Why this matters
Rather than focusing solely on increasing market share or pulling in massive revenue, the Premier Ultimate League is working to ensure it is accessible to everyone on the gender spectrum, and building itself up with antiracism as a foundational tenet.
Professional ultimate frisbee is fast-paced and fun, and people with various athletic strengths can excel in it. But in 2017, in the pro league, many of the players thought women weren’t getting much of a chance. Fed up, 150 players boycotted the American Ultimate Disc League, calling for “equal gender representation, visibility, and opportunity.”
Eileen Murray played and coached in the AUDL.“For women in the league, many — myself included — had negative experiences,” she says. The league was mostly cisgender White men, and “the issue was that this brand of ultimate was becoming the norm for how youth and international players saw U.S. ultimate.”
When that boycott did not result in meaningful change, some in the group took matters into their own hands and decided to create their own league. They formed the Premier Ultimate League in 2018, with a mission “to achieve equity in the sport of ultimate by increasing accessibility to the sport for, and visibility of women, transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, and genderfluid people through high-quality competition, leadership experiences, and community partnerships.” The mission statement also spells out that the league “strives for gender, racial, and economic diversity.”
“The gap we were filling is to provide a space for women, gender-queer, gender-fluid ultimate players to also be able to experience professional ultimate,” says Murray, who cofounded one of the new league’s teams, the New York Gridlock Ultimate. She is also the team’s general manager, coach, and Premier Ultimate League representative.
While the AUDL was gender-inclusive in theory but not in practice, the PUL has centered inclusivity from the jump, employing best practices to “maximize inclusivity and gender diversity on the gender continuum.”
That means prioritizing participation and opportunity for anyone who’s great at “ultimate,” the shorthand name of the sport that is played by millions worldwide across more than 80 countries. To do so, leaders chose not to get hung up on the science or history of how other leagues might make rules on participation.
“As a league, we all committed and took the stance that we’re not getting involved in that discussion about hormones,” says Julie Halpern Cook, co-founder of New York Gridlock Ultimate. “And we’re not going to make you prove your gender identity. If you identify as female, you identify as female.”
The PUL played its first official season with eight teams in 2019. Unlike the AUDL, the new league was organized as a 501-c6 nonprofit, and its mission and goals are not about market dominance, but equity.
But, Murray says, “what we failed to do in 2019 was to center the antiracism work. What wound up happening is that the league, just like ultimate Frisbee in general, was overwhelmingly White and overwhelmingly cisgender, so we really had to take a step back and do some introspective work.”
The demographics of ultimate are “very White and pretty high-income, for the most part, and highly educated,” Cook says. While many Black and Brown people play ultimate, they may be less visible and may not advance to the pro level as easily as their White peers.
Beyond providing opportunities to play, the league’s founders also wanted to show the public that people other than cisgender (people whose gender aligns with their sex assigned at birth) White men play ultimate. The league, according to its mission, aims to “promote the participation of marginalized people in ultimate and showcase them to an audience that wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to watch them in action.”
Part of the challenge in diversifying the sport is where people start playing ultimate in the first place. “Historically, where top-level talent tends to come from that would find its way into a semi-professional league is going to be the traditional route — college ultimate,” says Janel Venzant, a league board member. “Then you move up to club, which is very expensive, and then you would be sort of trained up to the level of playing on one of these professional teams.”
Outside of college, many people lack exposure to the sport. “One of the big struggles for us has been to try to create opportunities for people who’ve not come from this traditional college to club to pro route, or maybe who went to historically Black colleges where they just don’t have ultimate,” Venzant says.
The PUL expanded to 12 teams in 2020 — but then the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. Like many organizations, the league used this forced pause and the global racial uprising that summer to look inward.
The league wants to center antiracism because it’s good for both the sport and the environment within it. Its initial steps in “trying to apply an antiracist lens, sort of in addition to the other lenses, and trying to really be like a league where equity can happen, different from what we’ve seen in other sports,” were restructuring its board and bringing in a DEI consultant, Venzant says. The league “basically turned over the positions of power at the league level to myself and a number of minority or non-cisgender people,” she says.
They hired the Nina Collective, a consultant that offered short- and long-term suggestions. This has proved helpful because the league’s board members are not antiracism experts, Venzant says. “I’m a Black woman. I'm not a diversity and equity and inclusion professional,” she says. The Nina Collective helped the board set norms, such as how to handle when conflicts arise in the group.
One short-term improvement the Nina Collective identified was to put policy on paper, Venzant says. They pointed out where the league either didn’t have an existing policy or where the existing policy might have a result they didn’t intend, she says.
For example, ultimate is self-officiated, so typically, when a conflict arises, “you put it to the players to learn how to vocalize what’s going on in the conflict, how to communicate with the opposing team, and then they’re supposed to have a dialogue to resolve it,” Venzant says. But that system doesn’t work well if the conflict is a racist act, for instance, because “the victim of the racist act is being put in a position to have to vocalize for themselves . . . which is a horrible position to be in,” Venzant says. Now, rather than putting the onus on the athletes of Color to decide whether to speak up about an incident, they can report it to a team ambassador, who will handle it with the other team’s ambassador.
