LAKEWOOD RANCH -- When Tom Crawford first caught wind of Ultimate, a sport similar to football, but played with a flying disc, he wasn't aware of its popularity.
A longtime businessman with strong ties to sports industry, Crawford was used to working alongside Olympic officials, collegiate and professional sports organizations.
His resume includes working behind the scenes for the United States Olympic Committee and providing consultation services to Fortune 100 companies.
But, upon the suggestion of a family member, Crawford watched the sport in person. He instantly thought that it was bound to become the next big thing in sports entertainment.
And it's on display in Lakewood Ranch.
StartingOct. 25, USA Ultimate, the national governing body of the sport, began play for its Club Championships at the Sarasota Polo Fields in Lakewood Ranch. The event, which endsOct. 28, has attracted 1,700 athletes and 60 teams from across the United States and Canada. The tournament is also being streamed live on YouTube.
"It's booming at the youth level and this is sort of our elite level, so if anybody has never seen this before, they need to get out here to the polo club, because this is an amazing event with amazing athletes and it's really fun to watch," said Crawford, chief executive officer of USA Ultimate.
The teams aren't competing for cash prizes and each had to fund their own registration and travel expenses. Instead, the big prize for these Ultimate competitors is to be crowned the best in the nation.
"A lot of people think Ultimate is, you go out and throw a disc with a dog," said Nick Lance, a Georgia Tech grad, who this past year was named the top collegiate Ultimate player in the nation. "You come out here and you watch these guys, they're all athletes that can compete at the top of any game. It's a lot like basketball, the play never really stops. You just keep going and you have to grind through. There's a lot of cuts similar to football and soccer and it just takes a ton of athleticism."
From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 27, Tampa Bay Youth Ultimate and USA Ultimate will hold a "Learn to Play Ultimate" free clinic. The event will teach youth how to play Ultimate and connect them with opportunities to play in their area.
Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams