Could ultimate frisbee be the next big US spectator sport?

This can’t seem likely, I realize, given most Americans’ unfamiliarity with the game, and the limited interest in the two professional leagues that have been launched recently. Still, I think frisbee’s chances of success – if we take success to mean a level of general interest, and revenues, at least as great as pro US soccer within one generation, and hockey, in two – are pretty good.

Shouldn’t soccer be in this position? Millions of American kids play it, and this has been true for, what, 30 years or so? So what. Millions of kids play recorder and floor hockey. At the risk of being at once unoriginal and a romantic, I’d say that soccer’s problem, as a rising spectator sport, is that it’s not American enough. Spectator sports become big because they make people feel connected to something in their imagined common past, and then, by watching a match or game, let them share that memory with people like them, thus coming to feel part of a common community. Soccer, in the US, doesn’t work like that. Perhaps this could come to happen, were the US team to win a World Cup, attendance to rise, revenues to increase, and the best US players, and the best players from elsewhere, start their careers here, in significant numbers. Then soccer would come to seem a more American thing. But the competition, both from other countries’ teams, and other countries’ leagues, is too fierce, I think, for this to happen anytime soon.

Frisbee, on the other hand, could not be more American. Moreover – and significantly, I think – it could not be more Californian. And California, particularly the Bay Area, where ultimate is most popular, not only drives the American economy, but, more and more, with the rise of tech and tech culture, is reshaping American society as well. Ultimate, as the – ahem – ultimate California game, is poised, I think, to rise to prominence much as have, in the past, baseball – the ultimate rural American pastime, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and the football – the ultimate industrial-area pastime, in the early to mid-20th century; and basketball, the ultimate rural Midwestern, and then urban pastime, starting in the mid-20th century. The cultural power of the Bay Area, and everything associated with it, will only grow over the course of the 21st century. If one of the new ultimate leagues can successfully position itself as the sport most representative of that culture, its success, I think, will be assured.

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