When Emily Hanson started playing ultimate Frisbee in high school, she and her friends would simply throw a Frisbee to each other without following any official rules. She thought the game was just for fun — until she found a VHS tape of a team from Minnesota, where she lived, playing in a national championship game.
“Oh, this is an actual sport that people actually play,” she remembers thinking. “It’s not just a thing that people do on the beach or in their backyard when they have a Frisbee and some friends.”
Hanson was right: Not only is ultimate Frisbee an actual sport, but it has school, club and professional teams — including the Colorado Summit, which is playing its first season this year.
Hanson is one of the owners, and she now plays by the rules.
Legend has it that the game of Frisbee was invented in the early 1900s by Yale students who frequented a pizza place, the Frisbie Pie Company, which served its pizzas on metal tins that the students would toss back and forth after they finished eating. Although some dispute this origin story, there’s no question that the sport took off after the plastic Frisbee was invented by Fred Morrison in 1948 — and then really flew when Wham-O created the first patented flying disc in 1958.
High school students soon invented something they called ultimate Frisbee, playing the first game in 1968, according to USA Ultimate, the national governing body for ultimate. Over the next fifty years, through school and club play, it evolved into a sport with formal rules, with seven players on each of two teams, all trying to score by tossing the disc into the opponents’ end zone without having the Frisbee get intercepted. A national college circuit emerged, and in 1979, USA Ultimate was founded. Much like USA Tennis or USA Volleyball, USA Ultimate oversees competition at the club level.
In 2012, the game went pro with the formation of the American Ultimate Disc League; two years later, Major League Ultimate was formed by members who were dissatisfied with the AUDL. But the MLU folded for financial reasons in 2016, eliminating competition between the two entities and solidifying the AUDL’s role as the pro league.
Matt Krei, who was born in Colorado and attended Colorado State University, discovered ultimate Frisbee in 1997 when he was living in Dallas, working as an application developer. He became an original owner of the Dallas AUDL franchise, and when he returned to his home state, he wanted to push the game here, too.
“My teams have always been the Denver Broncos, the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche, the Rockies, so I have a really close tie to my home state.”
“My teams have always been the Denver Broncos, the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche, the Rockies, so I have a really close tie to my home state,” Krei says. “I became so-called addicted to ultimate. I’ve just always wanted to do anything possible to promote the sport within the state of Colorado.”
Krei sold his stake in the Dallas team and bought the franchise rights in this state. “I could have just bought it and been 100 percent ownership for the Colorado franchise, but I wanted to make it more of a community-type deal, and I felt like if I bought it myself that other people might look at that as selfish,” Krei recalls. “I sent out an email to everybody I knew and said, ‘Listen, I’m buying into this Colorado franchise; would anybody else be interested in buying into it?'”
Darin DeLay and three others responded, forming the original ownership team of five in 2014 and securing the rights to a Colorado team.
DeLay, the urban design manager for the City of Arvada, had started playing the game when he tore his kidney in half playing lacrosse at Ball State University. The school wouldn’t let him play lacrosse anymore, he recalls, but okayed ultimate because it involves less contact. When he moved to Colorado, DeLay immersed himself in the ultimate scene, playing on league teams organized by USA Ultimate. As he’s aged, he’s graduated from the open-level Johnny Bravo team to the masters-level Johnny Encore to the grand-masters Johnny Walker. Krei currently plays on the great-grand masters team, Johnny Cashed.
But even though Krei and DeLay had the rights, the AUDL was hesitant to put a team in the state because travel costs to games would be so high. Teams on the West Coast, in the Midwest, on the East Coast and in the South were close enough to drive to games, but every team would have to fly in order to play in Colorado.
“I like to think that nobody wanted Colorado in the AUDL because they’re afraid of the bite they were gonna get from the dog that we can put on the field,” DeLay jokes.
Finally, after years of frustrating delays that caused the other three original owners to sell their shares, the league contacted DeLay and Krei in 2021.
“They were like, ‘Hey, we’re ready to announce Colorado as an expansion franchise. Are you guys ready?’” DeLay recalls. “We’ve been waiting for ten years with very minimal action to kind of get it to happen…and then, finally, it was like the AUDL was serious about bringing us in as an expansion.”
