Photo by Paul Andris –

The school board of Arlington County, Virginia has voted to add ultimate to the list of officially offered sports.

The on-going effort to spread ultimate across the country achieved a significant win on Thursday, as Arlington School Board unanimously voted to make ultimate an official sport offered in its middle and high schools starting in 2016.

“Arlington has a growing, thriving youth ultimate league, especially at the middle-school level.” said Barbara Kanninen, Vice-Chair of the Arlington School Board, whose efforts to include ultimate lead the recent push to Thursday’s vote.

With the recognition of ultimate as an official sport in the district, middle and high school ultimate teams in Arlington County will enjoy many of the same benefits that other, more established sports currently have.

“For players that already play, this is a big deal,” said Will Smolinski, Head Coach of the Washington D.C. Current and youth ultimate advocate. “It eliminates the cost of playing, allow players to be recognized in their school community for their accomplishments, and to practice and play games on their home fields.”

The change from a “pay-to-play” system to a school sponsored model may be the most significant effect of the decision.

“One of the biggest barriers to entry in the ultimate community is cost,” said Dave Soles of the Youth Ultimate League of Arlington (YULA). “We have had numerous kids come try ultimate, have a really fun practice, but then disappear when we hit them with the sticker shock of our club dues.”

The cost of ultimate has long been a restricting factor to athletes of all ages.  At the collegiate level, the traditional jumping off point of many ultimate careers, tales of cost-cutting and penny pinching strategies and horror stories are common.  Ultimate athletes have a long history of stretching a buck to make their career’s a possibility. At the club level, the cost’s only grow, with athletes paying thousands of dollars per year to play the sport they love, as discussed by former Seattle Rainmaker Sam Harkness, who outlined his club expenses with Seattle Sockeye in a 2014 for a piece in Skyd Magazine.

“Arlington is a community with a lot of economic diversity,” continued Soles. “If we want to expand our sport beyond families who are ready to spend $300 or more a year we need to be publicly supported.”

As part of the district’s fall sports offerings, ultimate’s new official status will ease the financial burden on veteran athletes, but will also recast the sport as a more appealing option for newcomers, a fact that, according to Kanninen, was a factor in the decision.

“As a School Board, we look for ways to provide opportunities for all types of students. Ultimate is a welcoming, inclusive sport that we knew would be a great fit for many of our students. We wanted to ensure access for every student at every school.  There will be many students who learn about ultimate for the first time when the no-cut ‘try-outs’ are announced. Some will decide to give it a try and, as we all know, once you try it, you love it.”

Eliminating the cost, as well as limiting the logistical headaches of youth ultimate programs in schools will allow a new generation to fall in love with the sport. But while the new status for ultimate will certainly increase the sports visibility and participation in Arlington County, the question remains – Will other school districts follow suit?

“This is huge,” said Smolinski, who sees Arlington County as a first step towards recognition of the sport on a larger scale in the region. “The argument we had run up against for so many years was, ‘No other schools are sponsoring these teams, so we won’t either.’ This eliminates that argument for Fairfax County, Loudon County, D.C. Public Schools, and the Richmond/Tidewater areas.”

While the Arlington decision is a positive first step in Northern Virginia, it may be an uphill battle to get other districts to follow along, potentially leading to a sanctioning by the statewide Virginia High School League (VHSL).

“While ultimate is a low-cost sport, many school districts are already struggling to support their current sports programs,” said Kanninen.  With issues around transportation, field space and liability, the current climate could hinder the sport’s momentum.

Kanninen, Soles and Smolinski aren’t going to let that stop them.

“We are at a crucial point in the development of ultimate,” said Smolinski. “Players, investors, and sponsors are putting more money and resources into ultimate every year.  To not use this groundswell would be wasteful.  In Arlington, we are using it to push for advancing ultimate and as a microphone for things like Spirit of the Game, individual responsibility to the community, personal growth, life-long fitness, and all the other great things ultimate has given us.”

With the first season of School District recognized ultimate set to begin this coming school year, the next steps will be to hire coaches for both their boys and girls teams, arrange practice fields and schedule games. While Arlington is just one county, and the path for school sponsored ultimate in Virginia (and across the nation) remains unclear, the decision is exciting for those involved.

“Ultimate is character-building, it’s healthy, and it’s low-cost,” said Kanninen. “That’s a winning combination.”

“I don’t know if VHSL is on the horizon, or even something we really want, but the point is it could be.” said Smolinski.  “That is refreshing.”