After games, win or lose, home or away, members of the Minnesota Wind Chill almost always have a gift for their opponent: Beer.
Beer is a way of life for the disc-slinging, Frisbee-playing bunch. The Wind Chill — a semiprofessional Ultimate Disc team — is uniquely Minnesotan. The major sponsor is Surly Brewing Co., the local brewery synonymous with the Twin Cities area.
Since Surly opened 13 years ago, the company has had a hand in Ultimate. That’s how Jim Mott and Surly owner Omar Ansari met. Now they’re co-owners of the Wind Chill, with plenty of beer to go around.
“Beer’s like a currency for us,” Mott said. “It brings a smile to people’s faces.”
Even before Surly was a brewing company, there was a Surly-branded Ultimate team. The Wind Chill is just a part of the brewery’s Ultimate empire.
The Wind Chill competes primarily in the American Ultimate Disc League, or AUDL. The team was founded in 2013 and competes in the Midwest division. Mott, Ansari and co-owner Ben Feldman bought the team in 2017, when ownership was up in the air.
The three just wrapped up their second year as co-owners. The Wind Chill is a passion project of theirs — beer is another means to support it.
“Ultimate and Surly, pretty much from the beginning, have been intertwined,” Mott said. “We think it’s a great tool for promotion, for just friendly atmosphere. Everyone wants a beer after playing hard.”
Ultimate, the game
Ultimate, alternatively known as Ultimate Frisbee, takes different traits from other sports in an athletic mishmash. Players score goals in end zones like football, while the spacing and cutting aspects are similar to soccer. The noncontact rules mirror those in basketball.
The sports has a low barrier of entry. All anyone needs is a field and disc to play, though cleats and other equipment are recommended when the level gets more competitive.
Feldman, also the Wind Chill coach and general manager, said Ultimate is one of the fastest-growing youth sports in the United States. It’s an appealing alternative for those with safety concerns about football.
“It’s proven that the spectacle of it is appealing to fans, like the ‘SportsCenter’ highlights,” Feldman said. “As the sport grows and grows, the talent level will continue to go up.”
The Wind Chill draws from a strong Ultimate community in the Twin Cities area. The University of Minnesota is a nearby pipeline, and players also come from Iowa and parts of Wisconsin. The roster consists of roughly 30 players, though teams are limited to 20 active players on game days. The Wind Chill also has five players who travel from Winnipeg. They made the roughly eight-hour car rides for nearly every home game, and flew for road games to places such as Pittsburgh or Detroit.
The key is that, while they are only making $25 per game in the AUDL, the competition and perks make it worthwhile, co-captain Brandon Matis said.
Between jerseys, team dues, travel, lodging and a slew of other costs playing in the club division of Ultimate, it can easily add up to thousands of dollars for high-level, competitive play. But in the AUDL, the team pays for those fees. It’s why the Winnipeg group travels for every game — they don’t have access to free, elite Ultimate on a regular basis.
Like the owners, Ultimate is a passion project for the players. No one’s getting into the sport to become rich. It’s the camaraderie, along with the long practices and road trips that make it worth it.
“Then it’s all the little weird things that go on, whether it’s a bar or whether it’s in our van or in our hotel,” co-captain Bryan Vohnoutka said.
The Wind Chill has only so much marketing money, so it relies heavily on word of mouth and some unique strategies to get its name out there.
During the 2019 season, when the Wind Chill went 6-6 and narrowly missed the playoffs, the team played home games at Sea Foam Stadium at Concordia (St. Paul). They drew 400-500 fans per game. The team starts tryouts in February, working toward the April start of the season. The Wind Chill practiced once and trained once per week midseason, usually at night long after the players have clocked out of their day jobs.
Those costs add up for the team, too, between practice space and travel logistics. An important note, Feldman said, is the ownership group doesn’t plan to bleed money in owning the Wind Chill. Getting fans to come to the game is just a small part of the financial picture.
“We were confident in the model,” Feldman said. “We’re investing a lot into the potential and future at the league level. There’s a lot of progress being made on sponsorship, partnership, streaming interests.”
When more money does come in, they usually reinvest it into other parts of the team. Whether that’s paying for players to travel, renting stadiums or other business ventures, it’s all a juggling act, Feldman said.
But in the path of becoming financially viable in the long-term, that also means spreading Ultimate through the Twin Cities community.
“It definitely takes half-passion and feeling good about continuing to move forward,” Feldman said.