January 17, 2024
By Evan Lepler
Frisbee, frisbee, frisbee.
Let’s be honest, over the past 12 years, calling it ‘ultimate disc’ has felt a little off. On the field, it’s always been frisbee.
Now, with the news that the AUDL has officially rebranded as the UFA, the Ultimate Frisbee Association looks to build on everything that the American Ultimate Disc League has done since 2012.
It sure has been a wild and exciting past dozen years for our sport, full of groundbreaking achievement, noteworthy progress, and educational mistakes. The game has grown in mind-boggling ways, with players leveling up, true ultimate fans emerging everywhere, and a transformative marketing and media presence beaming the greatest gravity-defying drama onto devices all around the world. As we arrive at this new landmark moment, we also must take a breath and recognize some of the key figures, events, and storylines from the first decade of professional ultimate.
For starters, you absolutely cannot discuss the history of professional ultimate without immediately mentioning several names that the average modern frisbee fan may not even know.
It’s safe to say the UFA would not exist today if not for Rob Lloyd’s vision and investment, all backed by the belief that ultimate frisbee could be a commercially viable product. Mentioning Lloyd first is not meant to minimize the entrepreneurial spirit of Josh Moore, the league’s first commissioner and founder, but the inaugural 2012 season was, to put it mildly, a bumpy ride. It was Lloyd, along with the league's second commissioner, Steve Gordon, who stabilized the foundation, committed massive resources, and set the direction toward the current landscape, which features 24 franchises across North America and a small staff of dedicated league officials who work tirelessly to keep pushing everything forward.
Here’s a hasty and incomplete year-by-year snapshot of league history.
The inaugural season included eight teams, six of which either moved or ceased to exist after just a single year. The first league game, played on April 14, 2012, saw the Connecticut Constitution defeat the Rhode Island Rampage 29-23. The season did reach its conclusion, with Philadelphia Spinners prevailing 29-22 over the Indianapolis AlleyCats in the league’s first title game, held at a soon-to-be-demolished former NFL stadium, but the lasting memories of the disorganized first season were dueling lawsuits, chronicled in detail by a young whippersnapper named Charlie Eisenhood, the aspiring ultimate journalist who started a website called Ultiworld to house his reporting.
Rob Lloyd and Steve Gordon purchased the league and took over operations, infusing the fledgeling venture with professional leadership and a roadmap toward success. Franchises like the Madison Radicals, led by the league’s shrewd marketing director, Tim DeByl, and the Toronto Rush, steered by the bold and determined Lloyd family, set a new standard for success, both on and off the field. The Rush finished 19-0 and edged the Radicals 16-14 for the championship, while other new organizations like New York, DC, Minnesota and Chicago (then known as Windy City) laid the foundation for their competitive futures.
Year three delivered significant and lasting growth, most notably in terms of broadcasting and expansion. On April 12, 2014, the UFA aired on ESPN3, and the premier telecast with the worldwide leader showcased the best of the league’s brand new West Division. It was also the day that me and Beau Kittredge both made our respective AUDL debuts. I’ve been honored to call the play-by-play for the last nine Championship Weekend events, five of which included Kittredge’s team taking the trophy.
The league finally felt fully national with the addition of the South Division, creating, for the first time, a four-division coast-to-coast format. Kittredge won his second straight MVP as the San Jose Spiders claimed their second consecutive title, while the South’s new UFA rivalries quickly became spicy, with the Raleigh Flyers' stunning and controversial double overtime triumph over the Jacksonville Cannons capping the first campaign for the league’s newest group of teams.
Perhaps the most powerful expansion jolt came in ’16, when new Dallas owner Jim Gerencser spared no expense to sign many of the sport’s greatest players and create the league’s first real super team. The inaugural Roughnecks roster included Kittredge, Cassidy Rasmussen, Jimmy Mickle, Dylan Freechild, and Kurt Gibson, with a plethora of additional other talent that proceeded to overwhelm the competition. Dallas went 17-0 and outscored its opponents by more than nine goals per game, with eight wins by double digits. But the most exciting game of the season, and maybe the greatest game in league history, involved the Madison Radicals and the Seattle Cascades battling in the semifinals at Championship Weekend. Amongst thousands of Madison fans creating an epic ultimate atmosphere at Breese Stevens Field, the Cascades stunningly overcame a seven-goal deficit to shock the Radicals and halt their simultaneous quest for their own perfect season.
The biggest innovation in ’17 was the schedule, which for the first time introduced a slate of marquee interdivisional action. Billed as the Cross Coast Challenge and featuring matchups between Dallas and Madison, San Francisco and Toronto, Raleigh and DC, and Pittsburgh and Seattle, these tantalizing pairings delivered magnificent intrigue and plenty of drama. The interconnectivity added a fascinating flavor to Championship Weekend in Montreal, particular when the underdog Rush upset the reigning champion Roughnecks in the semifinals. One day later, Toronto fell just short in the title game, as San Francisco won 30-29 in a game that remains the closest final we’ve witnessed in AUDL history.
