What Will People Play in the Ultimate Future? (part 1)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the direction ultimate is going and perhaps more specifically, professional ultimate. I recently watched an interesting panel on the subject. You should check it out if you get a minute. From the discussion in the video, it seems pretty clear to me that ultimate is growing but no one knows what it will grow into as a sport or a culture. It also seems clear that competing interests want the sport to evolve in different directions. It got me thinking about why I want professional ultimate to succeed; why I was so excited about the AUDL last season; and why I am so invested in where the sport goes.

As an older player (and one who has not treated his body well), I probably only have a few years of serious/competitive ultimate left. I find myself looking to the AUDL, the MLU, Nexgen, and/or the USAU -anyone really- to package a product I can be excited about when it is time to hang up my cleats. I know when that day comes I’ll still want the sport to be part of my life even if I can’t play, but I’m a realist. There are no ends to the awesome/amazing things available to do with recreational time these days, so I’ve begun to wonder, “will there be an organization that can capture my attention as a fan when I’m no longer a player?”

Currently, I watch a lot of ultimate because I play a lot of ultimate. I want to improve my game and “watching tape” helps. I also enjoy supporting start ups like Nexgen, the MLU, and the AUDL. I think it is important to show the entrepreneurs involved in these ventures that there is fan base willing to spend money on the sport. However, I don’t think anyone has presented a product yet – we can call it the ultimate product – that I’d be 100% excited to watch each week. If I wasn’t a player I almost certainly wouldn’t be watching the AUDL, the MLU, Nexgen, or the USUA coverage. It seems to me that in order to engage spectators who have never played ultimate the “ultimate product” will need to be at minimum good enough to regularly put me in the seats.

Let’s be fair though. It isn’t that any particular product is bad. It is simply that none of them are quite there yet, so in my next post I’d like to talk a little about each of these entities and try to highlight what I think they are doing right and what I think they are doing wrong. My goal is to hopefully show you what I believe professional ultimate should be in 10 years, and why I’m excited about the possibility. I’d also be really interested to hear what you have to say on the subject. I’m sure there are lots of other perspectives to consider beside an older ex-frisbee player who still wants to be connected to the sport as a fan.

State of the Site

Hey everyone!  I just wanted to check in and let everyone know that I’ll be updating this blog again fairly frequently.  It looks like an exciting year for ultimate, and I really want to be part of the discourse.  To that end, I hope you’ll consider commenting, messaging me, and spreading articles you like around.  I have four or five ideas for articles, so I should have updates within a week.  As always,  thanks for reading.  

Thoughts on the AUDL’s Future

Over the weekend, the AUDL wrapped up its inaugural season with their championship game featuring the Indianapolis Alley Cats and the Philadelphia Spinners.  The game took place in the Detroit, MI at the Pontiac Silverdome. 

I considered providing a write-up of the game for those who didn’t get a chance to see it.  They have computers that do that now though, so I decided to provide something write something with slightly more substance – my impressions of the AUDL’s first season.

As you may already know, I was a pretty big supporter of the idea of professional ultimate.  If you are reading this, chances are pretty good that you are excited about the idea as well.  Still, I’ve never been a fan boy of the AUDL in particular.  I see the possibilities that the professional moniker holds for the sport, but I’m also aware of the strong probability that the AUDL will not be a success in the same way as other major professional sports leagues.    However, it could be a first attempt at something that will eventually stick.

Having said all that, I do not think this AUDL season was a bad start for professional ultimate, and it might even be possible that this league can succeed.  Sure, there was terrible video coverage.  The games didn’t have fans packing the stands, and there was front office drama over contracts.  On the surface, it is easy to look at the AUDL’s first season as a failure.

I don’t.

Did you ever really think the AUDL was going to blow up in its first season?  There was limited local advertisement.  There were only a couple teams located in cities where ultimate is competitively played, and if you couldn’t attend live games, streaming options were expensive and entirely ala carte (no team or league season pass options).  Owners had to try and generate a fan base while figuring out the whole process of participating in the league, and their reach was substantially limited by the lack of a compelling online or broadcast option.

