By Tyler Shepard
On a frigid night in February, Ari Nelson stood on the sideline of Diane Wendt Sports Field at the University of Denver, freezing despite her multiple layers. She’s acting as an assistant coach for DU’s club ultimate frisbee team, a group of young men who strive to get better at one of the fastest growing sports in America.
She finds herself in this situation often: giving away her knowledge of the sport every Monday and Wednesday evening to the team, which she started coaching a few months earlier. That’s not her only job: in addition to studying at DU’s graduate school, Nelson is a player on Molly Brown, the best club women’s ultimate team in Colorado, and has competed for her country on the U.S. women’s national team. However, for years she hasn’t been lucky enough to call herself a professional ultimate player—not because she’s not good enough, but because women are given less of an opportunity to succeed at a professional level in the sport.
Last year, the American Ultimate Disc League, the largest professional ultimate league in North America, announced that it would expand to Colorado with its newest team, the Colorado Summit, which will begin play this summer. Despite the Summit’s claim that the expansion will boost ultimate engagement in the state, many in the Colorado ultimate community, Nelson included, did not support the move.
The AUDL is exclusively male, and does not allow female or nonbinary players who want to participate in the sport, regardless of whether or not they are good enough. Hoping change this, several of the highest profile ultimate players and coaches are using their voices to speak out against a league which often finds itself in controversy.
Ultimate frisbee, or ultimate as it’s officially called, is not one of the most popular sports in America. As of 2019, about 61,000 players are registered with USA Ultimate, the primary governing body for the sport in America. However, this is more than triple the number from 2003, when about 20,000 players were registered with the organization. So while it may not have the numbers of more established sports, ultimate has grown at a significant rate over the past two decades.
The same cannot be said for the gender ratio in ultimate. Since 2010, when USAU began reporting the statistics relating to the gender of members, about 29 to 32 percent of registered ultimate players in the U.S. have identified as female each year. Many see this as a problem, one that can only be fixed by promoting the women’s side of the game in an effort to equalize the ratio of male and female players.
“The AUDL could have originally decided that the first professional opportunity in ultimate should be mixed ultimate, and they didn’t.” said Nelson, who moved to Colorado to play club ultimate after watching the women’s game growing up. “Young girls, already underrepresented in the youth scene, are only going to see men being professionals, not women or any other gender identity.”
Its most outspoken critics say that the AUDL has done nothing in the way of increasing visibility for the women’s side of the sport, due to the league’s sole focus on male players. “[The AUDL] is not a representation of our sport. It is a representation of men playing on a large field with little-to-no strategy and a lot of testosterone,” said Nelson.
Another of DU’s coaches, Phil Lohre, has been a part of the Colorado ultimate community for close to five decades. After finding out about the expansion in summer of last year, before the move was officially announced, Lohre was conflicted. He, alongside his son Ben, who once played in the AUDL, had participated in another boycott of the league a few years earlier, again based on the lack of opportunity for female representation. But because of his close relationship with the Summit’s prospective owners, he wasn’t sure what to think.
“The Summit’s ownership group has announced that they are committed to equity and inclusion,” said Lohre, who played club ultimate in multiple countries before beginning to coach in 1996. “I have known for a long time Tina McDowell and Joe Anderson, who are leading these efforts for the Summit, and consider them friends.”
Despite this confliction, Lohre acknowledges the importance of how the AUDL controversy plays out. “Ultimate, as a comparatively new and small sport, has the opportunity to challenge the cultural assumption that men and their competitions are more important,” he said. “I hope our community better understands issues of gender and racial equity and inclusion as a result of this controversy.”
In the wake of the AUDL controversy, two professional women’s leagues have been formed, the Professional Ultimate League and the Western Ultimate League. Formed by women upset by their lack of opportunity to compete professionally, these leagues do not receive support from the AUDL. Lohre says a PUL or WUL team in Colorado could be a compromise to allow for female representation in the professional ultimate scene. But while this can be a temporary solution, the end goal for Nelson and others who oppose the AUDL is to have the best male and female players compete on the same stage.
In protest of the AUDL’s expansion to Colorado in the form of the Summit, several figures in the Colorado ultimate community drafted a letter of opposition to the move, which was announced in December. Nelson, among over a hundred others, have since joined in signing the letter. Lohre has not joined the petitioners, although his son, Ben, has.
“The AUDL model cannot deliver equity, as proven over 10+ years of its existence,” the letter reads. “The Colorado Summit ‘pro’ team therefore cannot deliver equity. We are fighting for equity and therefore oppose this team.” It continues to criticize the AUDL’s track record, accusing the league of furthering the gender gap by allocating funds almost entirely to men’s players.
The goal of the letter, backed by the 108 people who signed it, is directed at the ownership group of the Summit: they ask that all operations be ceased, and planned investment in men’s ultimate be diverted to players of color, different gender identity, and “others with fewer or no opportunities to play in our sport.”
As it stands, neither the Summit nor the AUDL has not responded to the letter of opposition. Some feel that it’s unlikely they will. When reached out to concerning the controversy, the AUDL declined to comment. The Summit are set to play their first home game in DU’s Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium on the 28th of May, 2022, next door to where Nelson and Lohre give their time to coach DU’s club men’s team every week. “I have very little desire to get involved in the Summit in any way, including the fact that they will be at my school,” said Nelson. “I’ll just stay far away.”