The Other Football
As the Raiders prepare to leave Oakland, a fledgling sports team and league attempt to take flight.
Photo by Ron Sellers, courtesy of the FlameThrowers
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Every time Beau Kittredge throws, he’s under attack. He contorts, faking in different directions, like a quarterback. His feet are tied to the ground, however, like a basketball player after dribbling, lining up for a shot.
A Spider tries to block Kittredge’s pass downfield, waving long limbs back and forth, frantically. A San Jose Spider, that is. The Spider is befuddled by Kittredge’s body language, and extends a leg to block his toss, but it’s too late.
During the recent game on the Laney College football field in Oakland, Kittredge stands at the FlameThrowers’ 30 yard line and in one fluid motion, reaching a long, muscular arm around the Spider’s outstretched leg, sends the white disc 70 yards downfield. It hovers there for a moment with the clouds, above the end zone, waiting for Cassidy Rasmussen to leap skyward and snatch it, scoring a goal for the FlameThrowers.
Kittredge and Rasmussen are the highest profile acquisitions of an Oakland professional sports team you’ve probably never heard of. And though the team’s official title is the San Francisco FlameThrowers, it plays all of its home games in Oakland at Laney College near Lake Merritt. Its also the local chapter of the American Ultimate Disc League—if you don’t count the San Jose Spiders.
Last year, Kittredge and Rasmussen led the Dallas Roughnecks to the pro championship, and this year, they’re hoping to do the same for the FlameThrowers. It would be a first. While the Bay Area is a hotbed for ultimate (don’t call it Frisbee; that’s a brand name), the FlameThrowers have yet to win the AUDL title.
That’s not at all the case for Kittredge, however. He’s not only been named the league’s MVP twice, but since entering the AUDL in 2014, he has won the championship three years in a row, once with the Roughnecks and twice with the Spiders.
He’s the crown jewel in an attempt to turn professional ultimate disc into a viable, moneymaking franchise here in Oakland and across the country. FlameThrowers owners Josh Langenthal, Michael Kinstlick, and Peter Lincroft, who all met in the sport, hope that attracting top talent will drive ticket sales and help them get a return on their investment, which is now entering year four of operations.
In a year when the Oakland Raiders announced that they’re preparing to leave The Town, the FlameThrowers are quietly building here for the long haul. The goal isn’t just to build a franchise, but a new professional sport.
“I see no reason that ultimate couldn’t become a great spectator sport. There are a lot of great sports out there for people to watch and enjoy,” said Kinstlick, who also owns a distillery in Pennsylvania. “I think [ultimate is] telegenic: It’s amazing athletes doing incredible things on the field, and it feels to me like it has the opportunity to be a real next-level sport in the world.”
Although the idea of ultimate rising someday to the level of a major sport might seem farfetched, the FlameThrowers and the 23 other teams in their league are sure to have a blast trying, as they play their quirky but big-hearted game.
Ultimate is rooted in the happy, friendly hippy game of Frisbee, and the sport might best be described as residing somewhere between football and football. Call it the other football.
Each team plays with seven players at a time, and play takes place across four 12-minute quarters. According to tradition, it’s perfectly acceptable for fans to show up sometime toward the end of the first quarter. It’s cool, man, no pressure.
Crowds at Laney often include a mishmash of amateur players and students, along with co-workers, family, and friends of those on field. They come to not only see Kittredge and Rasmussen, but also local players, like Marcelo Sanchez, a teacher whose students arrived at the season opener with a large cardboard cutout of his face and cheered him on as he raced down the field to catch the disc.
During a recent practice, Molica Anderson, the team doctor, stood on the sidelines blowing a whistle to signal the FlameThrowers to start or end a play. In between toots, she also did handstands, a huge smile spreading across her young face.
She really is a doctor, though, and during the week, she works for Google in its health and wellness program. During the practice, she also occasionally checked in on Waylan, an anxious, tailless dog with a smaller Frisbee of his own, waiting semi-patiently outside the gates for his owner Andrew Hagen to finish practicing. Waylan is in Hagen’s portrait on the FlameThrowers’ website.
Then there’s Langenthal, who calls this his midlife crisis. In addition to co-owning the team, he’s the play-by-play announcer and MC for the games—something you’re not likely to see Mark Davis do any time soon. This season, he’s also the team’s general manager.
Play itself is a bit like a football or rugby without contact or any running with the ball, er, disc. The teams move down the field usually via short- to medium-range passes. Occasionally, a player will toss a bomb, spinning the disc 50 or more yards in the air, leaving it to be caught by the fastest runner, the highest jumper in a breathtaking skyward leap.
“There’s something about the way the disc flies and floats that provides a unique sort of frozen time where everybody can go try and get the disc,” explained Kittredge, providing a Zen-like answer to why he digs ultimate so much. “In a lot of sports, it’s with a ball and the play is over or you can see very quickly what happened. With a disc, the play lasts a lot longer. You can almost catch up to the disc.”
That may sound like a thoughtful way to consider the game, but in reality, when the disc is in Kittredge’s hands, the typical plan is for someone like Rasmussen to run like an out-of-control antelope toward the end zone to catch one of his fabulously powerful, quick tosses.
Instead of a kickoff, ultimate has a throw-off. Upon reception, the player cannot take more than two steps and must not change his or her direction of motion. All told, from throw-off to goal usually takes between three and four tosses, sometimes more. Sometimes there’s a block, and the other team picks up where the disc hits the ground, going the other direction. If two players collide on the field, they must shake hands before continuing play.
Each goal is worth one point, and in a recent game, the FlameThrowers bested the Spiders with a fairly typical score of 34 to 29. While play takes place on a standard football field, the end zone is lengthened, and the field is shortened, as a result, the end zone begins at the 10-yard line on either side of the field.
This year, at opening day, attendance was clearly up at Laney College: triple that of last year, by Langenthal’s estimate. But while the FlameThrowers largely benefit from a vibrant and friendly local ultimate scene here in the Bay Area, the history of the AUDL is by no means friendly or stable.