6400: Sideways

April 25, 2019
By Grant Lindsley

Sideways - Why does the width of the field make a difference in pro ultimate?

New York Empire was tied 13-13 with the DC Breeze late in the third quarter when Jack Williams pivoted 20 yards from the end-zone and threw the equivalent of a 45-yard huck – sideways. The backhand toss curled backfield and hit his receiver, Harper Garvey, with a 5-yard cushion on the far sideline. The field opened up. Downfield defenders adjusted their position relative to the disc’s new position. One pass later, Jack threw another wide pass across the field in the other direction, away from the drifting defense, to Matthew “Cat” Stevens in the end zone. Goal.

In three passes, the disc traveled ~100 yards of cumulative distance to advance a mere 20 yards upfield. We didn’t always use space well in the first game of the season, but this three-pass sequence highlighted potential that’s unique to professional ultimate.

An AUDL field is just over 53 yards wide. That’s a ton of space, especially for players who learned ultimate in a non-professional setting where fields are 40 yards wide. And because pro ultimate is seven years young, every player learned in a non-professional setting.

Some extra width may seem like a minor adjustment, but it isn’t. Or rather, those who consider it minor may be overlooking major strategic opportunities. The wide swing pass itself is nothing new to ultimate, but the additional space on an AUDL field is.

Think about it this way: 13 yards of extra width multiplied by 120 yards of length (standard in pro and non-pro fields) comes out to an additional 1600 square yards of field space, a 33% increase in size from a non-pro field. That’s a huge difference.

Switching the field is critical in any team sport with fluid player motion and an object being passed back and forth toward a downfield destination (hoop, goal, end zone). Stretch out any playing field by 13 yards, and going sideways just got a lot easier. Which means offense just got easier: lateral movement exposes holes in the defense and creates new angles of attack. The strategy is as effective as it should be obvious: use the whole field.

But the field is bigger than most players are used to. Think about it another way: an American football field uses the same field dimensions as an AUDL field, but there are eight more players on that football field (11-on-11 in football versus 7-on-7 in Ultimate). Imagine a 7-on-7 football game. The field would look massive. More offensive schemes would develop to specifically attack horizontal space. Undisciplined offenses would try to force their movement up one sideline. Disciplined teams would move laterally, understanding that horizontal movement enables vertical movement.

The offensive motion of elite ultimate already resembles that of high-level soccer (which, like football, has 11 players per team, on a field of similar size). The best offenses maintain possession as they progress the disc up the field in a patient, zig-zagging pattern – Jack and Harper did just that, late in the third quarter last weekend. Ideally, the pendulum of offense swings closer and closer to the end zone until an easy opening reveals itself, and a high-percentage pass to the end zone gives the offense a reliable score.

An additional 13 yards of width to an ultimate field is the equivalent of removing eight players from a football or soccer game. To account for that, defensive systems have already changed. The Madison Radicals have used a zone defense in the end-zone to prevent the lateral motion available in a wider field.

The extra space is open to experimentation. I wonder if we’ve only scraped the surface in terms of strategic adjustments. What else will shift over time? Will the 53-yard width remain? If so, what skillsets – and what type of athlete – will grow or fade in importance?

Many questions surround a league with new field dimensions, rules, and norms. We’ll explore more in the weeks to come. For now, defense is simply harder in pro ultimate, because there’s so much more space to guard. Which makes sense: it’s harder to catch a greased pig in a bigger pen.