The Other Football
As the Raiders prepare to leave Oakland, a fledgling sports team and league attempt to take flight.
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Photo by Darren Yamashita, Courtesy of the FlameThrowers
Beau Kittredge (diving catch) has twice been named MVP of pro ultimate.
Prior to the league’s founding five years ago, ultimate had a lively amateur scene that had finally matured beyond some of its uglier roots. Kinstlick said that back in the ’80s, amateur ultimate was marred by fistfights over on-field disputes (fellow co-owner Lincroft said that was likely endemic to the New York-area scene at the time).
Those strife-filled origins are, perhaps, where the storied troubles around the league’s founding were rooted. The first year the league operated—2012 —was marred by lawsuits between teams and the league itself and, ultimately, the disqualification of one of the founding franchises, the Connecticut Constitution, for failure to pay fines.
It was an ignoble beginning for a professional sport known more for its laid-back fans, impeccable sportsmanship, and kid-friendly nature. Rather than shaking hands and making up, the Constitution, the Rhode Island Rampage, and the Philadelphia Spinners left the AUDL.
The Spinners kicked off Major League Ultimate in 2013, a rival professional ultimate league. Kittredge even played for a Bay Area chapter of the league, the San Francisco Dogfish in 2013; his first season as a professional player. During this time, Kinstlick, Lincroft, and Langenthal were considering buying an MLU franchise, but ultimately, they chose the AUDL.
It was a smart move. In December 2016, the MLU folded. But the AUDL has expanded rapidly. For the 2017 season, there are 24 teams.
Kinstlick is upbeat about the league’s prospects. He noted that TV viewership for the NFL declined last year and that people are increasingly turning to alternative sports, including soccer, which regularly draws tens of thousands of fans in the United States. “There are so many diverse audiences out there now,” he said. “I do think ultimate has the opportunity to capture that kind of audience.”
A decade ago, the LA Galaxy of Major League Soccer brought in European soccer star David Beckham to boost enthusiasm for the then side-stream sport. The owners of the FlameThrowers are clearly hoping that Kittredge and Rasmussen will have a similar impact on the local ultimate scene, especially if they can win a championship here.
“Beau is the face of the generation,” Langenthal said. “He was kind of like Michael Jordan.”
Before turning pro, Kittredge was an outstanding club and college player and represented the United States in the 2013 World Games. He and Rasmussen will again represent the United States in this year’s World Games in Poland.
Kittredge’s is most easily found on YouTube by searching the terms “Best Catch in Ultimate Frisbee History.” The result is video of Kittredge’s days playing in college in Colorado and features him leaping high enough to straddle a defender and catch the disc for a goal.
His strength lies not in any particular skill with the disc, but in his overall athleticism and competitive spirit. “Beau is a great athlete,” said Lincroft. “He was an NCAA Division 1 track athlete coming out of high school, and he has the natural athletic ability necessary to excel in our sport and in other sports. Like all great competitors, what really makes Beau special is that he just hates to lose. There’s just some people—they just can’t stand [to lose]. It drives them to train, drives them on the field, drives them to make their teammates better, and he has that in spades.”
Kittredge is coy about the Jordan comparison. “Michael Jordan is one of the greatest athletes of all time and dominated his sport,” he said. “When all is said and done, that comparison could be made, but I think I still have a long way to go before that can be written on my gravestone.”
Kittredge, like most ultimate players, also has a day job: He manages a team of software developers working on a mobile game. He lives in San Francisco with roommates, and his passion, after ultimate, is video games (his favorite is The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time). Video games were one of his only sources of fun growing up in the middle of nowhere, he said.
Nowhere was Fairbanks, Alaska, a place he said he was glad to leave when he went to college and saw his first real city. But it was in Fairbanks that he discovered his destiny. When he was 10 years old, his mother saw a flier advertising pick-up ultimate games in the park.
“Growing up, my mom dropped me off at every sport that would take me. [Ultimate] was the one sport that had every part of those athletic endeavors that I enjoyed: the running, the jumping, you get to be quarterback, and you get to score the touchdown.”
During games, Kittredge reaches around opponents trying to block him with the focus and concentration of a samurai or a major league pitcher. While a typical ultimate play can last 30 seconds and encompass a few passes around the field, Kittredge clearly prefers firing the long bomb to his fast-legged teammates. His plays end quickly.
After his 2013 stint with the San Francisco Dogfish, Kittredge signed on with the San Jose Spiders in 2014 and took league MVP and the championship, twice. In 2016, he went to Dallas, again winning the championship before the owners of the FlameThrowers lured him back to the Bay Area for this season.
But it’s not entirely up to Kittredge to ensure the San Francisco FlameThrowers succeed this year. To help them out, Langenthal hired a social media expert to spread the word. He’s also struck a deal with the San Francisco amateur team, Revolver, which has yielded additional top-notch players.
Revolver has been a dominant amateur team for many years. This year, one of its past players, Ryo Kawaoka, became the coach of the FlameThrowers, and Langenthal thinks this will also help the team’s chances.
Said Lincroft: “We feel like we’ve got a real contender this year.”
The team’s longer-term prospects might not have much to do with the championship, however. Lincroft said the future of ultimate depends on the growth and breadth of the sport’s fan base. “In the long term, I really believe this will become a sport where kids are playing it from elementary through high school, college, and on to the professional level, with a nationwide audience on primetime TV,” said Lincroft.
To get there, the FlameThrowers front office has a three-pronged approach, said Lincroft. “One: We want to build the youth divisions of the sport and to support and promote as much youth participation in the sport as possible. Two: We want to see the amateur sport make it to the Olympics. And three: We need to build our audience to a level where we can be self-sustaining as a professional organization.”
Kittredge has a good take on ultimate’s present state. “I think any time you have a sport starting to emerge, you need people willing to put time and money into something that will probably lose money,” he said. “Right now, we have a lot of great people involved who are doing a lot of amazing things, and hopefully, one day we’ll have players and athletes who sole job it is to play ultimate.”
And perhaps win a few championships in Oakland along the way.
Published online on June 19, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.