Rivalries: Seattle and Vancouver

By Adam Ruffner & Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen

Rivalries litter the world of sports.

A historic few have endured for generations (think Red Sox-Yankees, Bears-Packers, Canadiens-Maple Leafs, the state of Ohio versus the state of Michigan). More common are the flash-in-the-pan rivalries that spring up for five to 10 years, and wane as one team surges and the other falters. And then there are the regional battles and cross-town clashes that don’t make much of a splash beyond their respective fan bases, but offer highly coveted bragging rights among to those in the know.

They’re an important part of any team’s narrative, and have long existed in ultimate. But what was once limited to the exchange of DVDs and message board discussions is getting a much brighter spotlight, thanks in part to the platform of pro ultimate. The AUDL has put a new spin on rivalries decades in the making, and has introduced new high-stakes match ups.

There’s a natural allure to rivalries—the games bring a heightened level of intensity and raised stakes that create a do-or-die game day atmosphere that can breed big plays. The powerful us-versus-them mentality taps into a wellspring of regional pride. Plus, people have always been drawn to stories of conflict.

“People face challenges and adversity—[rivalries are] a representation of that conflict,” said Alex Davis, a diplomatically earnest Vancouver Riptide captain who has been heavily involved in the development of Canada’s national teams and is also somewhat of an ultimate philosopher. “Conflict is endemic in everything that we do, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. The more visible that conflict and adversity is, the more relatable it becomes. You can’t easily sell the physics of a Frisbee to someone. People will pay attention to conflict.”
In week two of the 2015 season, underneath the bright lights of Seattle’s Memorial Stadium and in the shadow of the Space Needle, the Vancouver Riptide O-line waited for a chance to close out a hard fought game against the Seattle Cascades.

For two minutes, they carefully worked the disc downfield, eventually giving Darren Wu an opportunity to thread a short flick through coverage to Edward Guo that put the Riptide up 21-20 with seconds to go. A last-ditch huck from Seattle was deflected as time expired, and as the Cascades quietly filed off the field, the boys from Vancouver whooped it up.

“The Riptide came through and ripped out the hearts of Seattle fans in their home opener,” Bryan Jones said as he closed the AUDL’s ESPN3 broadcast, which showed fans trickling out of the stands. “Seattle fans will walk away with nothing but disappointment.”

A week later, the Cascades returned the favor. They defeated Vancouver 26-22 in the Riptide’s home opener, and just to pour salt in the wound, they added another win in Week 7. Welcome to the next chapter in the decades-old rivalry between the Pacific Northwest’s major ultimate hubs.

Nowhere in ultimate has conflict and adversity been more apparent than in the decades of battles between Vancouver and Seattle. Epic games and bad blood initially characterized the games between the two, which began producing national championship-caliber teams across multiple divisions in the 1990s. But things didn’t start getting heated until the early 2000s, when their respective open clubs traded national championships. Vancouver won in 2002, 2003 and 2005—Seattle in 2004, 2006 and 2007. Stoking the fires further was the fact that the teams were within the same region, permanently linked by geography, and meaning that one’s season often ended at the hands of the other.

“Sports culture is tribal by nature,” Davis added, reflecting on Vancouver’s ultimate history. “Although the culture shifts, history doesn’t. So you inherit everything that came before, when you put on a Vancouver jersey—that’s 25 years of ultimate history between these two cities. By the virtue of the geography and the history, these tribes are destined to always possess some measure of rivalry, no matter what the scores are.”

Talented teams and the cities’ geographic proximity solidified the rivalry’s place in ultimate lore, but technology helped broaden its appeal. Davis, a Montreal native, was some 2,850 miles removed during the rivalry’s most intense years, but became familiar through the help of UltiVillage DVDs. The first company to really film ultimate games and circulate them to a wide audience, Vancouver-based UltiVillage frequently showcased the two teams via full games and including playing clips in their highlight reels. It was similar story for Texas native and Cascades co-captain Reid Koss, and Tyler Kinley, a Michigan native and stalwart of the Seattle ultimate scene.

“I was enough into ultimate to where I would go to the message boards and learn about who was best, and the rivalry was just known,” Kinley said, talking about his ultimate media consumption circa 2004. “I was an ultimate junkie—I just watched whatever I could get my hands on.” For Kinley, Koss, Davis and countless others, that meant a lot of Seattle-Vancouver matchups that defined the two teams as polar opposites and bitter enemies.

But now, a player generation removed from UltiVillage DVDs and with new team leadership, you’ll hear the relationship described alternatively as having a big brother-little brother dynamic, or more like the rapport between two hyper competitive and hyper athletic neighbors. Respect is at the core.

“When making the decision to endorse the Riptide, we had multiple conversations with Seattle’s leadership group—that is a team that we want to play against,” Davis said. “That also speaks to the timbre of the rivalry there—it can be personal without being malicious. In spite of how much we want to beat each other, we want to play against each other in order to do it.”

“We have that history,” Kinley added. “We know each other so well and what to expect—it’s like big brothers that fight in a family. You know each other well, but you just hate it if the other one wins more.”

Currently, the season series stands at 2-1, in favor of the Cascades. The teams are schedule to play twice more—a back-to-back series to end the season. Playing in the AUDL means the two see each other on the field more often, but don’t think the increased frequency of play has dampened the intensity. Part of the rivalry’s longevity rests on the fact that just like two brothers, the two teams’ identities could not be more different.

In short: Vancouver is serious; Seattle is more irreverent.

Vancouver, and its self-described institutional culture of anger, embodies an almost militaristic intensity that Seattle consciously shirks (at least on the sidelines). Vancouver has developed a playing system with small stylistic differences incorporated from year to year, but one that ultimately has looked the same for the past 10 years. Their playing style is more physical—especially downfield—and are a “little more agro,” according to Cascades co-captain Phil Murray. Their defacto mission statement: Win every game, and play hardest against Seattle.

“I’m not saying their intensity is a bad thing,” Koss said, describing his impressions of Vancouver. “It’s been great for them. That intensity helps them play their best. But sometimes it makes me wonder about the team dynamic.”

Seattle has cultivated a loose playing style. The leadership values having fun really highly—it’s something they cherish, Koss noted, and is an important part of the team dynamic. They play mini before games, and are more easy going in a way that grates some opponents. On the field, Seattle is uncommonly good at concealing its weaknesses, the Riptide leadership noted, and rely on quick handler movement and a very give-go style of play.

They also make a point of wearing saucy headbands.

“They do that to try to distract you,” Davis said, ruminating over what irks him about Seattle. “They try to show that they overtly don’t care. They go to great lengths to affect a casualness that is deceptive in nature. It’s an attempt at psychological warfare, really.”

“I have always hated all of Seattle’s cheers,” he added. He listed off the ones that bothered him, with a cheer set to the tune of the Farmers’ Insurance jingle taking the top spot. “They come up with some of the most annoying cheers of any teams. They yell a TV jingle. We just yell our name.”

But annoying cheers, games of mini and intensity aside, the rivalry’s legacy is an important part of both teams’ cultures. These are the epic losses, the upsets, the major wins that get passed down from generation to generation—they are mentioned in huddles, in sideline pump-up speeches and at the end of practice. It brings an added level of immediacy to each match up.

“It’s not until you experience it that you can feel the extra intensity,” Koss described. “It feels more like a battle against them rather than against other teams.”

“There’s a long legacy of these two teams playing,” Riptide co-captain Myles Sinclair added. “That idea is hammered into you—that’s all there is. There are just these two teams. And you don’t want to ever have a losing record against the teams that you play the most.”

Right now, Seattle owns the stat sheet. Vancouver can claim key wins over Seattle—an at-home upset in the second week of the 2015 AUDL season is one of them—but Seattle has more of them. Vancouver has triumphed over Seattle, or come close to, when it has made a concentrated effort to focus on Seattle. It will spend weeks strategizing, something the team leadership admitted to doing in prep for that Week 2 clash.

“We have a history of sticking it to Seattle when they’ve really wanted something,” Davis said. “We practically deserve each other.”

With a playoff spot on the line, look for Vancouver to try to wipe the smirk off Seattle’s face, and ruin their post-season plans.