About 570 spectators gathered at Breese Stevens Field on Mother's Day to watch Madison's new professional Ultimate team, the Madison Radicals, battle Chicago opponents the Windy City Wildfire for first place in the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL). Among others, eight young men from the Sun Prairie High School Ultimate Frisbee team lined the fence for a front-row seat. And from the crowd, the voice of Madison player Nate Volkman's daughter Georgia rang out.
"Go Radicals!" shouted the 4½-year-old from her mother's shoulders.
The Madison Radicals have played three home games, drawing crowds from around Madison and the state. Ultimate players and supporters will descend on Madison en masse from around the country over Memorial Day weekend for the USA Ultimate College Championships. When Madison hosted the championships in 2010, 6,000 spectators attended. Chris Olig, CEO of Midwest Ultimate, predicts the same number for this year.
Madison's thriving community of recreational Ultimate players will provide a solid foundation for the audience at Radicals games and the college tournament. The sport is becoming more spectator-friendly, with Madison organizers sourcing local food and striving to make the whole experience fun and accessible.
"Anything can be successful as a spectator sport if the things around it are fun," says Tim DeByl, a Madison Radicals player and co-owner. "It's not about the action on the floor or the field, it's about how you present it. Is there some level of drama? You have to combine [an athletic game] with a good stadium, with good drinks, good food."
Ultimate Frisbee originated in the 1960s. Players score by throwing the disc to teammates up-field until they reach their end zone. When the Frisbee hits the ground or goes out of bounds, the other team takes possession.
Madison's Ultimate Frisbee scene grew from a handful of players who organized leagues and tournaments. It now stands out as one of the Frisbee hubs in the nation along with Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia and the Boulder/Denver metropolitan area, says Pete Schramm, the president of the Madison Ultimate Frisbee Association (MUFA). The association coordinates thousands of area players in recreational leagues throughout the year.
"Madison is kind of a destination city for Ultimate, because the scene is so vibrant and there are so many opportunities to play," he says.
Madison boasts the "highest per capita [volume of] players of anywhere in the nation, probably the world," estimates Olig, referencing the 4,000 people who signed up for last year's summer league. About 2,000 play with the spring and fall leagues, area club teams, schools and the UW-Madison.
Olig says the USA Ultimate College Championships will feature games at Reddan Soccer Park in Verona and in the stadium at Memorial High School. The tournament includes 20 men's and 20 women's teams competing for first place in the nation. UW-Madison men's and women's teams will play in the tournament, and are currently ranked second and 12th, by Ultimate news site Skyd.
The college games will bring substantial money into the city. Judy Frankel, public relations manager for the Madison Area Sports Commission, estimates a $480,330 economic impact from the tournament.
The Mallards baseball organization, just before the start of the baseball season, will provide catering for the college tournament, including some local fare.
"It's good for out-of-towners to experience cheese curds," said Olig.
At the Radicals games, spectators can buy pizza from Roman Candle, beer from the Great Dane and a quarter-pound slab of locally raised bacon on a stick, deep-fried by the Smokin' Cantina.
Olig and DeByl also put thought into event seating. Olig says Reddan fields will be outfitted with bleachers to allow viewers to see more of the field, and the Memorial High School field includes stadium seating. DeByl has long wanted to see Ultimate at the historic Breese Stevens Field. All of the Radicals' home games will be played there.
DeByl's partnerships with area vendors extend beyond food, and the activities and giveaways between quarters at Radicals games are tied to the sponsors. Audience members compete for prizes in competitions like the "well-done pizza toss," throwing a pizza as if it were a Frisbee across the field.
Olig says the college tournament will also include competitions and prizes on the field between games. He expects that the tournament will draw even more Ultimate players into area leagues.
DeByl also hopes the Radicals season will boost Madison's Ultimate scene: "Part of the idea of the league is to broaden the reach of the sport."