Can Professional Ultimate Frisbee Fly?

Amidst all the hype of baseball, the NFL Draft, the NBA Playoffs, the NHL regular season finale, even the start of outdoor pro lacrosse came another property launching in a crowded marketplace. It has cool colors, lots of action, has been played by millions, can be coed, is fast paced and easy to understand. It even received an NCAA sanction to be played on the collegiate level officially last year. Any guess?

 Professional Ultimate Frisbee. An eight team league launched the last few weeks with outposts from New York (The Rumble, although they are playing in Union City, New Jersey in Roosevelt Stadium, nice timing with “42” coming out last few weeks) to Vancouver. They have mascots, telegenic athletes probably with good backstories, female General Managers and a game that is full of fun and acrobatics. What they don’t have are sponsors, television, and real mainstream crossover appeal. They have salaries and ticket prices, even season tickets for real fans following the teams. Can it work? Really tough.

 Now club sponsored teams on the collegiate level have worked for years, and there is now more structure to the college game, with thousands playing for the college championship. It is fun, invokes school pride, is easy to follow and probably gives many winter sports athletes a little respite, but that’s what it is…fun camaraderie amongst schools with some bragging rights packaged in. There may be brands willing to spend against the audience, but with the thousands of choices out there, activating against that group could be tough. Beverages who can pour onsite, or even energy bars would make sense, but large sums spent against it without lots of media and even digital exposure is going to be tough to get. That’s on the college campus.

 Now on the “professional” side? Organizers will point to thousands who play the game recreationally and probably a void for a sport like spring football that may bring people out. It can be acrobatic and testosterone driven as well. But a professional league that can make money…which is what professional sports are supposed to be about? Really tough to sell. With ticket prices comes attendance, with attendance comes hard numbers, with hard numbers comes results. Can they be measurable to have brands spend against it? Well established sports…lacrosse, fast pitch softball arena football, indoor soccer, rugby, cricket, even women’s soccer…have tried with large pockets to develop pro leagues or tours, and most times they have fallen hard, struggled to survive or have failed to launch despite the outcries from the core or passionate fans. A well-established Olympic sport like beach volleyball has gone through several professional iterations and is now trying to come back ye again this summer despite mountains of red tape in the past. Great game, fun to watch, great on site activation but very, very expensive to do.

 Now maybe because it is so new without lots of baggage that professional Ultimate Frisbee can succeed. Controlled costs, fun in the sun, athletes willing to promote, a good feel for digital and social media play in its favor. However there are hard costs…staff, stadia, ticketing, event production, that even with a tight bottom line still cost money, not to mention travel, coaching, medical insurance etc. etc. Probably some brands will take a look, but these days every penny spent against sponsorship is heavily tracked for ROI. Maybe there is a global media company out there with deep pockets who sees Ultimate Frisbee as their gateway to a younger active demo ale video gamers and X Games followers. Maybe.

 It would be great if all these properties survive and thrive. Innovation, diversity, athleticism and compelling content are all good and can create more jobs in the marketplace. However in these challenging times can such niche endeavors bring repeat customers and a good ROI? Is a sport played by millions recreationally needed in the professional realm, where costs are higher and so are expectations? Many have tried, few, if any have succeeded. So we watch, we wait and we toss around the Frisbee and see where it lands. Maybe it will be a win, maybe not, and you have to give those who have put up some dollars credit in some way for trying. It’s a really tough way to fly a business though.