Considering the downsides, I think a couple of the owners’ books might have come out even or possibly turned a small profit from year 1.  That is truly exceptional when you consider that the AUDL was at best a low cost high risk investment.  Most of the owners of season 1 could reasonably have expected their teams to not turn a serious profit for 5-7 years.  Along that timeline, breaking even in year one is a huge win. 

More importantly, there was some great ultimate on display throughout the season.  Sure, a lot of the top talent was not playing in the AUDL, but I was impressed at the caliber of athletes teams were able to draw nonetheless.  As a result, the league garnered national attention for ultimate both in print and on video.  The “spirit of the game” miraculously endured the introduction of referees.  Watching even the finals, you could tell the play wasn’t perfect, but it still felt like ultimate.   More importantly, it was still exciting.

If I’ve learned anything from season 1 of the AUDL, it is that professional/semi-professional ultimate isn’t just a pipe dream.  It appears to be generally sustainable, if only in part because ownership costs seem to be so low compared to other sports/entertainment.  If a team can really be supported by bringing less than a thousand fans into the stands, it is hard to see how the league can fail. 

Will the AUDL really be around in 5 years though?  I don’t know.  Obviously, luck will play a small role in that outcome, but I think the future of the league depends mostly on how much effort is put into ironing out some of the notable problems with this season and increasing visibility of the league and the sport.  If the owners and league are willing to focus on that, I see no reason why the league can weather the storm. 

Whether the AUDL succeeds or not, it is an exciting time to be a fan of ultimate. 

 

 

Japan vs. Canada 2012 Words: A Spirited Discussion

There seems to be a lot of quality discussion floating around about the recent Worlds matchup between team Canada and team Japan.  As usual, Ultiworld did an excellent job illustrating the situation.  I really wanted to chime in here too, since many people are using this incident as a rallying point for increasing officiating in high-level ultimate.  I have a strong opinion about sportsmanship and officiating in ultimate, so I wanted to address this game in particular.

To start, I didn’t really have a preference for TC or TJ.  I casually followed Furious George last season, and I also watched a few of the Buzz Bullets games.  I guess I watch a lot of ultimate.  I wanted to review this particular game twice before commenting, and I really struggled to sit through it the first time.  The second viewing actually made me angry. While watching the game, you can easily focus on this point in time or that point in time and who did what to whom.  The disturbing thing to me in this game is not the specifics.  It is, as others have mentioned, the bigger picture.

Still, I’d like to chime in my opinion about the game first.  Hopefully, you’ll be able to see where I’m coming from.

Team Japan had a few instances of questionable play overall, but they seemed to moderate their emotions and temper their responses.  It’s true that the players didn’t argue or debate with Canada much.  This has been viewed in the community as either acceptable behavior or as an indication of inflexibility and poor sportsmanship.  I don’t honestly believe the Canadians would have listened to any arguments anyway, so I don’t really see a problem with team Japan trying to avoid those confrontations.

The only time I remember a player getting visibly fired up on TJ was after TC’s #9 (Saunkeah?) had two consecutive lay outs which injured players.  #9 then proceeded to flip out when a sub was not happening fast enough for his taste.  A sub, I remind you, who was only needed to cover for the second Japanese player this guy had injured in less than 30 seconds of playtime.  The TJ sub got fired up, aggressively removed his warm up suit, and subbed.  That was it.  No screaming or arm waving.  It was pretty clear to me that TJ was willing to let their play do the talking. 

Side note, the play/actions of #9 were in my view a disgraceful and an embarrassment to the ultimate community of Canada and at large.  There appeared so bad in fact, that I felt the need to call him out specifically.  It was pretty clear to me that that guy was going out to hurt people, because he really wanted to win and his abilities were inadequate to accomplish that goal.  I hope I’m wrong, and the layouts only appeared bad on film (if that is the case I truly apologize), but he seemed on the video to be both reckless and more importantly without remorse for his actions.

This win at any cost mentality really seemed to be the tone for TC’s play.  TC didn’t seem to want to be better at ultimate than TJ.  They just wanted to win.  Luckily for TC, the WFDF does not use observers or refs and relies exclusively on spirit and sportsmanship to regulate games.  Unfortunately for TJ, a team that cares more about winning than sportsmanship is allowed under these conditions to both abuse the rules and actually physically and mentally abuse other players on the field. 

I could cite any number of specific incidents that showed poor sportsmanship and outright disrespect by team Canada, but those are all situations which are subject to context.  As a result, they lend themselves to be argued away by TC faithful who point out that TC was just playing aggressive high-level ultimate; TJ was playing dirty too; and/or TC was provoked into their action. 

There is no way combat these arguments because context is everything.  I wasn’t there.  For instance, it is possible TJ disparaged #9’s mother, grandmother, and family honor repeatedly before he snapped and decided to just start leveling people.  You too would probably defend your family honor by disc and by layout – no matter who you had to blind tackle.  So why am I writing that I think TC’s sportsmanship was a polluted result of their desire to win over their desire to respect their competitors if context renders arguments about particular plays moot? 

Luckily, there is other less polarizing evidence that indicates TC’s mentality.  That mentality was particularly clear to me on TC’s pulls, during which TC was virtually always egregiously offside.  It was a little thing throughout the game, but it illustrates an overall mentality.  TC was willing to continuously and flippantly disregard a rule, which the other team did not have perspective to call, in order to gain a small advantage on almost every one of their defensive points. 

TJ, on the other hand, was rarely offside on the pull.  Even when they were, it did not appear to be an egregious violation, and it was usually only one or two players and not five.  The result is that TJ appeared to be willing to follow the rules, while TC appeared willing to do anything to gain an advantage and win.

There was no context on the pulls.  You can’t complain that TC was so angry at the goal line that many players felt the need to disrespect it by ignoring it during the pull.  So what though, right?  They are just pulls, and offside violations rarely affected play.  It isn’t really that big of a deal…..but it is.  Sometimes an extra step or two on a pull can make a huge difference.  No one on TJ could logistically be in a position to call offside, so there was also no deterrent for rule breaking. 

The players on TC knew that.  They have too much experience collectively and individually to argue ignorance of the rule, and the occurrences were too frequent to be an accident.  Moreover, many of the TC players don’t commit repeated offside violations when observers are present during the club season.  The only conclusion to be drawn is that TC saw an opportunity for advantage, knew they could get away with it, and wanted to win bad enough that they decided to forget about the rules. 

I’m not even prepared to say that the team was actively cheating, as if they said, “we will be offside and cheat.”  I don’t think that is fair.  I just think they all wanted to win so badly as a collective that they didn’t or perceive that they were constantly breaking the rules.  I.E. the team was focused so hard on willing that their sportsmanship suffered grievously.    

Since they acted like this on pulls, I find it likely that the same attitude colored the team’s entire approach to the game.   

I don’t want to keep beating up team Canada though.  I also don’t think, as some have suggested, that their captain should resign.  I do think they should probably take a long hard look at themselves and determine whether they want to be a respected international team or a reviled bully with everyone placing a mental asterisk next to each win they achieve.   They are certainly a quality group and capable of winning without abusing the rules.

Beyond team Canada, I think the WFDF bears some criticism and should use this game as a learning experience.  There will always be situations where dedicated athletes try to use the rules to their advantage.  Rules are after all part of the game, but players at this level dedicate too much time to this sport to always see their actions objectively.  The problem the WFDF faces is if you can’t enforce the rules the game loses meaning, and situations will arise where one player or team focused on winning just to win can manipulate plays on the field to achieve their goals.

