Tuesday's announcement of the first professional ultimate frisbee team in Colorado was met with a mix of fanfare and frustration this week.
The Colorado Summit is one of 25 teams across the United States and Canada that will play in the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), the league announced Tuesday morning. It's the first professional ultimate team in the state, though Colorado has been home to many top club, youth and college ultimate teams. AUDL teams are open to all genders, but they have very few women on the rosters.
"It's really exciting to have the growth of ultimate and have it come to Colorado. The Colorado Summit is committed to inclusion, diversity, and equity. Everyone is welcome to participate in the Colorado Summit community," said Sal Pace, who represents the team's ownership group.
But two members of Colorado's Molly Brown team, which competes in the Women's Club division of USA Ultimate, felt much different. In a discussion with Denver7 following an article published Tuesday about the new team, the women explained why they feel this further gives men significantly more opportunities, clout, and coverage than women in the sport.
"I felt livid. I felt shocked, I felt horrified. I also felt really sad," said Molly Brown player Megan Ives.
Denver7 talked with people and players on both sides of this announcement to go in-depth on the fanfare, the frustration and the future.
The fanfare: 'I want to let everyone know what's up in Colorado'
On Wednesday afternoon, a group of team owners, local officials, pro athletes and youth players gathered at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium at the University of Denver to celebrate the creation of the Colorado Summit.
Multiple aspiring players attended the formal announcement.
One of them, Timothy Elliott, who is a student at Air Academy High School and plays ultimate, said when he learned that a professional team was coming to Denver, he excitedly talked about it with a friend for 12 hours. He said he's looking forward to coming to Denver to watch and support the team, just as other sports fans have cheered on the state's major teams like the Broncos and Nuggets.
"I've been trying to watch highlights on YouTube and everything. But now, I'll have a local team that's going to be playing right here," he said. "And I'll be able to come up and watch them and cheer them on."
He said he wants to play for the team some day.
"I want to play this sport for as long as I can. It just really gives me more motivation," he said. "I want to come out here, I want to dominate. I want to let everyone know what's up in Colorado."
Sal Pace, the former Minority Leader of the Colorado State House, represents the Colorado Summit ownership group. He said they're excited to start the process of hiring a coach and thinks it would be "fabulous" to hire a woman coach.
"We’re encouraging women and all genders to apply for the coaching position," he said. "We envision and we hope that we are not going to have a coaching staff that is all men. We want to provide an opportunity for everyone to coach and play in the AUDL."
Tryouts for Colorado Summit begin in January and both men and women are welcome. By next summer, the Colorado Summit will begin playing at the University of Denver’s Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium. The AUDL will announce the schedule in the spring. Ahead of that, the team is welcoming input from the community via an online survey.
The Colorado Summit will also hold youth clinics in the summer of 2022. This will include outreach to underprivileged communities to introduce kids to ultimate and the state's professional players. Pace said as the father of three half-Hispanic children who play ultimate, bringing the sport to underserved communities is "at the core of who I am." He also helped organize a youth ultimate clinic in Pueblo last spring that attracted residents who were all Latinx.
During the formal announcement Wednesday, Emily Hanson, a legislative liaison for the Colorado Department of Human Services and owner of Colorado Summit, said they also plan to set up clinics for women and other players to increase access to watching and playing the sport.
The AUDL, which the Colorado Summit will play for, is a professional ultimate league. USA Ultimate (USAU), on the other hand, is the national governing body of the sport. Colorado's Molly Brown team plays under USAU. There are a few major differences between the two — USAU games are all self-officiated while AUDL uses a referee system, and USAU plays tournament-style while AUDL may have a game each week or so in a more traditional style. Teams in USAU's club division are widely regarded as the most competitive ultimate in the United States. The division includes men's teams, women's teams, and mixed-gender teams.
The frustration: 'Ultimate could be different'
Claire Chastain and Ives, both on Colorado's Molly Brown team, were upset to learn about the creation of the Colorado Summit.
"A sad day for ultimate in Colorado," Chastain wrote on the team's announcement on Instagram.
Ives said she is upset to think about the excitement her fellow male friends and players may think of the announcement.
"It hurts me to know that people that I love and care about — that I hope love and care about me — would feel OK taking an opportunity that is granted to them that has not been granted to me or my teammates," she said.
This frustration isn't new — it started several years ago.
In 2016, a group of ultimate players approached the USAU about unequal media coverage through the ESPN contract and the USAU listened, Chastain said.
"They brought people to the table, and the ESPN and media coverage and contract has been fairly equal since then," she explained.
Then, in December 2017, a group of people made the same move on the AUDL and boycotted the league, citing problems with how the league treated men over women.
Organizers issued the following statement about the boycott: “I believe that women and men should have equal representation at the highest, most visible levels of our sport — including professional play. If the AUDL does not ensure that women and men have equal representation in 2018, I will not support it. This means I will not be playing in or attending games, and will avoid consuming related media and content.”
Chastain, who is arguably one of the best ultimate players in the world, was one of the boycott organizers and signed the statement, along with about 150 others, and demanded equal access and opportunities for women to play ultimate.
The AUDL responded with a published internal letter from then-Commissioner Steve Gordon, and outlined its plan moving forward. It included more social and digital exposure for women, youth development with at least half of the clinic instructors being women, producing more women's games, and more.
