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Ultimate Frisbee Goes Pro
PHOTO: Players  practice ahead of Saturday?s opening day of the American Ultimate Disc League, the first professional Ultimate Frisbee organization.

"People will come," says Brodie Smith, who was already a star days before competing in the first professional game of Ultimate Frisbee. Channeling and perhaps pining for his own Field of Dreams, he adds a bit ruefully, "or at least they'll stream it on line."

The place those people will come isn't a mythic Iowa baseball field, but a high school in Ohio. That is, if they don't just watch the game on their computers, or don't just watch it all

And what they'll be watching today is a matchup between the Columbus Cranes and Smith's Indianapolis Alleycats, two of the eight teams comprising the fledgling American Ultimate Disc League. (Frisbee, it turns out, is trademarked.)

The league will hold other contests today as well, including a faceoff between the Rhode Island Rampage and the Connecticut Constitution, an opening day the league calls "the first pull."

"It should be awesome," Smith says.

Smith knows a thing or two about awesome. A cross between the Michael Jordan and Evel Knievel of Ultimate, his Youtube channel has more than 145,000 subscribers, many of them tuning in to watch mind-blowing trick shots, such as throwing a disc from a bridge and having it caught -- caught! -- from a buddy below in a moving boat.

The new league is betting that Smith and other power players can turn Ultimate -- a game, which for many conjures up barefooted freshmen on a college quad -- into a serious sport, capable of drawing crowds and selling merchandise.

But the league is also betting on something else, Ultimate's newfound popularity. Since the game's founding four decades ago in suburban New Jersey, it has become one of the most popular amateur sports in the country.

"This is one of the fastest-growing sports in America," says Josh Moore, founder and president of the AUDL. "We're seeing double-digit growth annually, with about 5 million people who play. That's more than lacrosse and rugby combined."

Before the league, the highest level of competition was in college, after which some top players continue to play on an itinerant club circuit.

Moore and the team owners hope that a league "fills a need out there," he says. "There are all these elite players that don't have the chance to take it to the next level."

Spectators too, he says, previously didn't know where to find club games. By tying teams to cities and creating a place to watch games online, however, fans no longer have to seek out games.

Starting a team can cost a franchisee as little as $2,500, Moore said. It's at the discretion of team owners how players get paid. Some work for a stipend, some marquee players like Smith get a piece of team revenues.

But players for the most part "all still have day jobs," he says.

Smith only recently quit his job as a high school math teacher, turning all his attention to playing pro Ultimate and teaching disc clinics across the country.

Tickets sell for around $8, but go as high as $20 in Detroit.

But the league is hoping most spectators will view the game not in person but streaming on the Internet, paying $9 for a live game, and $7 for an archived game.

Ultimate, in which teams try to move the disc down the field into an end-zone only by throwing it and not by running it down the field, has traditional been self-refereed by the players themselves, resorting to do-overs when teams can't agree on a call.

The one major change to the rules in the new league: officials to adjudicate games.

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