INDIANAPOLIS — Something exciting is happening in Indianapolis and you’re probably missing it.
The newly formed professional league, the AUDL (American Ultimate Disc League) and one of its eight teams, the Indianapolis AlleyCats, aren’t mainstream yet, but soon will be.
AlleyCats president and owner Thom Held said there are an estimated five million players throughout the nation playing the sport of Ultimate, mostly with club teams in high schools and colleges.
But it’s something that can appeal to different ages from all backgrounds.
“It’s a hybrid of football, basketball, and soccer, but the rules are pretty easy to figure out without much help,” Held said of the frisbee-based game.
On a field similar to a football field, Ultimate is played seven against seven. The game begins with a “kick-off,” where the defense throws or pulls the disc to the other team.
Its play is similar to basketball in the sense that once a player catches the disc or the disc is picked up, the player must come to a stop and have one foot planted as a pivot until the player throws the disc to another (hand-offs are not permitted). If a player physically interferes with an opposing player, a foul may be called.
Much like basketball and football, offensive possession is changed if the defense intercepts or knocks down a pass.
Teams play 48 minutes (12 minute quarters) and have a halftime, and goals are worth one point each, scored when the player catches the disc in the opponent’s 20-yard end zone.
But possibly the best part of the sport is the sportsmanship among opposing players.
“The spirit of the game is sportsmanship,” Held said. “It’s really a source of pride for Ultimate players. A player can overrule an official if he knows, for example, that he didn’t make the catch and it’s called a catch. He can give the disc to the other team; it’s called the integrity rule. A player that knows that the call was wrong can actually overrule against himself.”
In the inaugural season for the AlleyCats, Indianapolis’ newly formed professional team is already attracting a crowd for each home game.
“It (the league starting) has really gone beyond the norm, it started in several small markets, particularly Indianapolis, which drew several criticisms,” AlleyCats player and Brownsburg native Drew Shepherd said. “We are one of three teams in the league to average 800 to 1,000 fans a game, which is probably almost 10 times what most teams average. I think when it expands, it will be interesting where it has succeeded and where it hasn’t.”
And the AUDL, which has teams in the Midwest and on the East coast, has already sold additional franchises to double the league to 16 teams. This includes the West coast, and the league will be expanding to 10 to 16 teams next year.
One of the AlleyCats draws is talented player Brodie Smith, a two-time national champion at the University of Florida, who is best known for his trick shot highlights on YouTube.
“I have been playing Ultimate for seven years, and I have been throwing since about 18 (years old),” Smith said. “I just went out with some friends and tried to do some crazy shots.”
Held felt fortunate for his opportunity to get a player like Smith.
“Most owners were interested in him and we have some player connections in Jacksonville, some back channels, and we had him up for a meeting and a workout and this is the place he decided he wanted to play,” Held said.
Smith said he just felt comfortable in Indiana and the Midwest.
“I really like the organization, just everyone involved, the whole staff, everything is organized and taken care of,” Smith said. “And that really takes away the pressure that players used to have to deal with, so that allows us to just focus on playing and trying to win games.”
Smith said he sees the new league as a way to get more exposure for this growing sport.
“I wanted to spread the sport and get it out there, having a professional league will show younger people something to aspire to and get them more passionate about,” Smith said.
Held said he knows that having a player like Smith, also one of three captains on the squad, not only helps his team but helps nationally as well.
“Brodie definitely introduces a lot of people to the game,” Held said. “We are the team in the league with the most national following because of him. And we are hoping now that we have him, we will attract similar talent.”
Smith said he knows that he’s somewhat of an ambassador of the sport, but he does it only for his love of the game.
“That’s my goal (to help Ultimate grow), but I don’t feel like I have to do it,” he said. “I am passionate about it and I want to do it. That was part of putting the trick shot videos up first, and it getting so much attention. I feel a little bit of responsibility, but that was my goal from square one, before any of this started. I love this sport and I want people to know about it — for them to have a chance to play and try it out for themselves. I just want to spread it out there as much as possible.”
The AUDL has given these players a chance in the spotlight and to become more widely known.
“It allowed us the opportunity to grow the sport and put it on a different level, this is a step forward,” Shepherd said. “The exposure to this truly competitive sport and something that can be a little more mainstream.”
After being with a chain in the retail sports business for two decades, Hel said he saw a great investment opportunity in the AlleyCats.
“I played once in high school 30 years ago and honestly forgot about it,” he said. “But I was very excited from the collegiate tournaments I had watched. It was a reasonable way to get into this business, and I don’t have billions of dollars. When you consider people thought leagues like MMA and WWE were a dumb idea, there’s no reason that this can’t be a successful idea and the cost to get in was very reasonable.”
And one of its signature moments will surely give the sport of Ultimate notice.
“The first time the players see the disc go aloft, they realize this play isn’t over,” Held said. “It’s going to hang up there and those guys are going to go up in the air and challenge for it and that’s where the excitement kicks in, like a long bomb in football.”
So the AlleyCats hope that even in the infancy of the AUDL, the exposure toward their sport will push it into the national spotlight.
“It’s not mainstream yet, but it’s on its way,” Held said. “The entire game is a highlight, and it’s really exciting.”