"I hope this illustrates how serious we are in advancing women’s ultimate," Gordon's letter ends. "In all honesty, we’d like to do more, but the reality is that we can only do so much both financially, and within the confines of all partnership agreements we are party to. While, presently, the primary focus is on addressing gender, we don’t want to forget the importance of addressing racial inequity as well, and hope you all can appreciate the time and effort we’re trying to invest in addressing both."
Ives said AUDL's actions since the 2017 boycott have been mostly "tokenizing."
For example, she said a few years ago, a women's ultimate team was allowed to play during halftime for a AUDL men's game as "halftime entertainment."
"I think that ultimate existed at the highest level with mixed play, which means both male-matching and female-matching players on the field at the same time, when the AUDL was created," she said. "So I think the only reason it was really geared towards men is because of historic, patriarchal and sexist notions that male athleticism is worth more than the athleticism of people that are not men."
"I think a lot of people have good intentions in terms of wanting to grow the sport in a way that is intentional, and intentionally inclusive of race, different genders, different classes, different ability levels, all that kind of stuff," Chastain said. "And I think that there are youth ultimate organizations that do that. And what I never really understand is why we need professional organizations to do that, other than the word 'professional' sort of lends 'legitimacy' to the sport."
She said she has coached with men who are not as good as her, but because they have the "professional" label, they have more credibility than her.
Both women noted how Molly Brown is working to push social conversations and challenge the community.
This year, they turned down their World's bid and hope to spend some of those resources working with the community, Chastain said. In 2020, when the season was canceled due to COVID-19, the Molly Brown team geared its efforts toward spreading its wealth into the community and helping people — especially people of color — during the pandemic. This summer, they redistributed $10,000 to visit Texas in protest of the state's new abortion laws.
Just recently, Ives noted, the AUDL launched a Kickstarter for $350,000 to create an ultimate video game.
"It was pretty appalling that that kind of wealth would be directed in such a way, especially if this organization has claimed that they have the desire to be impacting 'underprivileged communities,'" she said.
The women said a good step forward is to continue the conversation, support and awareness of women in ultimate. As members of Molly Brown, Ives said they have relative power to voice their opposition to the Colorado Summit.
"Generally, bringing up the conversation and providing a dissenting opinion on the men's professional league is important to get people to think and understand that there could be another way," Chastain said. "Ultimate could be different. ... We don't have to have professional leagues to be legitimate, or we don't have to have our primary professional league be centered around men. ... I think that there are a lot of creative ways to think about ultimate and the future of ultimate. And I think just providing an oppositional opinion about it helps people think about it in that way."
The future: 'The sooner we can have a pro women's team, the better'
As Colorado gears up to welcome its first professional ultimate team, will it get a professional women's team in the near future too?
Women in Colorado are welcome to try to go pro in ultimate by joining the Colorado Summit, which is open to all genders. However, the AUDL has only had about five women max on its rosters in a single year amid hundreds of men, according to the league's CEO Steve Hall.
Currently, there are two professional ultimate leagues for women and nonbinary people: Western Ultimate League (WUL) and Premier Ultimate League (PUL). When they were created, in 2020 and 2019 respectively, any woman who wanted to go pro would generally go to those teams over the AUDL, Hall said.
Neither the WUL nor the PUL has a team in Colorado, Hall said, but it does have Molly Brown, which is a USAU club division team.
"I think for us, it's like a slap in the face to a lot of the people who compete on our team to say, 'Hey, there are two professional women's teams that are available. We're not actually going to expend our resources on the best team in the state.’ We're the best competitive division in the state," Chastain said.
Molly Brown has reached further in the USAU series than the club men's team, she added.
Emily Hanson, who helped co-found the Molly Brown team and is now an owner for the Colorado Summit, said she envisions a professional women's team in the state in the next five years.
"After the AUDL started, a lot of women's teams felt like the thing that was missing was having a women's professional league as well," she said. "And this is an opportunity for us to grow a fan base so that when we are able to expand and bring on more teams, including a women's team, that we're able to give them that opportunity and give them that the space and the expertise of seeing how you run a professional team in Colorado for ultimate."
She said she hopes that bringing a professional team to Colorado will help with the inclusion of women in the sport.
"When you look at the (women's) teams in Colorado, we figure out how to get it done not just for our team, but for the whole community," she said. "And so I think having this team and bringing it in brings that visibility and gives us another opportunity to showcase the sport that everyone plays — from all the young, any gender, any gender identity. We were able to showcase the amazing athleticism that comes out of it. And by having that, it gets more people excited about the sport. And it gets a lot more young people excited to see not just players on the field, but an ownership and a coaching system that looks more like them than maybe what they're used to."
Pace said he's personally committed to investing money immediately into a women's team if that's what the women's community decides that they want. He added that he'd want equal pay for men and women as well.
"I am 100% committed to supporting women's ultimate," he said. "And I think the sooner we can have a women's team — pro women's team — the better and I think it would be great for our community."
Chastain said there are currently two professional women leagues in operation — the WUL and PUL — and if the AUDL wanted to create one, it could have done so already.
"It isn't happening," she said. "I think that says a lot about where their priorities are. Additionally, regardless of an existing women's league, the AUDL as an institution does not have values that align with mine, personally."
Ives echoed Chastain's thoughts.
"I would ask why the men's team here is coming first and what impact they think their prioritization of play for male athletes is going to have on the existing (and growing) disparity across genders," she said.
Both said they do not have any interest in playing for an AUDL team.