There are just over two minutes left in the first half of the game when Dallas players start flinging a series of quick, short passes down the field from their own ten-yard line. Pass, stop, look. Pass, stop, look.

Connor DeLuna pauses at midfield, surveys for open players, then makes a long pass downfield to Griffin Miller, who catches it at the twenty. He pivots his body and cuts it across to Joseph Welkener, who glides through the air and slides across the turf on his belly to score.

Welkener jogs off the field, low-fiving teammates along the way. Once he reaches the bench, he looks up toward the stands and grins. His wife is holding a homemade sign. The camera cuts away as he jumps onto the railing to give her a kiss.

The game is televised and the clock has stopped at 1:59, but this isn’t the two-minute warning you’re used to seeing in the NFL. 

This is Ultimate. The object sailing through the air was a disc, Welkener and his teammates were the cutter, and the drive ended with one point, rather than six.

Welkener’s squad, the Dallas Legion, competes in the American Ultimate Disc League, a relatively young pro sports organization that has grown to 24 teams, including 3 in Texas. Like the NFL and other major American pro leagues, the AUDL has rivalries, broken bones, and ejections. Unlike the pro sports you’re used to, however, the athletes usually have roots in the cities they play for, the players can overturn referees’ foul calls, and the stars don’t sign million-dollar contracts.

In fact, on Monday, Welkener will go back to work as a mechanical engineer. 

Most Ultimate players make a few hundred dollars per season, based on a formula that uses revenue from ticket sales, so they have careers outside of Ultimate. “If you’re rostering the Mavs, you’re rostering the best players because this is their job,” says Melissa Battis, general manager for the Legion. “When you’re rostering out here, you’re balancing your best players with who can actually make it because of their job.”

In many ways, the AUDL is the antithesis of big-time U.S. professional sports. But as the league gains popularity, it’s coming to grips with how to retain the spirit of the game.

Battis and I watch the second half of the game versus Austin Sol together from the press box at Ranger Stadium, which is better known as the home field for Jesuit Dallas high school football. Even though it’s extremely hot, there are a couple hundred loyal fans in the stands—a mix of spouses, parents, club teammates, and followers of the sport. There are a kids’ zone and food trucks. In a city where the price of pro sports tickets can be astronomical (we’re looking at you, Jerry Jones), the $15 entry fee for adults for a Legion game is a slam dunk for a family outing. 

To cover the basics, Ultimate is not the same as disc golf, and the word “Frisbee” was uttered zero times during the interviews I conducted for this story (it’s a trademark). The game is played seven-on-seven on a field over four quarters. The goal is the same as in football or soccer: get the disc from one side of the field to the other to score. Once a player catches the disc—usually up high with one hand or chest-level by clamping down with both hands—one foot must remain in that spot until it’s passed again, hence the pivoting.

The game between Austin and Dallas is closer than expected. The other times these teams met this season, Austin won by fourteen, eleven, and nine points. At one point in the second half of this contest, the Legion pulls to within one point of tying the Sol. The Legion is among the worst teams in the AUDL’s South division; the Sol is among the best. The New York Empire has been considered the top team in the league for the past few years and is looking to complete its second consecutive undefeated season.

“They were the first to really . . .” Battis says, then amends her statement before she can finish it. “No, they weren’t. We were.” Battis is referring to recruiting top talent from out of town and, in some cases, paying players top dollar to relocate.

The practice is common in professional sports that can afford it, but AUDL franchises have traditionally retained and promoted a hometown atmosphere—most players have family in, jobs in, and other connections to the cities where their teams are based. In 2016, though, when Dallas joined the league, it was good right off the bat. That was due in part to the owner luring players away from Central Texas and beyond. It paid off. The team, then called the Dallas Roughnecks, won the league championship in 2016. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, players flew on private jets to games on the West Coast.

“We never had a practice,” says Kevin Richardson, who has played for the Roughnecks and the Legion since 2016. “We had the best talent, we had the best athletes, we had the best throwers.” Then the transfers started going home, and the Roughnecks’ record declined. “It wasn’t sustainable for us,” Battis says.

New owners took over the franchise and rebranded as the Legion in December 2021. Richardson says he loved playing with the best of the best, but he thinks the story of Dallas’s AUDL team showcases how investment in a community from the bottom up can lead to more sustainable success. “Looking at Austin, they have this funnel from UT to the club scene to the pro scene,” Richardson says. “It’s proven that you can probably pay the best guys to come play on your team, but you’re probably going to win more championships the other way because you’ve got twenty guys who play together all year round.”

There’s another reason to keep investing in young, local talent: to protect the spirit of the game.

In youth and club matchups, there are no referees. Players debate calls themselves and agree on the resolution in real time. It’s an aspect of the sport that can slow down the action, so the AUDL chose to have officials make calls. But the league created what it calls the Integrity Rule, which is aimed at preserving the spirit of the game, as described by USA Ultimate’s official rules for all levels of play: “All players are responsible for knowing, administering, and adhering to the rules. The integrity of ultimate depends on each player’s responsibility to uphold the Spirit of the Game, and this responsibility should remain paramount. . . . It is assumed that no player will intentionally violate the rules.”

In the AUDL, this means that players can overturn referees’ calls, but only if overturning the call reverses an outcome that was called in their favor. For example, if a player was fouled, the injured party can say, “No, that really wasn’t a foul; let’s play on.”

Richardson says he’s seen the Integrity Rule used less in recent years, as players are increasingly reliant on referees. “In early 2013 to 2018, there were one to two integrity calls a game,” he says. “And now, we’re seeing one to two an entire season for each team. I’m not sure if I like that or not.”

Things could change. Although the sport itself is 55 years old, the AUDL is only 13—and still growing. This season saw the debut of the Houston Havoc. That added pressure on Dallas and Austin, because players from Houston often picked between the two teams. Now those athletes in southeast Texas don’t have to travel as far to play professionally. And they can invite family and childhood friends to come and watch. “I think it’s really cool because the people who come to the game are people you know, and that’s a big part of it,” says Dane Bossert, a Havoc player who works as a health educator for the state. “It’s got that hometown sort of feel.”

As the second half of the Austin-Dallas game charges on, the Sol takes a decisive lead. When the buzzer sounds to mark the end of the game, with a final score of 24–21, everyone in the bleachers stands up. They don’t gather their belongings and shuffle out quietly, mumbling about better years. They certainly don’t boo. Instead, they clap. They whistle. They aren’t fair-weather fans. They’re family.