Skip to content

The Evolution of Disc Sports

Prior to 1968 there was no cohesive unified “Frisbee’ culture, and really no discs sports per se.  Regionally isolated pockets of Frisbee activity existed all over the country ranging from casual tossing and catching to relatively organized and structured games and contests.  But none of these occurrences of Frisbee activity knew about the existence of each other.

These activities stemmed from the introduction of the Space Saucer in the Mid-fifties, and the Wham-O Pluto Platter disc hitting the market place in 1957.  The packaging of the space saucer urged buyers to create games.  The underside side of the Pluto Platter disc had the phrase “Play Catch – Invent games” engraved in relatively large bold lettering.  Each subsequent Frisbee model that Wham-O created and sold also had that phrase engraved onto each disc.  The people who bought those discs indeed obeyed; they played catch and invented games, all kinds of games and activities.  But they didn’t need to be told by the packaging and discs to do so.  Even people playing with tin lids and pie pans before the plastic discs were available created flying disc games.  The plastic era just made this phenomenon happen more often and in larger numbers.

The best and most significant example of this phenomenon came from the Healy brothers who hailed from Minneapolis MN, and summered in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

They bought a Pluto Platter Frisbee in 1958 and promptly invented a game they called “Guts” Frisbee, with which, along with basic accuracy and distance throwing contests, they challenged each other and friends of theirs to see who just who was the best Frisbee thrower.  This Frisbee activity developed into an annual contest which they eventually dubbed the “International Frisbee Tournament”.   Although it became well structured and organized, it was still quite regional, and unknown to Frisbee players beyond those whose were invited to this annual event.

This began to change somewhat in 1964.  The Healy brothers were having so much fun with this annual IFT event that they began submitting news releases to local newspapers in an effort to attract attention to the event.  They also created a tongue-in-cheek “International Frisbee Association” to further hype the fun of their activities.

Somewhere along the line Wham-O became apprised of this annual Frisbee activity of the Healy Brothers, and thought that this might be a good way to promote their product and increase its sales.  This led to Wham-O adopting the Healy Brother’s fictional “International Frisbee Association”, and offering promotional support to the growing IFT event.

In 1968, a very significant occurrence took place that basically turned out to be the foundation for the beginning of the unified cohesive Frisbee culture of today.  Wham-O made the decision to promote Frisbee using the “International Frisbee Association” and started publishing the “IFA Newsletter”, which was a periodic newsletter about Frisbee activities that were happening all around the country.   This newsletter was sent out to each member of the International Frisbee association, or “IFA” as it came to be known.  Wham-O offered membership and subscription information on each Frisbee package being sold.  Thousands of Frisbee buyers joined Wham-O’s new version of the IFA, and started reading about the Annual IFT that that the Healy Brothers held each year in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.   The IFT started to grow rapidly in size, and by the mid-seventies became the absolute mecca for Frisbee players all over the country.

The newcomers to the IFT brought with them the games and activities they had created and had been playing.   They learned about Guts and other activities they hadn’t thought of.  The IFT regulars learned new things from the newcomers.   The event became a great mixing pot of Frisbee ideas and activities, and all this got chronicled in the IFA newsletter for even more disc enthusiasts to see and learn.

The organized cohesive Frisbee culture was born.  Wham-O jumped on this development and hyped the heck out of it, successfully promoting sales beyond what anyone had dreamed.  The IFA newsletter became the Frisbee enthusiasts’ bible and the IFT became a huge annual convention for Frisbee freaks everywhere.

Another important thing happened in 1968 that paralleled this development, but was totally independent of the IFA/IFT Frisbee scene.   A group of Frisbee enthusiasts from Columbia High school in New Jersey invented the game of Ultimate.  The popularity of their game spread fast to nearby high schools in New Jersey, and they soon had a high School League going.  Graduates of these schools brought the game of Ultimate to their colleges, and by 1972, there was a significant amount of colleges competing actively in Ultimate.  In 1973, a core group of Ultimate organizers made the trek to the IFT, and the rest of the Frisbee community got introduced first hand to Ultimate.

In 1970, a third important development in Frisbee began, also totally outside and separate from the current Frisbee culture of the times.  A small group of guys invented DDC and also discovered that they could play the game of golf with their Frisbees, they formed a Frisbee club and met once a week to compete both in DDC and Frisbee Golf.

They continued this activity for three full years before they found out about the IFA and its newsletter.  They had thought that they were relatively unique in their avid Frisbee activity.  They had had three annual disc golf and DDC championship tournaments, and were curious about how many other Frisbee players were playing disc golf.  They decided to host a big national scope tournament in 1974 to find out.  They wrote Wham-O about the event and put up a brand new 1974 automobile as first prize to ensure that the event would attract a lot of attention.  A notice went into the IFA newsletter, and by the end of 1974, the isolated Guts, Ultimate, and Disc Golf play were merged into one big Frisbee culture.