The PUL and its teams, with New York Gridlock Ultimate as one example, have been working to center antiracism and make the sport more inclusive in ways large and small:
Diversifying Staff and Leaders
As the league has done, individual teams have been diversifying their leadership. In 2021, the New York Gridlock established a Core Committee made up of staff, players, and community partners “to help us envision our future and stay true to our mission and values,” Cook explains. “We are working towards a reorganization that will allow the owners, staff, players, and community partners to share power and labor within the team.”
Also, the team has made “a very conscious effort to hire women and to hire people of Color as much as possible,” Cook says.
Equity Issues for Away Games
The New York Gridlock has a player-led Equity Committee that prepares the team when traveling to areas where equity concerns may arise. For example, Cook says, when the team traveled to Indianapolis and Austin, Texas, “we worked with the host team to understand the gender and racial laws in those communities and discuss how we were going to support our team members who might not feel safe traveling into those communities.” And in those cases, the players sought out related organizations for local support and organized internal fundraisers.
Defraying Players’ Costs
The Premier Ultimate League aims to give players an opportunity to play at no cost to them. Exactly which of the players’ costs and expenses are covered varies from team to team. The Gridlock provides travel costs for away games, including hotels and meals. Players also receive a stipend and have revenue-sharing opportunities with photos and specialty merchandise, like signed discs and jerseys, Cook says.
The team also provides coaching, uniforms, and snacks through its partnerships. Match Fit Performance provides strength and conditioning coaching, as well as physical therapy support.
The team operates on funding from private sources (including owners, friends, and family members), branding, and corporate sponsorship, Cook says. “The next step in our growth is connecting with corporate sponsors in the larger sports community,” she says.
Space for DEI Discussions
The league has provided DEI training modules for players and has been figuring out how to adjust them so they benefit everyone. For example, if a team has only three Black people on it, Venzant says, “it can be a weird environment to set them in a room where the rest of the team is processing these things.” The adjustments may involve giving people of Color their own space where they can come together, Venzant says.
In 2020, when the league did not play because of the pandemic, it hired professional facilitators for periodic “affinity spaces in response to all of the trauma that was happening across the country” – including racialized police violence and attacks on Asian-Americans – to support its athletes, Murray says.
Partnerships and Gear
The Gridlock prioritizes partnerships with organizations that are owned by women and Black and Brown people. The team’s jersey sponsor is VC Ultimate, which makes non-binary jerseys — meaning the jerseys are focused on fit and body shape rather than gender. For example, what used to be called the “women’s cut” is now called “fitted.” The previous unisex cut is “standard,” and the previous men’s cut is “relaxed.”
The league states that it is “creating partnerships within and outside the various ultimate organizations to grow and elevate the participation of marginalized people.” This includes making connections with youth and other organizations in underserved communities, where, Cook says, “we go into these communities and ask them what they want, not give them what we think that they need.”
The aim is “to build sustained partnerships where we become known to the community, and we could really understand what community needs were, and then respond and develop programming around those needs,” Murray says.
Mental Health Support
The league’s mission statement says: “Recognizing the trauma of nonbinary people living in a binary society, we keep focus on mental health dialogue and neuro-atypical inclusion.”
The New York Gridlock hired a team psychologist in 2020 to support its athletes even when they weren’t playing during the pandemic.
The Gridlock has a land acknowledgment that the game announcer reads out loud at home games in Jersey City, New Jersey. It recognizes that the land they gather on is “Lenapehoking, the original and rightful territory of the Lenape people. We honor the Lenape people . . . and acknowledge the vast injustices they have faced in the past, and continue to face in the present.” The statement also says: “We embolden ourselves and our guests to dedicate our unwavering consciousness to examine the ways in which we have benefited from the ongoing tradition of colonization, racism, displacement, and land exploitation.” The acknowledgment is also included in the online program for each game.
In many of these efforts, the league and the teams have been learning as they go. And they recognize that mistakes and missteps are inevitable. “It’s hard work to run a sports league. It's harder work to try to build some framework that we haven’t seen done before,” Venzant says. And when you mess up, “that can really gut people. So being able to be compassionate to ourselves, and also being able to make corrections, I think, is a big deal.”
One lesson learned is that the sooner you start acting on these priorities, the better, Venzant says. “It's easier to go ahead and prioritize it now than it is to go back and sort of tear things down and refocus people,” Venzant says.
For existing leagues, that need to tear down what’s already built to make them more inclusive might be a more difficult process than it has been for the Premier Ultimate League.
And, in its gender inclusiveness, the Premier Ultimate League has succeeded in building the framework it thought the sport needed. “The sports world is really crowded already, and then women’s sports kind of get pushed to the margins of that,” Venzant says. "And I think by trying to do something different — this is something unique about our league that isn’t present in a lot of other sporting contexts.”
The league has set itself apart in its gender inclusiveness and in the community it has built. But it continues to push itself to live up to some of the ideals it set out in the beginning but that weren’t so easy to attain.
Like the game of ultimate itself, it requires a team effort. When ultimate is done well, the team builds its strategy around each athlete’s individual strengths, Cook says. “Because every player is a quarterback at one time or another on the field. When you hold the Frisbee, you’re quarterback, and every player is a wide receiver, and a defender, and an offensive player. And it’s just the strategy that you build that makes the team.”