In fact, Colorado is one of three new teams, along with the Salt Lake Shred and the Portland Nitro. That brings the total number of teams in the league to 22, and the owners had to work quickly to make it happen here.
At the same time that the league was pushing to expand, Sal Pace, a former state representative and Pueblo County commissioner who now works for the Marijuana Policy Project and the US Cannabis Council, was looking to buy into the AUDL. Although he doesn’t play as competitively — the other owners are going to the World Masters Ultimate Club Championships in Limerick, Ireland, in June — he’s been playing for about thirty years, has introduced his children to the sport, and loves the ultimate community.
When Pace asked the AUDL about starting a Colorado team, the league connected him with Krei. The two had lunch to discuss a buy-in, and Pace was soon on board. DeLay, Krei and Pace were open to other owners, too.
Krei reached out to Jim Nolte, who owns Ultimate Lending Team, a mortgage-loan business in Colorado, and has played ultimate since 1995. A number of his clients play the game, and Nolte and Krei had become friends through clubs. Nolte agreed to join the ownership team.
Pace knew Emily Hanson from his days at the Capitol, where she’s a legislative liaison for the Colorado Department of Human Services; he invited her to join the group, too. Combined, the five owners have over 100 years of experience playing ultimate, Pace says.
No matter how wild a legislative session gets, Hanson says that she always makes time for ultimate. After discovering the game in high school, she formed the first women’s ultimate team at Luther College in Iowa. In Colorado, she helped combine the two main women’s club teams, Box Lunch and Rare Air, into a joint team called Molly Brown. From there, she’s graduated to Molly Grey and Molly Blue.
“I know they were really interested in making sure that the owner group wasn’t, for lack of a better term, a bunch of old white men making decisions, and they wanted to have some different perspectives,” Hanson says. “I felt like that was something I could offer, both in my involvement with the community in Colorado outside of the club series, and then with the women’s sports and the women who play out in Colorado — making sure we’re bringing those voices into what we’re creating as a team.”
“I know they were really interested in making sure that the owner group wasn’t, for lack of a better term, a bunch of old white men making decisions.”
Once the ownership group was set, it moved quickly to get the team off the ground. Hanson estimates that the owners did a year’s worth of work in a few months, because they knew they couldn’t pass up the chance to have a Colorado team this year.
The league had offered the option of starting in either 2022 or 2023, Krei recalls: “As I started talking to [Pace], at first we were like, well, the 2022 season might be really quick. The more we started talking about it, and then getting [Hanson] and [Nolte] on board as well, then it was kind of a mutual decision of, ‘Let’s just shoot for 2022.'”
Krei remembers that the process was also quick for the Dallas franchise, but the league didn’t have as many specifications for stadiums and other guidelines back then, making the work in Colorado a bit more complicated — but also less confused.
“With Dallas, we just picked a high school,” he says. “It was a high school field, and it might have been a private high school or a nicer high school, but there weren’t any requirements for lockers or showers or any of that stuff. It was just, ‘If you can hold a game somewhere, just hold the game somewhere.'”
Securing the University of Denver’s Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium as a venue for all the team’s home games was the toughest part of preparing for the 2022 debut from a logistics standpoint, Krei says.
The process involved checking each possibility for copyright issues as well as doing a Google search of the potential name to make sure it wouldn’t take people to an undesirable website; the owners also worried about the potential for offensive slogans or slips of the tongue.
For example, DeLay and Krei originally thought that naming the team the Colorado Double Blacks would be a fun nod to the state’s ski industry. But the league pointed out that announcers calling the game might shorten the name to the Colorado Blacks, which could be offensive. The Stampede was another suggestion, but the league is moving away from any names that connote violence. The Dallas team, which had been the Roughnecks, is now the Legion. So Stampede was out.
Ultimately, the owners decided on the Summit because the name fits with their values: To reach the summit, you have to make a journey — and each part of the journey needs to be executed with care.
The league didn’t love the name at first, Delay recalls, saying it was too generic. But once the owners explained the meaning, the league got on board. To make sure the team was as inclusive as possible, the owners decided to call it the Colorado Summit, rather than tie it to Boulder, Denver or Fort Collins.
