In debut season, San Francisco's Major League Ultimate Frisbee team flourishing 

click to enlarge Ultimate Frisbee
  • Godofredo Vasquez/Special to The S.F. Examiner
  • Ultimate Frisbee is a bit like football in that the object is to catch a pass in the end zone for a point.

Like most college athletes, Justin Safdie fantasized about being a professional after graduation. But with his sport, he knew the aspirations were far-fetched, so he settled for a career in tech.

"I was being wooed by a number of different companies and I remember thinking at the time that I would have given it all up for $25,000-$30,000 a year if I could have Ultimate Frisbee as my career," Safdie said.

After 13 years, Safdie is finally seeing his dreams come to life from the sidelines of Kezar Stadium. In February, he jumped on the opportunity to be the first coach of the San Francisco Dogfish, a Major League Ultimate (MLU) franchise, and he couldn't turn down the offer after giving so much of himself to the sport.

"I've put in a lot of work," Safdie said. "Pretty much all of my free time and all of money has gone to playing Ultimate."

MLU, which kicked off of its inaugural season in April, is the first national pro Ultimate Frisbee league and The City was a natural home for one of the league's first eight franchises.

"There's just a huge amount of talent in San Francisco," league vice president Nic Darling said. "It was a no-brainer."

The City is a hotbed for Ultimate Frisbee with top colleges like Cal, Stanford, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz feeding the talent pool. Roughly 3,000 people in the region play the sport every year in approximately 20 leagues through the Bay Area Disc Association.

The Bay Area is the home of the 2012 men's world championship team, the 2011 and 2010 men's national championship teams, the last seven women's national championship teams and the last three co-ed national championship teams.

Unlike the Giants and 49ers, the Dogfish are truly a San Francisco team, composed of players who work and live in the region. Eighty people turned out for open tryouts in February and after a couple of weekends, Safdie whittled the pool down to a team of 25, including 14 players from the world champion club team, Revolver.

Members of the Dogfish still work regular jobs, roughly 90 percent in the tech industry. The players make $25 a game, but they're saving $2,000 to $3,000 a year by not having to pay for things like hotels, car rentals, uniforms, tournament fees and practice fields.

"Just turning the corner to where they're not paying money to play is a huge difference," Dogfish General Manager Chris Sherwood said. "These guys would all be doing it for free."

The game itself is best described as Frisbee football. The object is to catch a pass in the end zone for a point. Players can't run with the disc, so they're forced to throw a pass as soon as they catch it and they get to use a pivot foot, like basketball. Incomplete and out-of-bounds passes lead to changes of possession.

"It's a very team-oriented game, it involves a ton of running and the flight of the Frisbee causes some unique dynamics," Sherwood said. "A ball goes up and comes down, but a Frisbee can hang in the air and float, which introduces a lot of spectacular action."

Ultimate is a no-contact sport without referees governed by an honor system referred to as "spirit of the game" — the idea that sportsmanship trumps everything else that happens on the playing field. Players call their own fouls and sometimes the game is stopped for healthy debate, but "spirit of the game" puts the responsibility of fair-play falls on the shoulders of every athlete.

But MLU has tweaked the sport by expanding the field, allowing double teams on defense and introducing referees who are responsible for making 100 percent of the calls.

"There is a debate in the ultimate community about whether having refs will cause the game to devolve and [lead to flopping]," Sherwood said. "So far, that hasn't happened."

Right now, the Dogfish are carrying on the winning tradition of The City's club team, Revolver. Heading into Saturday's contest against the Seattle Rainmakers, the Dogfish were 6-1 and holding onto first place in the four-team Western Conference. The team will host the first-ever Western Conference playoff game at Kezar Stadium on June 29 against the Rainmakers.

Sherwood said he's pleased with how the team is performing at the box office, too. They drew 1,300 people to their opening game at Boxer Stadium in Balboa Park and they've averaged about 500 a game since.

Western Conference MVP-candidate Beau Kittredge said he's optimistic about the league's future.

"I think it's a great success considering we've never seen anything like this before," he said.

San Francisco Dogfish

WHAT: Major League Ultimate franchise in its inaugural season

WEST DIVISION: San Francisco Dogfish, Seattle Rainmakers, Portland Stags, Vancouver Nightnawks

HOME FIELDS: Kezar Stadium and Boxer Stadium

COACH: Justin Safdie


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Paul Gackle

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