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The sport that folks of a certain age know as Ultimate Frisbee made the roster of official events at this month’s World Games, an international competition that regards itself as a little brother of the Olympic movement. But one thing you won’t find as the game plays out on the world stage in Japan is, oddly enough, a Frisbee.
Turns out that over the years, through a combination of alleged mismanagement, quality-control issues, and maybe myopia, the Wham-O corporation, owner of the patented, trademarked toy, has lost its grip on the game that future generations will refer to simply as “Ultimate.”
Wham-O’s fall from domination by now is so severe that the word “Frisbee” does not appear anywhere in the minutes of the last annual meeting of the World Flying Disc Federation, an umbrella group that advocates for sports such as Frisbee golf and Ultimate, which might not be around today had it not been for the company.
Today, no Ultimate player with a hint of self-respect would dare carry an actual Frisbee with him.
“Occasionally, you’ll see somebody bring a Wham-O [Frisbee] to a game,” says Chris Hulett, past president of the Washington Area Frisbee Club (WAFC), the largest and oldest Ultimate organization in existence. “But it’s a rookie mistake. When that happens, everybody will yell, ‘Get that junk off the field!’ They’re just bad pieces of plastic.”
Though the exact genesis of the mass-marketed flying-disc toy is disputed by unemployed historians, most players accept that the idea for it grew out of seeing pie tins thrown around by kids at family functions. In 1957, Wham-O became the first major manufacturer of the patented plaything, originally dubbing its product the Pluto Platter.
A year later, the company, always on the lookout for the next fad, changed the name to Frisbee, a word some contend was already in use among cool kids on college campuses. And the toy took off.
Wham-O was the only disc-maker that mattered when Ultimate Frisbee came to be in 1968. As legend has it, a group of students from Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., founded their own team as something of a lark and counterpoint to the established jock squads, then invented a game that in lay terms can be described as soccer with a Frisbee.
Columbia student and original member Joel Silver, who would later move to Hollywood and produce such films as The Matrix and Lethal Weapon, gets credit for referring to the refereeless pastime with the laid-back-or-else! vibe as the “ultimate” sport. Hence, as it spread, Ultimate Frisbee was the name everybody used.
Wham-O, then busily cranking out Hula Hoops and Super Balls for a new trend-conscious generation, apparently never thought the sport had legs. In the mid-’70s, the company introduced the 80-mold Frisbee, a heavier disc designed specifically for Ultimate. But other than that release, Wham-O ignored the game, never investing any time or energy promoting Ultimate Frisbee or supporting those wanting to promote it.
Despite the lack of corporate sponsorship or even moral support, Ultimate clubs with “Frisbee” in their names popped up across the country and around the globe. The game was something of a rage among hipster, slacker communities everywhere, most notably in college towns.
And though D.C. rarely gets credited with being particularly hip or slacker-friendly, because it is home to so many students and recent graduates, the city was a hotbed for Ultimate from early on. The WAFC now boasts more than 2,300 members. Finding space to play, not finding players, has always been the Washington group’s biggest headache.
Wham-O’s lack of patronage eventually began taking a toll. Jim Kenner, a player who was put off by the company’s indifference, started his own small disc manufacturing operation in Michigan in 1981. When Wham-O’s patents began running out a few years later, Kenner’s new company, Discraft, filched the best parts of the Frisbee design, most notably the rings cut out near the center of the disc to add stability during flight, and made revisions (including making it 10 grams heavier than the 80-mold) based on his experience as a player. The Ultrastar was introduced.
The Discraft debut made an immediate impression on Ultimate connoisseurs.
“The Wham-O 80-mold was a thrower’s disc, but you really had to take time to learn to use it, and those who did had quite an edge out in the field,” says Steve Goodwin, also an ex-president of the WAFC. “But Discraft did for Ultimate what Colt did for justice in the Wild West: Everybody who had a gun suddenly became dangerous. While Wham-O had its monopoly on the game and just got lazy and did nothing, Discraft took the time to make a disc that was easier to throw, more predictable in flight, and traveled quicker.”
Even with its better mousetrap, Discraft lacked Wham-O’s manufacturing, distribution, and marketing capabilities. Nevertheless, word of mouth on the playing fields was so consistently anti-Wham-O that the company’s products became discos non grata. The final nail in Wham-O’s coffin came when the Ultimate Players Association, the sport’s national sanctioning body, named Discraft the official disc-maker of the game.
If the folks at Wham-O are worried about their disappearance from a sport they should still dominate, they’re not showing it.
“[Ultimate Frisbee] really is something of an underground thing,” says Kelly Churchwell, product manager for outdoor games for Wham-O. “The average person doesn’t want something for Ultimatethey just want something to throw on the beach. There’s a lot of business to be done in the mass markets, and with our other products, we’re very successful at that.”
But, Churchwell adds, Wham-O is thinking about taking back the sport. And when it decides to do so, she says, it will do so.
“Our competitors who market on the underground have been successful in getting to clubs and tournaments,” she says. “But if we focused our energy on that, I’m sure we’d be the official disc of Ultimate. We’ll be there.” Dave McKenna