During the run-up to the announcement of the Colorado Summit last December, Hanson says, the owners spent most of their time discussing the team’s mission and values, and ensuring that the Summit would be a positive part of the community.
Pace’s connections made one thing surprisingly easy: Among the team’s sponsors is Star Buds, a Colorado cannabis dispensary chain that boasts the closest dispensary to the Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium. Wana, another cannabis company, has also joined as a sponsor of the team’s Summit Founder’s Club.
The AUDL doesn’t have any policies regarding the use of marijuana beyond asking players to follow the laws of the land and not play games while inebriated, so Pace saw the Star Buds sponsorship as a natural fit. “There’s already alcohol sponsors all the time in professional sports,” he says. “Most Coloradans already know cannabis is safer than alcohol.”
The deal makes the Summit the first professional sports team with a cannabis logo on the front of its jerseys.
Nearly 150 people came out in January to vie for a spot on the Colorado Summit. Thirty-six practice players made the cut, with game rosters condensed to twenty.
All of the talent is homegrown; however, some of the team’s more experienced players had previously traveled from Colorado to play for other teams. Former league MVP Jonathan Nethercutt, Jay Froude, Matt Jackson and Dave Wiseman are all league veterans.
Players get paid, though not usually enough to quit their day jobs. (Fortunately, the games are on weekends, so they won’t have to take days off.) The same goes for coaches. The Colorado Summit has three coaches this year, including General Manager Ryan Segal, who’s doing double duty.
Segal played for the AUDL team in Seattle for two seasons. While there, he coached a bit and ran social media for the team. He moved to Colorado in 2020, and when he heard that the Summit was forming, he got hired as a coach and then pitched himself as a general manager, too. As a result, he’s helped construct both the roster and the game plan for the team.
“It’s really cool building something from scratch,” Segal says. “Getting input from the owners about what they envision and what matters to them and then getting the input from the players that we put on the roster and kind of building this vision, this community, this culture all simultaneously with everyone’s input, it’s been really fun, because it’s just grown straight from the ground up.”
Even Governor Jared Polis, who helped recruit Nethercutt, is a fan. “I am so excited for Colorado to gain an American Ultimate Disc League team, and I personally look forward to seeing the Colorado Summit in action,” Polis says. “Colorado is one of the fittest states in the nation, and the presence of a professional ultimate team will further help inspire recreational athletes of all ages to participate in this sport, which is rapidly growing in popularity here in Colorado and across the world.”
“I am so excited for Colorado to gain an American Ultimate Disc League team, and I personally look forward to seeing the Colorado Summit in action.”
The team wants to make sure that fans have a great game-day experience, involving everything from pre-game music — Denver band Brothers of Brass will be featured at most games — to post-game opportunities to come on the field and meet players. Although the owners know that the team will find fast fans in the ultimate community, they hope to attract more Coloradans, too.
Nolte thinks that fans of other sports will appreciate ultimate, since it’s something of a combination of soccer, lacrosse and football.
“It’s called ultimate Frisbee because it was combining all sports to be the ultimate sport,” he says. “We have end zones and we score touchdowns, basically, so it’s like football in that. It’s consistent movement like soccer. You pass it from person to person to person to score. And then there’s a pivot foot like basketball. Once you’ve got the Frisbee, you have to stop and plant the pivot foot, so there’s all these different components of these different sports that people could come and see and experience.”
And they won’t have to pay much to experience it: Season tickets are only $60 for all six games, and individual games are just $15, with everyone under twelve getting in free.
According to Pace, the Summit had the best sales in the league before the season started. Part of that could be price, but he also credits Colorado’s ultimate community.
Other centers for the sport are in San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, New York and North Carolina, but Nolte thinks the values of the sport particularly align with the values of Colorado. A large component of ultimate Frisbee is the “spirit of the game,” he notes, an honor system in which the players call their own fouls at the club and collegiate levels rather than having referees. Teams discuss foul calls and reach a resolution; oftentimes players even call fouls on themselves.
In elimination rounds of masters national championships — which have been played in Aurora every year since 2018 — trained observers help keep the pace going by settling discussions quickly and calling in and out of bounds, though players can overturn an observer’s ruling.
The AUDL also has observers. Pro games are also on bigger fields than college games and timed rather than decided on points. Usually, the game is over when a team reaches 15 points — but that leads to variability on time that isn’t compatible with television deals or the fan experience. So in the AUDL, each game has four twelve-minute quarters.
