Minneapolis Drag’n Thrust. Mixtape came out on top, but the event was a victory for anyone who cares about women in sports. The victory wasn’t that women were on TV - this happens, occasionally - but that, given the option between showing the men’s game or one that also featured women, the powers that be chose the latter - and people loved it. Progress.
Ultimate is nowhere near perfect when it comes to gender equity. But the progress made at the elite level - where representation can have the most effect on lower levels of the game - is unmatched in mainstream sports. As ultimate starts to break into that mainstream, if it can continue to hold onto its gender-equitable stance and keep making progress, ultimate can change the game.
As an aside, there’s already a push at the highest levels (but, notably, not in American professional sports) for gender equity: the International Olympic Committee recently announced the introduction of several mixed-gender competitions at the next Olympics, including swimming and track events. While it remains a goal of ultimate to be officially accepted as an Olympic sport, there’s no better contender - the highest level of the game includes a mixed division, so if the Olympics is hoping to move that direction, it could hardly find a more apt team sport. The World Games, a worldwide competition featuring mostly non-Olympic sports, recently concluded its 2017 event. Ultimate was featured - as a mixed event. Big things are happening, and ultimate - with women in it - is at the forefront.
Sports are fun. But taking a hard look at the highest levels of sport can sometimes be a somber task. It’s hard to ignore the extent to which an industry that has the potential - and indeed the stated and purported purpose - to inspire healthy activity and competition, teamwork, and fair play often seems to do the exact opposite. The sports industry is so lauded and its task so noble that it’s hard to acknowledge the fact that it sometimes doesn’t fulfil those tasks, even though we want to believe it does.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. As ultimate has grown, it’s shown us that in almost all cases, the pursuit of excellence can go hand in hand with integrity, that a sport founded on Spirit of the Game and accountability is antithetical to a cheat-to-win mentality, and that an international focus and worldwide vision is a true game-changer. We’ve found that the fewer barriers to participation that exist, and the more people that can play - together and at the highest level - the better our sport will be. The world needs a return to the Spirit of the Game in the sports industry, and the mainstream industrial sports complex has gone too far. Rather than feeling the need to entrap Ultimate in the bureaucracy and corporate mindset that seems to define high-level sports of late, we have the opportunity to skip straight to connectivity.
So yes, disc competitors, there is a new disc in town. And we plan to dedicate ourselves totally and wholeheartedly to the sport of ultimate. But at the end of the day, the real battle we have is against institutionalized sports and the issues inherent in the industry. Ultimate is ready for its future, and so are we.
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