Ultimate Frisbee was invented in the late 1960s at a New Jersey high school. At the time it was considered a “hippie” sport, where people dropped in casually for pickup games. The rules are simple: teams of seven try to throw the disc up the field to the end zone. Running with it is not allowed.
Ultimate was introduced in China by American expats in the late 1990s and early-2000s, largely in first-tier cities. But over the past year, Ultimate has become one of the country’s fastest-growing sports, mostly thanks to interest on social media.
On Xiaohongshu, searches related to flying discs grew 17 times in volume from 2021 to 2022. The sport has also attracted more than 42 million views on the platform. Similarly on Sina Weibo, #UltimateFrisbee had also been viewed four million times. In Shenzhen, there are still fewer than 10 professional Frisbee clubs, but half of them were established in the last six months.
Or as Tencent News puts it: “In the eyes of many young people, Ultimate Frisbee is the most fashionable and trendiest sport.”
But is this about fun and fitness, or fashion? A search for “frisbee” on Xiaohongshu returns thousands of perfectly framed posts of female influencers in tight-fitting athletic gear posing with discs.
Don’t expect too many action shots of the sport either: most influencers are a lot more interested in squeezing into their fitness apparel than honing their frisbee skills.
According to Coach Deng from the Lychee Frisbee Club in Guangzhou, playing frisbee has become such a trendy sport that most of his beginner classes are sold out. Part of the reason for the surge in popularity, he reckons, is because Ultimate is largely a team sport that often has a mix of genders.
There’s also a strong social element: after the pandemic, which has left many feeling lonelier, young people are yearning to get back to real-life relationships and embrace the outdoors.
“If you want your teammate to pass the disc to you, you have to yell. You can’t be embarrassed. And when it is passed perfectly, we all applaud and high-five each other,” Deng tells Southern Metropolis Daily, adding that to play the sport well, players “must open up their hearts”.
Ultimate is especially popular with women. Dong Dong, a newbie player in her 30s, admitted that she only started playing it after seeing it mentioned on social media and becoming curious. She told the newspaper that she liked it because it is a non-contact sport and not particularly high intensity. It helps that a frisbee doesn’t cost very much in the shops either.
Of course, for many people looking good is just as important as playing well, possibly more so. One Frisbee club owner in Shenzhen charges each player Rmb80 per game, which includes venue and equipment rental and – most importantly – the the services of a professional photograph at the game.
“For new players, good pictures are important. They can share them. It’s a kind of signal to their friends that ‘I’m a fashionable guy, I play fashionable sports’,” one player told SupChina.
As the popularity of Ultimate grows, it is still a long distance from becoming a sport with national popularity. Club owners complain that finding venues – especially in first-tier cities – is already an issue, for a start. There aren’t enough professional coaches to help raise the local standards of the game either. And unlike skiing and snowboarding, two sports to grab attention earlier this year because of the Beijing Olympics, Ultimate doesn’t require much equipment so the sport has had trouble attracting corporate sponsors.
Relying on social media alone may not be enough to sustain its popularity, it also seems. “The problem is that Ultimate still gives people the impression that it is a ‘influencer-sport’ and that label alone is not going to help its long-term success,” Xu Yingfeng, an ultimate enthusiast, lamented to Nanfang Daily. To that end, he plans to launch more professional Ultimate events and cultivate the star performers in hope of retaining as many players as possible.
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