If golf is the go-to pastime for traditional business people, Ultimate Frisbee is the activity of choice for many in Silicon Valley. It has both a professional league and many devoted hobbyists.
“I really think Ultimate resonates with the mentality of entrepreneurs. It’s a very dynamic, fast-paced game,” Peter Nieh, a venture capitalist at Lightspeed Venture Partners, tells Business Insider. “Players are called on to use a bunch of skills at once, just like our companies have to have a number of skills to succeed. You have to be able to sprint, but you have to have endurance as well.”
In Ultimate Frisbee, teams score points by throwing a Frisbee to teammates in endzones on opposite ends of a football field.
Nieh quickly rattles off names of fans of the sport within the tech community. “It’s everyone, from famous people to people in other functions at startups,” he said, naming Quora cofounder Charlie Cheever, SolarCity cofounder Peter Rives, and WhatsApp cofounders Brian Acton and Jan Koum among those who have been spotted at pick-up games around the Valley. Rives is known to be one of the top ultimate players in the world.
Nieh recently led Lightspeed in the sponsorship of a new club team in San Jose, named the Spiders in reference to the internet bots that collect data for search engines.
The Spiders play in the American Ultimate Disc League, which has teams in 15 cities in the US in addition to two in Canada. In 2013, the league was acquired by a group led by Cisco Systems President Rob Lloyd.
“Silicon Valley is a hotbed of Ultimate Frisbee,” Lloyd told the Silicon Valley Business Journal. “One of the things that is interesting to me is that it is a sport that has a different kind of player. These aren’t your big lumbering football players. A lot of them are techies and media folks.”
The Spiders went 13-1 in their first season in the league before going on to win in the championship game against the Toronto Rush.
Though professional Ultimate Frisbee isn’t nearly as popular as more mainstream sports just yet, Spiders owner Andrew Zill estimates that attendance at his team’s games is above-average. In April, more than 1,300 people showed up to the Spiders’ opening game at Foothill College. Zill says the average game attendance was about 600 over the course of the season.
“I attribute that to being in this location, where so many people are fans,” Zill tells Business Insider. “I don’t know if it’s something about the sport itself. It’s something different. People in tech have different mindsets, they’re not as concerned about what people think of them.”
But most ultimate aficionados aren’t playing professionally. There are plenty of pick-up games to choose from in Silicon Valley. One, called the Greer Pick-up Game, is the longest-running year-round Ultimate pick-up game in the country. It was founded in 1983.
“There’s a critical mass of people who play and recruit others to play, who maybe played in college and then came out here to start jobs at Google or Facebook,” Zill said.
Nieh said he once played at a pick-up game with Google cofounder Sergey Brin. “People didn’t know who he was,” he said. “He didn’t socialize.”
Brin famously wanted to build an Ultimate field on top of Google’s New York offices, though that plan never came to fruition.
For Nieh and other people on the Silicon Valley tech scene, playing in Ultimate pick-up games are a great way to get to know new people.
“We usually interact with our portfolio companies at an executive level, but this gives us another forum to spend time with other people at the companies and get to know them,” Nieh said. “I don’t go to ultimate to network; it’s just something that happens naturally as you’re hanging out with these people all the time.”
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