Afifa Tawil is an organizer of pickup ultimate games in the South Bay. Here she eyes opportunities to pass the Frisbee.  Olivia Allen-Price/KQED
Afifa Tawil is an organizer of pickup ultimate games in the South Bay. Here she eyes opportunities to pass the Frisbee.  (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)

Is Ultimate Frisbee the Golf of Silicon Valley?

Is Ultimate Frisbee the Golf of Silicon Valley?

9 min

Going way back, Americans trying to move up the corporate ladder have played golf — or at least, pretended to. But in Silicon Valley ... well, people in Silicon Valley like to “think different.”

Can you name a sport played by the people who founded companies like Google, WhatsApp, SolarCity and Women Who Code?

The answer is ultimate Frisbee. (Or "ultimate flying disc" or simply "ultimate," as Frisbee is a registered trademark.)

Afifa Tawil of San Jose helps organize regular ultimate games Monday and Wednesday nights at Encinal Park in Sunnyvale. What she wants to know from Bay Curious: Why does it seem like a lot of start-up execs play ultimate Frisbee and use that to network with venture capitalists?

A little backstory

There's no question ultimate is popular in Silicon Valley. You might be surprised to discover it started in New Jersey rather than California. But California has a natural affinity for ultimate. In any given week, pickupultimate.com lists a couple dozen games on the Peninsula and in the South Bay.

We went to check out one of Tawil's games to get the lay of the land. Encinal Park is your basic neighborhood park, with green grass, a baseball diamond and picnic tables. It's also within walking distance of corporate complexes for the likes of Apple, LinkedIn and Synopsis.

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You see a lot of people who are well into their Silicon Valley careers playing alongside young up-and-comers.

But if we were hoping to break into the gilded set in Tawil's group, we were disappointed. She did introduce me though to Andrew Zill, a chemist who works for Thermofisher Scientific. He is also owner and manager of the San Jose Spiders.

That’s a semi-professional ultimate team that plays in the American Ultimate Disc League along with other teams like the San Francisco Flamethrowers.

I asked Zill if people approach him on or near the field, hoping to rub shoulders with someone rich and powerful, and got a big laugh.

"I don’t think that’s necessarily people’s goal. I think it just happens," he says. "People mostly play for fun. I think that’s for the best because you actually make a real friendly relationship with somebody."

Zill introduced me to Peter Nieh, an ultimate-playing venture capitalist who figures he may have missed a chance to invest early in Google because he was unaware he was playing with Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who is on a variety of Forbes' lists because he's, well, rich and powerful.

Years passed, and Nieh attended a party at one of the world’s top ranked venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins. It was the the kind of party where you look at everybody thinking “Do I know you? Should I know you?” Nieh spotted that guy he plays ultimate with — and lo and behold, it was Brin.

"Even though he didn’t seem to want to talk to people, I probably should have reached out to him!" Nieh says, laughing.

"Another time, I was standing on the line of seven players before you kick off for the first point," he says. "I’m just fumbling around with the Frisbee, and I turn it over, and it says 'Brian Acton.' You know, one of the co-founders of Whatsapp. I said to the guy next to me, 'I didn’t know Brian Acton plays ultimate.' The guy next to me says 'Oh. He does play ultimate. He’s me.'"

Why ultimate?

In other parts of the business world, people schmooze on the golf course. It has a long history serving as a field of opportunity for business people trying to sidle up to a boss.

Perhaps nobody in Silicon Valley has four hours to play 18 holes or even two hours to play nine. The average ultimate game lasts an hour and a half. But it's also true most people in the Valley went to college, and ultimate is a popular college sport.

Ultimate players can be very competitive, despite the fact much is made of the “spirit of the game,” a principle in ultimate that more or less means good sportsmanship. The ideal ultimate player resolves disagreements with opponents as she would with a friend, honest and amicable in both victory and defeat.

Venture capitalist Peter Nieh's profile on the website for Lightspeed Venture Partners.
Venture capitalist Peter Nieh's profile on the website for Lightspeed Venture Partners. (Photo: Courtesy of Lightspeed Venture Partners)

Nieh says, "There’s that whole sort of thrill of winning together as a team, which you get to do when you’re in a start-up. The game is also very dynamic. It’s fast paced. There’s infinite avenues and dimensions to learn. So I think that all lends itself to people who are inclined to always be learning — doing it with a lot of energy and passion."

If someone wants to sidle up to Nieh because of his fund, Lightspeed Venture Partners, he’s says he’s more than game to talk. In fact, Lightspeed sponsored in the San Jose Spiders to raise its profile with would-be entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

"It’s a blurred line between your professional life and your personal life. You know, some of my closest friends are people I do business with. It’s part of the job, and if you’re not of that mindset, you probably shouldn’t be a VC," Nieh says.

So if Tawil wants to launch a start-up, she’s playing the right game. Although she might want to switch to a pickup game playing near where more VCs live: on the Peninsula, rather than in the South Bay.

Or she might want to take up cycling

There are a lot of very important people who cycle in packs, especially on the Peninsula. There’s even an acronym for them: MAMIL, short for "middle-aged men in lycra.”

But cycling is an expensive hobby, if you want to ride with VCs. A bike that will impress the boss costs several thousand dollars. For example, consider the Cervélo P5x eTap bike, yours for $15,000.

"From aerodynamically integrated storage and stress-free packing to unprecedented micro- and macro-adjustability, the P5X focuses on a singular goal: Helping triathletes achieve their personal best," writes Cervélo on its web site.
"From aerodynamically integrated storage and stress-free packing to unprecedented micro- and macro-adjustability, the P5X focuses on a singular goal: Helping triathletes achieve their personal best," writes Cervélo on its web site. (Photo: Courtesy of Cervélo)

Also, you do take your life in your hands riding on those curvaceous roads alongside all those Teslas, McLarens and Prii. Much cheaper to try ultimate. All you need is a pair of soccer cleats and a game attitude.

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