These three disciplines were not looked upon as separate disc sports.  Disc players considered themselves as “Frisbee Players” with a bunch of different activities to play. Every Frisbee player did them all.  The sport was called “Frisbee” until Wham-O Started to vigorously enforce its Trademarked “Frisbee” name.   Up until that time, everything had been “Frisbee this or Frisbee that” as in “Guts” Frisbee”, “Frisbee Golf”, “Ultimate Frisbee“, “Court Frisbee”  “Frisbee Horseshoes”, etc.   Because of trademark enforcement, these names slowly over time became “Guts”, “Disc Golf”, “Ultimate”, “DDC” etc.

Freestyle competition developed within the one big unified Frisbee culture, and as such, it became another of the activities of the sport know as “Frisbee”.  In 1975, there was the Ann Arbor Indoor tournament, the Octad, the AFDO, the IFT, the Canadian Open, the WFC, and the Jersey Jam, in that order, with a few smaller guts tournaments and a few big Ultimate tournaments sprinkled in-between.  That was it.  It was still the sport of “Frisbee”, but the separate activities were getting more sophisticated and beginning to get a culture of their own, especially Ultimate.

When Ed Hedrick left Wham-O to form his DGA business in 1976, disc golf took a large step toward becoming a sport unto its own.  Many new people came into disc play though disc golf, and had never heard of the old IFA Frisbee community.  They were from outside what had been the “Frisbee Culture”.   They didn’t think of themselves and “Frisbee” players.  They were “Disc Golfers”.  This was the start of the evolution of separate disc sports.  By 1976, Ultimate was rapidly becoming a sport unto itself.  All the new high school and college kids being introduced to ultimate also didn’t really know much about the IFA based Frisbee community.  They were Ultimate players. With the advent of the FPA later on, Freestyle started to become a separate sport.   DDC grew within the Frisbee culture, but it too eventually began to evolve into a sport of its own.

So from 1968 through 1973, aside from Ultimate players and that small isolated 1970-1973 disc golf /DDC scene, virtually every new Frisbee enthusiast had been pulled into Frisbee through the IFA-IFT Guts Frisbee Culture.

But from 1974 on, the IFA/guts scene was no longer the main source for new people getting into Frisbee activities.  The guts game started to wane, and the other disc activities started to wax.

The WFC and the NAS series through 1982 managed to keep the “Frisbee” culture together as one entity despite the evolution of Disc Golf, Freestyle and Ultimate into sports of there own.

With the mid 80’s demise of the IFA newsletter and the “Frisbee Disc World” magazine it had evolved into, the unified Frisbee Culture took another hit.  But the annual US Open that replaced the WFC, and the formation of the WFDF, helped to forestall the complete metamorphosis of the Frisbee scene into separate sports.

When the annual US Open series came to an end, even the WFDF and the Seniors Overall annual event could not hold back the forces pulling the Frisbee culture into separate disc sports.  This evolution is unstoppable and will continue for as long as disc sports are in existence.   Soccer and golf are both “ball” sports, but they really don’t have much in common even though their ancestral origins came from the same root source way back in time.  Can you imagine Pele trying to beat Phil Mickelson in a golf match?  And can you imagine Phil Mickelson keeping up with Pele on the soccer field?  The same goes for disc golf, ultimate and freestyle.  They are all “disc” sports, but do not have a lot in common anymore.  Ken Climo (one of the great disc golfers) can do some decent freestyle moves, but would never make it into the finals of a big freestyle tournament, nor would he get invited to be on an all-star ultimate team.  But put those ultimate and freestyle players into in a disc golf match against Ken, and they wouldn’t touch him with that proverbial ten foot pole!

There are still some high level overall players that can play well in any disc sport, but that number is getting smaller and smaller.  The fact of the matter is that we now have very distinct disc sports run by their own distinct governing bodies.  There truly is no longer a sport of “Frisbee” as there use to be in the 70’s.  Sometime in the future Ultimate and Disc Golf will inevitably become as separate as soccer and ball golf.  Some people already treat them that way.  But there are still some people who are unaware of any disc sports and they still mistakenly lump anyone with a disc into a generic ”Frisbee Player” category.  But the separation will continue to evolve.  I think that “Frisbee” per se will never be in the Olympics.  But perhaps Disc Golf and Freestyle may be Olympic sports someday, and most likely Ultimate will be also; but all as separate sports.

5 thoughts on “The Evolution of Disc Sports”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *