Rules, Rules, Rules

March 16, 2018
By Owen Krucoff


One of the defining features within the sport of ultimate is the difference in rules between the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), USA Ultimate (USAU) and the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF). All three organizations offer their own versions of the rules of ultimate, but the majority of players in North America are most familiar with the USAU code. In the AUDL, several key differences compared to USAU rules combine to make a unique experience for players, teams and fans.

The most obvious features unique to the AUDL are the game clock and the presence of referees. Neither USAU nor WFDF uses an official clock other than for cap reasons. While USAU rules provide for observers who can assist players and offer their judgement on close calls, and WFDF has game advisors who can offer their perspective on uncertain decisions, bot organizations put officiation of the game primarily in the hands of players.

The AUDL referee impacts the way the game is played in multiple ways including the fact that the referee, rather than a defensive player, controls the stall count.

“It might be a difference for players in the fact that it’s a silent [count], so they don’t know when it’s coming, so they can be a little caught off guard by it on occasion,” AUDL Director of Officials Joshua Cooper said.

Another difference with the AUDL stall count is its shorter length, seven seconds rather than USAU and WFDF’s ten second count. According to Cooper, this difference is less impactful than others.

“Most quality players and quality teams aren’t getting stuck in the super-high stall count to begin with,” Cooper said. “The way a referee counts seven seconds is actually pretty similar in length to the way teams count to 10 seconds. Now it’s certainly still shorter, but that gap is bridged a little by the speed with which players stall.”

As a longtime USAU observer, Cooper is also familiar with the transition between rulebooks from an official’s perspective.

“Refereeing is a lot more constantly engaging,” he said. “[As a ref] You are responsible for making calls rather than resolving them when they come to you or if they take too long… the speed and the presence of a referee is a significant shift from being an observer.”

Another feature of the AUDL rulebook is the use of a wider field than USAU or WFDF uses: 53 yards vs 40 yards. Steve Kreider, who has led the D.C.-based AUDL referee crew since 2016, says this can have a significant impact on team strategy.

“With a wider field it becomes harder to cover as much ground on defense, and offenses are adapting to use that width and the importance of swinging the disc to their advantage,” Kreider said.

While players familiar with USAU or WFDF rules are used to turnovers or changes in the stall count as consequences for different violations, the AUDL often makes use of football-style penalty yardage to accompany different calls.

I think that [yardage penalties are] not particularly significant in the sense that ultimate is definitely much more a game of possession than position,” Cooper said. “When yardage penalties add up it can make a difference, and it certainly helps to disincentivize playing.”

Another difference near the disc is the ability of AUDL defenses to double-team the thrower, which Cooper says changes strategies on both sides of the disc.

“I think [the double team] gives teams more options defensively,” Cooper said. “It can be challenging for a thrower, especially when they’re trapped… I think it gives teams an extra shot at surprising the offense and trying to pick defensive formations.”

Double-teaming can also change the way referees approach the task of making calls.

“It is certainly a difficult call for refs to make because now you suddenly have three bodies that you have to keep an eye on at all times,” Cooper said. “It’s hard to position yourself and reposition yourself so that you can see everything because you’re no longer working with one marker and one thrower.”

Other policies unique to the AUDL are 1) That only a coach or the player holding the disc has the ability to call a timeout, and 2) The Integrity Rule, in which players can use the sport’s longstanding Spirit of the Game principle to overturn a referee’s decision if they believe a call wrongly benefited their team.

So how do the AUDL rules get modified over time, during the past few years and into the future? For Cooper, the process of changing a rule is based on observation and feedback.

“For the most part what we do is we just pay attention to the games,” he said. “We see what kinds of issues have arisen and are reported to me by refs or players or owners either informally or formally. Then I keep a running list every season of every suggestion and every possible tweak.”

The AUDL rules committee provides input on the potential consequences and results of a rule change. A rule that survives the vetting process is submitted to the AUDL Executive Council. [In addition to his post on the league’s Executive Council, Breeze managing partner Don Grage has served on the rules committee over the past two seasons.]

“We [the rules committee] think about what are the possible consequences, what are the goals that this is trying to achieve, and is this an improvement over what we have,” Cooper said. “After having our own internal discussion and process, we make our recommendations to the council, and they ask me either for more information or modifications or grand approvals, and then we go about implementing those changes in the rulebook.”

The WFDF rules offer several differences from their USAU and AUDL counterparts as well, most notably in the role of game advisors. Other changes include that a dropped continuation throw after a foul has been called does not result in a turnover, play does not need to stop for a travel call, and the possibility of offsetting fouls.

The WFDF rules are also kinder to small mental mistakes. Teams are not charged with a turnover when a player drops the disc while walking to a specific spot to restart play, such as the brick mark or the sideline. Dropping or placing the disc on the ground after making an interception is also not a turnover, although the same player must pick up the disc themself.

Additionally, when a player calls a timeout that his or her team doesn’t have available, WFDF rules simply set the stall count two seconds higher rather than forcing an automatic turnover.