The kids playing pick-up basketball at a neighborhood park in Naperville had no idea a professional athlete had just walked past their hoop. The girls at soccer practice took no notice. But when college kids playing ultimate disc saw him stride onto the grass, they knew their time was up, and abdicated their field.
“Guys, guys,” one player shouted frantically to his teammates. “Brodie Smith and a pro team are about to play on this field.”
Often relegated to a club sport or weekend pastime for high school and college kids, ultimate has gone pro with the American Ultimate Disc League, founded in 2012. But even more surprising than that, ultimate has its first superstar in Smith.
Viral videos now confer celebrity quicker than even television, and Smith’s trick-shot videos—where he tosses discs impossible distances with even more impossible accuracy—have amassed more than 36.8 million views and earned him nearly 250,000 subscribers. Smith, 25, and his teammates play on the AUDL’s Windy City Wildfire, and both league and player represent the evolution of a rapidly growing sport that’s just now scratching the surface of national exposure.
“When they go to high school, I want to give kids the option to try something else besides basketball, football, soccer,” Smith said. “I’m not saying all kids should play ultimate. I’m saying they should have the choice and right now we’re not there yet.”
Smith was born in Chicago and lived in a high-rise on North Shore Drive before his family moved to Florida when he was one. Physically, he’s a beast—big and fast. In college sports, top athletes don’t typically play club sports, paying out of pocket for travel and playing on untended fields. But Smith went the road less traveled: At the University of Florida, he chose to toss a piece of plastic instead of leather, and won two ultimate championships with the Gators. After college, he played on an elite club team called Doublewide, where he won a title while he taught ninth-grade Algebra.
From viral to professional
That’s when it all started. After he graduated from Florida in 2011, he started making his videos, and his name traveled beyond the field. His most popular YouTube hit captures Smith on a dock in Australia holding a disc. He throws it forehand toward the horizon, and as it glides toward the sea, a speedboat comes out of nowhere. Somebody leaps off the side and catches the disc, a feat that has earned 5.4 million views. His videos account for about half of his income, with other money coming from leading clinics and workshops, and selling merchandise online. The Wildfire pay him a modest salary plus travel expenses, and a bonus if they win in the playoffs.
AUDL commissioner and Wildfire majority owner Steven Gordon saw potential in the professional model. So Gordon recruited Smith, last year’s AUDL MVP John “Goose” Helton from the Indianapolis Alleycats, and a host of other elite club players from around the area for the local team.
“Brodie is, without question, the most recognized ultimate player in the world,” Gordon said. “And that’s partly why we brought him here, to help this team win a title. But it’s also what he does in promoting the sport that made me want him in Chicago. ”
Gordon points out that in the last six months, Smith has made trips to China, Japan, Mexico, Great Britain and Dubai to promote the game, in addition to the various camps he visits around the U.S. Smith hardly gets a break as his services have become in demand. The non-stop playing and touring can be draining sometimes. But when he heard the college players flipped out once they realized he was coming, he laughed and said that’s what makes it all worth it.
“It humbles me every time,” said Smith. “I love this sport, but there are those times when I get worn out. When I get an email from a kid saying my videos helped him throw, that’s just great. That’s what motivates me. That keeps me doing what I’m doing.”
That’s one of the reasons Smith went pro, to legitimize this sport and give kids the impression that elite athletes can play with plastic. Smith has helped ultimate shed the hippie stereotype typically associated with disc sports. That was his goal when he first posted his instructional videos online, because as he said, “most of the videos were of guys with long hair and tie-dyed T-shirts.”
And that’s the catch. Will the people of Chicago pay money to watch ultimate—until now a fringe sport—at Lane Tech Stadium? At the home opener on a cold April 20, 861 fans filled the stands to watch Smith throw the disc the length of the field, hitting a receiver in stride just about every time. Two games into the season, Smith has a team-high 49 completions. It’s clear he is the quarterback and star Gordon hoped he’d be. But even Smith agrees that realistically, this sport is not going to achieve mainstream status anytime soon.
“There’s a lot of people who think ultimate is going to be bigger than football and soccer but it’s not going to,” Smith said. But in the near term, it’s all about growing the sport.
“It’s definitely more organized,” teammate Kevin Yngve said. “This thing is so new, but I think we’re moving in the right direction. And having Brodie here makes a huge difference.”
The Windy City Wildfire‘s next home game is Sunday, April 28 at 3pm against the Cincinnati Revolution. All games are played at Lane Tech, 2501 W Addison.