Fans can watch every game on AUDL.tv and YouTube, and the Summit will have two home games broadcast on Fox Sports 2: the June 25 match against San Diego and the July 30 contest against Portland. The first home game is Saturday, May 28, and the team is hosting a tailgate event starting at 5:30 p.m. at the stadium.
The Summit is already off to a strong start, with a 2-0 record, and Segal anticipates more excitement as the season continues. “The entire roster is such a talented roster that I feel like the fans coming to the games are going to find that one player that they really like and are excited about,” he says. “I could name so many players on the roster that I think will just be fan favorites.”
Nolte sees the Colorado Rapids, the local Major League Soccer team, as a model for how the Summit could build its fan base. His daughters played soccer through the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer League, and the family would often head to Rapids games, even buying season tickets. The Summit plans to host youth clinics over the summer.
Notes Segal: “What the professional leagues allow is for young people, sports fans in general, who haven’t quite heard about ultimate and haven’t seen it played — it helps get the message of what an exciting sport this is out to a much larger group of people.”
Even as their team takes off, the owners want to continue building a positive culture in the ultimate Frisbee community.
Inclusivity remains a concern. According to Hanson, some members of Colorado’s ultimate community worry that having a professional team could hurt the club side of the sport, especially women who are concerned about gender parity if men have the chance to compete professionally and women don’t. There are two professional women’s leagues — the Western Ultimate League and the Premier Ultimate League; neither have Colorado offerings, though Pace did ask the WUL about starting a team.
Gender parity has been an issue throughout AUDL history. In fact, over 150 people signed a 2017 letter calling for a boycott of the league until it provided equal resources for women. As a result, the league committed to taking steps toward gender parity by looking into starting a women’s division in the AUDL and allowing teams to set up parallel women’s franchises.
When Hanson signed on to join the ownership group, one of her first priorities was talking to the local women’s teams, sharing the owners’ mission of inclusivity and trying to set up ways to work with women in the ultimate community. One of those efforts will be hosting a doubleheader with the WUL on June 18, when athletes from the WUL will play a showcase game after the Summit game.
“I would say in almost every sport…it’s the men’s team, and everyone pays attention to them, and then young women who want to play, they don’t see a woman playing,” Hanson says. “When you don’t see someone doing something, it makes it harder for you to envision that that’s something that you can be a part of.”
“When you don’t see someone doing something, it makes it harder for you to envision that that’s something that you can be a part of.”
DeLay agrees that the owners want to make the sport as equitable as possible, allowing people of any race or gender to try out and including people like Hanson on the leadership team. “That’s what success looks like for us,” he says. “It’s not just winning games, but how we are able to give back to some of these other communities that have helped create playing opportunities for these athletes, whether it be in college or whether it be in club.”
Hanson doesn’t think she would have joined the ownership team if she’d been asked back in 2014. “It would still have seemed like this was just a bunch of dudes who are trying to create a sport for just guys, and there’s no thought to the other parts of the community,” Hanson says.
The owners are certainly giving thought to other parts of the community now.
The Summit has worked with the Colorado Department of Corrections to go into prisons and teach the game to individuals incarcerated in the Colorado Youthful Offender System. “We can’t replace the support network of professionals, but if any of these guys get out …they have a community that they can find,” Pace says. “It’s a network that everyone needs. Everyone needs a community.”
The community is strong in Colorado. Teams from the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and Colorado College all qualified for nationals this year, and both men’s and women’s club teams from the state are consistently among the highest-ranked in the nation and world.
Frisbee is increasingly popular outside Colorado, too. USA Ultimate, which is now based in Colorado Springs, is a member of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. Ultimate is being considered as an addition to the 2028 Summer Olympic Games.
Hanson says that on one of the team’s first trips with the Department of Corrections, it was powerful to watch kids connecting with professional athletes. “To see the impact it can have when you go and introduce it to people that would have never had the opportunity before to experience it was pretty cool,” Hanson says. “That was a really meaningful experience for me.”
There’s a joke in the ultimate Frisbee community, Nolte says: When a ball dreams, it’s a Frisbee.
That dream is about to come true.