Ultimate: the most popular sport you’ve never heard of

Image credit: Raimond Spekking

Image credit: Raimond Spekking


Ultimate — the invasion game played with a flying disc — might be the most popular sport that many people have never heard of.

As of 2012, more Americans participate in ultimate than in beach volleyball, track and field, field hockey, lacrosse, and rugby. More play ultimate than lacrosse and rugby combined. And ultimate is catching up to gymnastics:

Sport Total Participants (millions) Core Participants (in millions)
Gymnastics 5.1 1.86
Ultimate 5.1 1.48
Track and field 4.3 2.44
Beach volleyball 4.5 1.47
Field hockey 1.2 0.66
Lacrosse 1.6 0.82
Rugby 0.89 0.36

Note: Core participants are those who participate in a sport more than 12 times per year.

It’s also one of the fastest growing sports in North America. In 2011, only a handful of sports showed growth over the previous four years, and ultimate was one of them:

Sport Growth (2008-2011)
Lacrosse 41.8%
Rugby 37.7%
Ultimate 20.5%
Gymnastics 18.6%
Ice hockey 15.8%
Beach volleyball 14.8%
Indoor soccer 9.3%
Fast-pitch softball 2.3%
Field hockey 1.8%

There are two professional ultimate leagues in the US and Canada, the American Ultimate Disc League and Major League Ultimate. With 20 teams between them already, both leagues are looking to expand in the near future.

It also helps that ultimate is very easy to play — all you need is a disc, a large open space, some cones, and 14+ players. The rules are simple, and if played traditionally, the game does not require a referee. As such, ultimate has great potential for expansion at all levels.

It’s possible that, in a few years, ultimate will become a major spectator sport in North America. If that happens, there will undoubtedly be opportunities to be a statistical pioneer in the sport. Something to keep an eye on if you’re looking to get into stats analysis in sports.

h/t to Ultimate Canada for sharing this article via twitter.

– Devin

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