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What is Ultimate Frisbee®?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Ultimate Frisbee®, often referred to simply as Ultimate to avoid trademark issues, is a low-contact sport played with a flying disc. The game is loosely based on Frisbee® football, and has some similarities in common with actual American football as well. Ultimate Frisbee® is a widely popular game among high-school and college students, and there are approximately five million players of the sport.

In 1968, high school student Joel Silver suggested setting up a Frisbee® team, and later began organizing what he dubbed the “ultimate game experience.” This early form of Ultimate Frisbee® laid the groundwork for modern Ultimate Frisbee®, and in many ways the game has remained the same. Early games were based on the principles of fair play and camaraderie, and this is a tradition that lives on to this day, with even professional-level play often having no formal referees.

Silver went on to form a college team in 1970, and in 1972 the first intercollegiate game of Ultimate Frisbee® was held on 6 November. It was played between Princeton University and Rutgers, the same two teams who had played the first intercollegiate football game exactly 103 years earlier. Within a few years a number of colleges had their own teams, and in 1975 an invitational tournament, the Intercollegiate Ultimate Frisbee® Championships, was held at Yale. Nine years later, the first College Nationals was held, with Stanford as the first national champions.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Ultimate Frisbee® spread as a popular sport outside of colleges as well. In 1979, the Ultimate Players’ Association (UPA) was formed, helping to organize regional tournaments throughout the United States. Many people saw Ultimate Frisbee® as an athletic alternative to traditional sports, and it historically attracted a very different sort of athlete. In recent years more traditional athletes have begun playing Ultimate Frisbee®, especially at the college level, and many within the community see this as posing a threat to the principles of self-judging and friendly competition the sport was founded on.

The point of Ultimate Frisbee®, as in football, is to make a pass of the flying disc to a teammate in the opponent’s end zone. Rather than being played with a time limit, most games are played to a set number of points. Seven players from each team are on the field at any given time in regulation play, but as substitutions are allowed, most teams have around 20 people on them. A regulation field is 70 yards (64 m) long and 19.5 yards (18 m) wide.

Play begins with both teams lining up at their end zone, and one team throwing the disc towards the other team. The disc moves by being passed from one team member to another, and can be passed in any direction. Once a player catches the disc, they must come to a stop as quickly as possible, and may from that point on only move on one pivot foot. A player may, however, throw the disc before coming to a complete stop, which allows for the play known as the Greatest, in which a player leaps from inbounds to catch a disc flying out of bounds, then throws it back inbounds before he touches the ground.

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