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Professional disc franchise a family affair

When it comes to sports in the Mahoning Valley, there are strong ties to professional football, basketball and baseball, but one local family is etching their name, and the Valley, into a different sport.

Dr. Tracy Neuendorf, his wife, Amy, and stepson Andrew Gardner are the owner, chief financial officer and general manager, respectively, of the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds — an ultimate disc team.

When the team was founded in 2015, three years after the American Ultimate Disc League was established, Dr. Neuendorf got the team up and running, and asked Gardner an important question.

“I Googled how to run a professional sports team after Tracy asked me to be the general manager at 22-years-old,” Gardner said.

Gardner graduated from Lakeview High School and went on to the University of Miami of Ohio where he graduated with a degree in sports business. During his time at Miami of Ohio, Gardner gravitated to ultimate disc, formerly ultimate Frisbee, and when he graduated, Dr. Neuendorf said the opportunity was too good to pass up.

“Andrew had just graduated and was interested in working for a professional sports team. He had played ultimate through college. With his experience, it just came together naturally,” Dr. Neuendorf said. “The league was in its infancy, and it was an opportunity to jump into it and for us to do it as a family was great.”

For the family, Pittsburgh seemed like the best spot for a team in the AUDL. They looked in the area and Cleveland, but settled on Pittsburgh due to the already blossoming culture surrounding the sport.

“Pittsburgh is a national powerhouse in terms of college ultimate,” Gardner said. “They had won back to back national championships, and that was attractive to us. Pittsburgh had a strong fan base where we could get behind. Cleveland could have been an option, but it didn’t have a strong base, and it seemed Pittsburgh was the clear choice.”

Gardner said Dr. Neuendorf was the one who came up with the idea to establish the team.

“It was all Tracy’s idea,” Gardner said. “I told him he was crazy and said ‘no way.’ That’s what makes it amazing. He thought it could happen and sure enough it did. He should take full credit for the genesis of it.”

When the team was first getting up and running, it started as a hobby and quickly grew to much more.

“It was a good distraction for Tracy and myself,” Amy Neuendorf said. “To do something outside of medicine was attractive for us. It turned into a business.”

As a family, and a new sports franchise, the three initially took on all responsibilities required with running a team. As the years have gone on, the need for more staff on gameday, and beyond, has grown as well.

“Amy handles the logistics, I am the financial backing and Andrew coordinates everything else,” Dr. Neuendorf said. “We require a dozen people every game.”

According to the team’s website, there are nine staff members including the family.

“For Amy and I, it’s become a labor of love,” Dr. Neuendorf said.

Since the team’s inception eight years ago the size of the sport, and the league, has grown exponentially. The league is now international with teams in Canada and the United States.

“Now there’s international flavor. It’s become an international sport and it’s becoming more and more like a business. … We’ve gone from playing in a high school football stadium to playing in Highmark Stadium. They seat 4,000 people and we’re looking to do more and more games there next year,” Dr. Neuendorf said. “It’s been really fun to see the growth.”

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