The sport of ultimate has come a long way since Andy Collins first started playing it 20 years ago in North Bay, Ont. And so has Andy.
When he originally stepped on the field, it was with the intention of staying in shape after high school, and engaging in a social sporting atmosphere. Since then, Collins, now a 36-year-old realtor in Vernon, has competed in two world championships, and he recently played in the first-ever professional ultimate game in western North America.
Major League Ultimate made its debut on Saturday, April 20, with the host Seattle Rainmakers dousing Collins’ Vancouver Nighthawks 14-12 in front of 800 fans.
“Twenty years ago, I never thought it would happen,” said Collins, who caught two points and set up two more. “I also never thought I’d be playing this long.
“The atmosphere of that game was amazing. It’s like being a real athlete again.”
Collins and the Nighthawks get flown in for games, and players receive a $25 stipend. It’s hardly the six- and seven-figure salaries awarded to mainstream pro athletes, but it’s a start.
“We’re still playing for the love of the game,” said Collins. “It’s not like we’re going to become millionaires.”
The Nighthawks, who play out of UBC Thunderbird Stadium, are in a four-team West Division that includes the Portland Stags, Rainmakers and San Francisco Dogfish. The East comprises the New York Rumble, Boston Whitecaps, Philadelphia Spinners and Washington DC Current.
Teams are allowed 25 roster spots (up to 21 can dress on game day) and they play 10 regular-season games, with the top two from each division making playoffs.
“It’s not as intensive a schedule,” said Collins. “If you’re playing club, you’re playing from June to Halloween.”
Collins said the Nighthawks handle themselves like any pro organization, employing a GM, coach and operations staff. And they do all the little things like injury reports, announcing starting lineups (which he gets a kick out of) and organizing online standings and statistics (www.mlultimate.com).
“It’s pretty exciting and they seem to be doing a good job of it,” he said.
The biggest difference between the pro and recreational versions of ultimate is the inclusion of referees. One of the sport’s initial foundations was self-governance, meaning players would sort out any disputes among themselves.
For ultimate to go pro, referees became necessary. And as Collins points out, it also helps from a fan perspective to know what’s going on in the game.
MLU further refined the sport by changing game lengths from an open-ended score to four 10-minute quarters. They also use NFL-sized fields with 20-yard end zones to increase offence and give the action a better flow.
“It’s definitely spectator friendly,” said Collins, adding ultimate is becoming more mainstream all the time.
“The potential for it is pretty huge; it’s growing like crazy in the States. There’s 300 teams in college alone and they’re doing a great job of marketing it.
“The best thing about ultimate is it can played at every level.”