Salt Lake Lions Pioneering Ultimate in Utah

When the Salt Lake Lions took the field for their first AUDL game, at night under the lights and against a backdrop of mountain peaks, they knew the chances of making championship weekend were slim - especially in a stacked Western Division. But the Lion’s first season wasn’t about hoisting a trophy at the end—it was about building a thriving elite ultimate scene in Utah. From the season’s first pull to its last layout, the roars from the crowd and the sight of increasing numbers of kids sporting Lions gear in the stands signaled they were creating something special.

“Our first season was a really good experience, not necessarily for a winning and losing ratio, but for the growth on the high school scene,” Lion standout Isaac Conley said. “It allowed a lot of the high school teams to see ultimate and bring their parents. The parents could see that it was a sport and is credible, and that this community is working toward something.”

When Lions owner Jonathan Orlofsky first learned the city would host an AUDL team in 2014, he knew its biggest—and most immediate—impact would be encouraging the growth of the state’s youth scene. Utah boasts one of the country’s most vibrant youth scenes, with 23 current high school teams. The Utah Ultimate Disc Association (UUDA), a volunteer-run organization, started four years ago as a way to connect all levels of play in the state, from elementary school to high school to college.

But what was missing, according to Orlofsky, a former UUDA chairperson, was an elite team that would give kids playing the game something to strive for and continue to mature as players.

“The key to growing the community is to give players more opportunities to develop their skills and keep learning and playing,” Orlofsky saiad. “We want to continue to propel the sport into the future.”

Historically the challenge has been a geographical one – location, location, location. But with travel provided by the Lions organization, players suddenly seized opportunities that were once farfetched.

“Being landlocked and so far away from the coast, we haven’t been able to play those high level teams,” Conley said, referencing the disparity in the club scene between Salt Lake and hotbeds like San Francisco and Seattle. “So being able to stand on the line across from these players that have had these experiences gives us valuable experience—you can’t get that in club. But if you have the ability to play against some of the best players you can possibly play against—Beau and Kurt [Gibson]—again and again in a three-month time period, why wouldn’t you take advantage of that possibility?”

Adding the Lions franchise helps expedite the growth process. Not only did they introduce another playing opportunity, but the Lions also organized skills clinics and a middle school league, volunteered at high school tournaments and sponsored the Salt Lake City fall league. The team gave away $10,000 worth of tickets to a local elementary school and hosted a halftime throwing contest that featured nearly 150 children.

“With professional ultimate, we’re showing that these kids can play under the lights, in front of fans,” Orlofsky said. “And after our first season, there are kids now that are excited to play for the Lions. That’s what they are excited about, and that’s what we were striving for.”

Lions players, such as Conley, echo Orlofksy’s enthusiasm.

“My role is that I love ultimate, I love the sport, I want to give back and help grow the sport,” Conley said. “For me, the biggest thing, ultimate is kind of magical. You see ultimate for the first time, and you’re not really sure about it, and you aren’t really sure about it and you walk away, or you know this is your sport. It’s the sport you’ve been waiting about forever.”

As a high school coach, Conley gets to take it one step further, and work during the AUDL offseason to get more kids playing the sport. He’s developed a fool proof, three-step process. He starts by demonstrating a series of fancy throws—your traditional arsenal of scoobers, hammers, and push-passes. Then he tells them to check out ultimate highlights videos on YouTube, before handing them a disc and leaving them to their own devices.

“Personally, the moment that is the most satisfying is the moment that you get it,” Conley said. “The magical moment where you see the kid’s eyes glaze over and he drools a little bit, and he goes ‘This is my sport.’ Every kid that comes into this sport has a different moment. It’s all about that moment where everything clicks—where you’ve figured out the sport, you’ve figured out that you love it.”

Ultimate has more of those moments than other sports, Conley argues, which is why it appeals to kids and keeps them coming back. And that’s why the Lions are so important. As more people start to play the sport, the need those opportunities that allow them to get better. The AUDL offers a level of intensity local tournaments do not, and gives the Lions a chance to improve their own play, as well as to introduce younger players to some of the league’s best. The Lions play in the tough West Division, home to defending champs the San Jose Spiders and a division that’s expected to get tougher with the addition of the San Diego Growlers and Los Angeles Aviators franchises.

But the only way you can go from an 0-14 season is up, Conley noted, and he and his teammates are hard at work to improve that record. The organization has already made some moves in the offseason—they brought on three coaches well know in the Utah ultimate community, and are gearing up for their combine on November 15. The possibilities for next year excite Orlofsky and Conley, although they are the first to admit that building an elite ultimate team is a long process.

“We have leaders that have experience, and we know what we are as a team, trying to put together a team that will put us on the map,” Conley said. “Salt Lake is knocking on the door.”

Out of the AUDL, the Lions have the most grueling travel schedule. It’s a short 12-hour drive from its closest competitor (San Jose), and an 18-hour drive from its furthest (Vancouver). They often play back-to-back games to minimize travel time. But the reason the Lions pack onto a bus is much bigger than just the game—just like the reason they play under the lights: it’s to build a stronger Ultimate scene, one under big hucks and even bigger skies. They are just one part of a large Utah community that’s been working over the past few years to propel the sport forward.

“In five years, people will come to know who we are,” Conley said. “Salt Lake City will be a force to be reckoned with.”

-Adam Ruffner and Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen