By Luke Bollinger
Casey Degnan should have the day off. It’s Good Friday and since he’s employed by Cardinal Gibbons High School, he shouldn’t have to be doing any work. Instead, the holiday gives him time to work at his second job as co-owner of the Raleigh Flyers, a professional ultimate Frisbee team.
Today’s mission is to finalize arrangements for the team’s away game on Saturday. His first appointment is at 10 a.m. with Clouds Brewing in Raleigh to finalize plans for a viewing party the next day. He’s about 30 minutes late.
Degnan arrives with George Lampron, the team’s physical trainer, and Mike Wittmer, leader of The Hangar, the Flyers fan club. Degnan apologizes for being late, but explains he had spent the morning with his 9-week old son, Cash, who had rolled himself over for the first time. But now he is focused on his task ahead, which is sampling beer to figure out which ones would go over well with Flyers fans.
Most of his job as co-owner is not as leisurely as going to a beer tasting, though.
Degnan, Mike Denardis and Sean Degnan founded the Raleigh Flyers in 2015. It’s a young team, in a young league, trying to gain a foothold as a non-traditional sport in an area dominated by three universities that regularly compete in the highest levels of Division I sports.
It’s a tough job, especially when you already have a job. Because of an already blossoming ultimate community, though, and the vision and drive of Degnan and everyone who has bought into the organization, the Flyers have become a welcome addition to the Triangle sports environment.
Friday’s agenda wasn’t looking too daunting, a nice change of pace for Degnan. Once he and John Oldendorf, chief brewing officer at Clouds, agreed on the type and quantity of beer for the viewing party, Degnan and his team began brainstorming ideas for a short video to promote the event.
After a few minutes of discussion and about ten seconds of filming, the final product was the three guys sitting around a homemade monopoly board they found at the brewery, rolling die until they hit doubles, yelling, ‘that’s a jail break,’ and knocking over a tower of oversized Jenga blocks.
The video then ended with Lampron standing up, pointing at the camera and saying, “Clouds Brewery, Saturday night viewing party, 7 o’clock.” It would immediately be posted to Facebook for the enjoyment of the Flyers faithful.
To most people, this video would make no sense. But it was somewhat loosely related to Flyers fans’ in-game tradition of smashing a plastic bucket, or any breakable object they have on hand, with a large rubber mallet after the team scores a big goal. It’s a bit ridiculous, but they don’t care.
The viewing party ended up attracting about 40 people. Not a bad turnout, Degnan said, and all the proceeds went to the Flyers.
“Got to make that money, man,” he said.
When Degnan was attending college at High Point University, owning a professional ultimate team seemed ludicrous to him.
While at High Point, he was a member of their Division I tennis team, but immediately after practices, he would join his friends to play in whatever intramural sport was in season. When ultimate was in season, he played that too. Degnan continued to play ultimate and as the sport got more intense, so did he.
After graduating, Degnan moved to Chicago where he played for the Chicago Wildfire ultimate team while also working as a trader for the Chicago Board of Trade. It was here where he became devoted to ultimate, in large part because of how involved and immersed the team was in the community.
Though Degnan could’ve played for the Wildfire into his 40s, he said with a laugh of confidence, he wanted to establish a professional ultimate team in Raleigh.
“I thought I could do it better,” he said. “All those things that were offered to me, I wanted to offer it to the people in my hometown.”
In 2015, the Raleigh Flyers became a member of the 24-team American Ultimate Disc League. In its first season, the Flyers won its division and advanced to the playoff semifinals. But Degnan’s ambition has always extended beyond a winning record.
A large portion of Degnan’s job as co-owner is offering himself, and the players, as mentors to youth in the Triangle. Upon joining the team, players are required to sign volunteer contracts with minimum service hour requirements. Many of the players opt to coach middle and high school ultimate teams.
The team also offers mini-skills development clinics before games, as well as multiple weekend clinics throughout the year that have seen as many as 2,000 participants at one time.
This kind of involvement can be taxing for the players, though. They work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. jobs because, according to an estimate from Degnan, the average pay-per-game for professional ultimate players is about $100.
The pay for being a Flyer gives the impression it is only a part-time job, but the time requirements make it feel full-time, Degnan said.
“So there’s not a lot of big egos,” he said.
“Although there are actually some big egos,” he said with sarcastic concern to the team’s media guru, Hugo Sowder.
But what the players lack in financial compensation is made up for in material benefits. Thanks to team sponsors, players receive free gym memberships, chiropractic and physical therapy care and lots of team gear. They also have their travel paid for, receive a per diem and don’t have to pay expensive club dues.
A bonus, Degnan said, is the possibility of making it on SportsCenter Top Ten, a nightly TV segment highlighting the best plays in sports from that day. A couple of Flyers have made the segment, including JD Hastings after making an incredible summersault catch for a goal.