Unquestionably, two of the craziest postseason outcomes in all-time league lore occurred on the same night in late July, when the Flyers and Rush both suffered painfully unforgettable setbacks. Raleigh led by six near halftime with a dominant couple of quarters on the road, only to see Dallas rally back for a jaw-dropping 20-19 victory in the South Division final. Meanwhile, north of the border, Toronto entered its East title contest with a 17-0 record against the New York Empire, only to see their reign come to a sudden, stunning end on the wrong side of an 18-17 result. Ultimately, however, neither the Roughnecks nor the Rush finished on top in ’18, as the Madison Radicals, following five consecutive years of falling short at Championship Weekend, finally enjoyed their greatest moment by defeating Dallas 20-16 in the final.
This was the first year that every single regular season and postseason game was broadcast live, as the league's first livestreaming platform (AUDL TV) was introduced as the streaming platform that became the best place online to view live ultimate. This season also marked the beginning of the New York Empire dynasty, with the Stevens family having taken over operations one year earlier. While 14 of their 15 wins came by five goals or fewer, the Empire still went 15-0, defeating Dallas in the title contest, 26-22, to earn the franchise’s first championship. Before 2019, the Empire had gone 0-3 at Championship Weekend, losing in the semifinals in ’13, ’14, and ’18. Since, they’ve gone 7-1, with three titles in the last four years.
The ’20 season was initially delayed, and ultimately canceled, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was certainly the right decision during a scary and uncertain time. One fond memory of that spring and summer was the "Disc In" interview series, which featured deep dive conversations with many of the best players in AUDL history. Also during this time, the league created the “Ultimate Greatness” series, which ‘highlighted the best games from the early years of the league and featured player commentary and shortened games for increased watchability.'
The UFA’s return-to-play out of the pandemic delivered arguably the most riveting season in the history of league, full of so many thrilling games, moments, and memories. Realignment, necessitated by lingering travel restrictions that separated the US and Canadian teams, created the fascinating Atlantic Division and tossed the Texas teams out West. The Atlantic quarterfinal playoff games were both all-timers, with Raleigh upsetting DC and New York somehow sneaking past upstart Atlanta on an exhilarating and devastating overtime buzzer-beater. We also saw the first ever Championship Weekend overtime, with the Flyers edging the Chicago Union in the extra period to cap the semis, one day before they also outplayed the Empire to bring the first league title to North Carolina.
New York needed another buzzer-beater to get back to Championship Weekend, with two-time reigning MVP Ben Jagt snagging the exhilarating sky—on his 30th birthday, no less—to devastate DC in the East final. The four Championship Weekend participants entered the climactic weekend with a combined record of 49-3, but New York left no doubt of their stature at the top. Back at Breese Stevens Field for the semis and finals, the Empire avoided all drama, dominating Carolina by six and Chicago by eight en route to the franchise’s second championship. The ’22 season also marked the first year for three new West Division franchises, as Colorado, Portland, and Salt Lake all made splashy entrances to earn consideration as immediate contenders.
As it was happening, we didn’t even know that ’23 would be the end of an era. With that said, the league’s name change won’t be a factor in halting the two astonishing streaks that will span the eras. The Empire went undefeated again, matching a league record with 30 straight wins, while the Detroit Mechanix, one of the two franchises who’ve been in the league every year since 2012, went winless for the fifth consecutive season. New York walloped DC, Austin, and Salt Lake on their most recent postseason path to a title, while Detroit saw their incomprehensible streak reach a ridiculous 74 losses in a row. Which streak lasts the longest in the early days of the Ultimate Frisbee Association? Only time will tell.
The last 12 years have elevated ultimate beyond anything that the sport’s founding flicking fathers from Jersey ever could have imagined. This absurdly brief and unfinished history written above barely scratches the surface, and players like Goose Helton, Cameron Brock, Pawel Janas, and so many others deserve way more than a late casual mention, as do so many other coaches, owners, and moments that could be chronicled in depth.
But today, while also recognizing and appreciating the past, also serves as a clear turning point toward the future, which I am eager to embrace.
The American Ultimate Disc League name was admittedly a bit of a mouthful, but I will say that it grew on me relatively quickly after I became an AUDL broadcaster in 2014. ‘The AUDL’ will forever remain a memorable moniker when anyone discusses the history of this professional sport, but it’s well past time we officially incorporate the most important gameday item into our actual brand.
So here’s to the UFA, the Ultimate Frisbee Association, coming this April.
My first ultimate broadcast this year will be DC at Salt Lake. Yea, DC at Salt Lake.