Flying high: a look at Toronto’s professional ultimate frisbee team
Don’t bother joking with Mark Lloyd about his status as a professional athlete, because he’s heard them all. “It just kind of comes with the territory,” he says.
But as someone who gets paid to play the sport he loves, has competed in stadiums from Italy to Japan, gets cheered on by thousands of home-team fans at Varsity Stadium and has even signed a few autographs, the 23-year-old general manager and captain of Toronto Rush ultimate disc team is anything but a joke.
Like many young Canadians, Lloyd grew up dreaming of being a hockey star but eventually realized that his tall, lean physique was better suited for a sport that required a lot of running, jumping and a long reach. After accepting that he wasn’t “built for hockey,” Lloyd left the sport in Grade 9 to hone his ultimate disc skills.
“I started playing ultimate a lot more and taking it a lot more seriously,” he says. “I started seeing my play develop, and becoming better than the people who had been better than me.”
The Winnipeg native got his first taste of intramural ultimate in middle school, while attending St. John’s-Ravenscourt School, and secured a place on Manitoba’s men’s provincial team, the General Strike, at age 16.
While majoring in English at the University of Western Ontario, Lloyd led the UWO Sharks to back-to-back silver medals in the 2009 and 2010 Canadian University Ultimate Championships, as both the team’s captain and coach.
After graduating and moving to Toronto, Lloyd went to Santa Cruz to visit his father, Rob, who shared his son’s interest in the sport.
“I told him about the professional league that was starting up,” says Lloyd. “He pulled it up on his phone and started reading about it, and he saw something about expansion plans … and that no one had bought [the franchise in] Toronto.”
He and his father spent much of that weekend discussing the prospect of a professional ultimate league in his new hometown.
“By the time I had landed back in Toronto, he had purchased the rights to the Toronto franchise,” Lloyd says.
Today, Toronto Rush is a Lloyd family business, with Mark serving as the team’s general manager, captain and part-owner along with his father, Rob, and his uncle Jim.
“It’s been fun to work with my uncle and my dad on this project,” he says, adding that the three Lloyd men usually speak to each other on the phone for a few hours each night. “I’m happy that ultimate has been a platform for us as a family to find something to work on together."
But buying the franchise was only the start of a long process. The Lloyd clan has spent the last year recruiting players, finding a venue, selecting coaches and coming up with the team name, which they chose as homage to the Toronto-based rock trio of the same name.
The Rush took to the field at Varsity Stadium for their home opener on May 4 against the New Jersey Hammerheads. Among the estimated 2,300 in attendance cheering on Lloyd and his teammates were his dad and the rest of the Lloyd family.
“He flew all of them out to come in and see that, and I think that was a pretty special moment to have my whole family there,” says Lloyd. “Most of them had never seen me play.”
The Rush were victorious in their home opener, and at the time of this interview, the team remained the only undefeated team in the 12-team league.
According to Lloyd, Toronto Rush is comprised of athletes from all over the GTA, many of whom are working professionals and students that dedicate their evenings and weekends to the sport.
Lloyd himself is currently completing a 10-week co-op at a Toronto marketing firm as required by his sports and event marketing program at George Brown College.
“People at work have been really cool about it, asking how the team is doing, checking updates and things like that,” he says. “They’ve been very supportive.”
Lloyd says on the average day, he is up at 6:40 a.m. to squeeze in a quick workout before making it to work at 9:00. After work ends at 5 p.m., he makes his way over to practice, which is held between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Once he finally returns home, he has an opportunity to enjoy a quick dinner before taking care of all of his team management duties.
“It’s a 13- to 14-hour day,” he says. “Some nights I get a little bit of rest.”
Though the hours are demanding, and Lloyd admits to having little time for a social life, he hopes to work on developing the franchise further after graduating from George Brown in December.
“It will be pretty cool to work on this and apply some of the things I’ve learned from my marketing internship program,” he says. “It would be pretty cool if that could be my full-time job.”
In the meantime, Lloyd is hoping to continue the successful season he’s had both as a manager and captain.
“We want to finish first in our division, which we’re en route to doing now,” he says, adding that he’s also nearing his goal of averaging 1,000 fans per game. “I’ve been blown away by how much it’s [enthusiasm for the sport] spreading.”
Perhaps after a successful, well-attended first season, the jokes will stop, and Lloyd can finally be comfortable with his status as a professional athlete.
Tickets to see Toronto Rush start at $9.95, with discounts available for season ticket holders, groups, seniors and students.