Whenever Degnan talks about his team, there is pride in his voice and excitement in his body. He’s proud of what they do, but no one does quite as much as he does for the Flyers and its outreach. Degnan recognizes the crucial role he plays in the development of the team, and thankfully he has the energy to keep up with a rigorous schedule.
“If you go to sleep early, something’s not happening for the team,” he said.
Degnan often handles the day-to-day and long-term operations of the team from his home or his office at Gibbons. Degnan’s job with the school involves coaching the ultimate team, providing students the opportunity to play sports during their lunch period, starting an intramural program and organizing as many major school functions as he can. The latter task is something he feels he has a particular knack for.
The Flyers hosted the DC Breeze for the first ever cross-divisional game in league history on Saturday, April 22. The game was scheduled for 7 p.m., but Degnan showed up to the fields 12 hours early.
Before he could begin preparing for the Flyers game, he had to set up and manage a 14-game high school ultimate tournament. North Carolina Ultimate, a statewide ultimate organization, was originally supposed to be in charge of the tournament, but for some reason, the responsibility was passed on to Degnan. He only showed a hint of exasperation toward the organization, but never complained.
“If it can be done, I’ll do it,” he said.
At one point during the day, he almost threw out his back setting up a tent.
“Maybe I should have had someone else do that,” he said.
After the tournament, Degnan took a break to get lunch with his dad, and then it was back to the field to set up for the Flyers’ game. One of his main tasks was making sure the live stream to the league’s website would be running by game time, all while coordinating with referees, both teams, and volunteers who would help out at the merchandise and ticket tents.
The weather had been mostly overcast that day but was particular gloomy as game time drew closer. The wind began to pick up and the air became a bit too cold for an afternoon in late April. But the storm warnings only added to the increasing anticipation.
The game garnered about 200 fans. Degnan said the largest crowd for a Flyers game totaled 1,000. He said it’s difficult to consistently get that kind of number, but it’s not for lack of effort.
Sowder, for example, produces and posts the team’s video and photo content to Facebook on a daily basis and writes blog updates on the Flyers’ performance for the website. Bill Bourret, a journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill, creates graphic content for the team on a weekly basis. While not a primary goal, volunteering its time in the Triangle’s thriving ultimate community is definitely good promotion.
It was a lively crowd regardless.
The DC Breeze scored the first goal and stayed ahead for 40 minutes of the 43-minute game.
The Flyers started the game looking nervous. After a bout of simple mistakes and a few long passes that couldn’t connect, the team slowed it down. They played conservative, electing to go for short passes to try and work their way to the end zone and only making deep passes when a runner had almost certainly outpaced his defender.
This strategy kept the Flyers in the game for the most of the first half, but it wasn’t enough to catch up, especially when the Breeze capitalized on the Flyers’ lackluster downfield defense at moments when it seemed they might tie the game.
At the end of the third quarter, the Flyers were down 17-12. It seemed like the Breeze could put the game away.
With the score tied, you could feel the collective tension. Degnan paced up and down the track, motivating the crowd to get louder, shouting and waving his arms. Fans roared for what felt like a more high-stakes game than just a regular season match up.
It should be noted that throughout the entire game, the fans remained engaged, especially the fan-club section of the bleachers with their collection of chants, good-natured taunts and the occasional trip to the track to smash a bucket. If it were a collegiate game, they were the student section.
Then the Breeze retook the lead with 27 seconds remaining. The crowd convulsed, but the players remained calm.
After the throw off, the Flyers’ most skilled passers shared the disc a couple of times so there was time to spread the defense. About 12 second passed until Jonathon Nethercutt, a UNC-CH graduate and team captain, found a teammate in the end zone with a 50-yard overhead pass, known as a hammer throw.
There was 10 seconds left, not enough time for the Breeze to get a goal. The score was tied 20-20.
The Flyers took their first lead of the game with 3:27 remaining in the 5-minute overtime period. They maintained that lead for the rest of game, winning 23-21.
In the aftermath of the game, Sowder noted how gritty the team was. He’s always looking for narratives to promote, and the team’s toughness is one of its trademarks.
But for Degnan, there was not time to reflect. Immediately after the win, he posted himself by the field’s exit to make sure people received season calendars on their way out. It seems his job never ends.
The next big project, Degnan said, is getting funding for a micro-stadium with team offices. He’s met with city officials to discuss the idea, but admits getting public or private funding for a stadium to be used by a niche sports team will be a struggle.
Degnan said he’s not sure what the timeline will look like for a stadium, but he’s remaining invested in the idea, just as he is with the team.
“I love what we have, but I always want it to be more,” he said.
Edited by Matt Wotus