Back in elementary school, I often played touch football with “that kid”, the one who wanted to win more than anything.  You might have had one in your elementary school.  The kid I knew was named Josh, and he would spend entire days complaining to anyone who would listen about why his team didn’t actually lose during touch football because this touchdown didn’t really count; that guy was out of bounds; or it was a do-over because he slipped. 

There were obviously no refs back then, and Josh was persistent and obnoxious enough to get his way more often than not.  Having played both with and against him, I can honestly say his arguments were almost never right or valid.  He simply got what he wanted by being a verbal bully.  Everyone knew what he was doing.  There just was no recourse. 

Without providing a neutral party for the enforcement of rules or at the minimum the arbitration of rules disputes, the WFDF actually encourages more people to play like Josh and to try to seek advantage.  It also forces good spirited players to have to deal with the world’s Joshes the way we all had to deal with “that kid” in elementary school.  You either cave in, or you punch him. 

Refusing to use observers and rely on spirit of the game only succeeds in preying upon weaker personalities on the ultimate field.  It allows people with poor spirit myriad opportunities to disadvantage or defeat spirited opponents.  Ironically, teams with poor spirit can rise to the upper echelons of competitive ultimate and potentially become ambassadors of the sport. 

I’m not saying that does happen or has happened in this specific instance.  I am simply trying to illustrate that the WFDF relying on spirit alone to guide the rules of the game places the sport in a precarious situation.  It allows games like this one, which I consider to be an embarrassment to the sport, to happen on the world stage.  Even more appalling, it fosters an environment that can reward teams for being poor sports.  It is harmful to the sport and dangerous to the players.

If the goals of the WFDF as indicated in their bylaws really is:  “to promote and protect the ‘spirit of the game’ of flying disc sports play”, “to promote flying disc sports play throughout the world and foster the establishment of new national flying disc sports associations…”, and “to promote and raise public awareness of and lobby for official recognition of flying disc play as sport”, then I feel it is incumbent upon the WFDF to adopt some form of rules mediation, whether it be through observers or referees. 

Placing blind faith in the idea that players need to self officiate in order to be spirited is ridiculous.  Observers do nothing more than facilitate the spirit of the game by mitigating players’ anger and frustration toward each other and providing a neutral opinion that can protect players and provide perspective on calls that are often difficult for players to make accurately.  That is not even considering the increased public recognition for the sport that can come from officiating. 

At the end of the day, people will probably still feel how they do.  I’m aware that my words are likely falling on deaf ears.  These are entrenched positions.  Often the people I am trying to convince consider self officiating and “spirit of the game” to be the same thing.  I can only hope that the WFDF will consider alternative rule enforcement solutions before a game like this spirals out of control on an international stage.  Canada and Japan seemed close to blows on more than one occasion. 

Is adhering to self officiating so important that arguments, violence, and bullying are acceptable on the field?  What does that say about the “spirit of the game” our community fosters?        

I know many of you may strongly disagree with me on this.  I’d really love to hear what you have to say about this game specifically or about the broader topic of spirit.  Feel free to leave a comment below!

The Nexgen Tour – Why They Didn’t Bother With Playing AUDL Teams

There were a few posts on the RSD forums a couple days ago discussing the possibility of Nexgen playing AUDL team on their tour. 

 

I wanted to provide my opinion since one poster was adamant the Nexgen Tour could be better by including games against AUDL teams.  He went so far as to indicate that Nexgen would be “complete idiots” if they didn’t try to network with the AUDL and play a couple games against them.  The idea of cross-platform exhibition games was intriguing, but I feel that this individual really missed the boat concerning the pecking order of Nexgen and the AUDL in ultimate. 

 

To be clear, I would be ecstatic to get to see the Nexgen team play against an AUDL team or two.  After all, the Nexgen Tour was intended to be a way to help make high level ultimate more accessible and showcase the sport.  The AUDL is, for more monetary reasons, also interested in this goal. 

 

I don’t however think that Nexgen would want or need to become an “AUDL program” as the above poster discusses.  To be honest, I strain to think Nexgen will really have much interest in working with the AUDL for that matter, especially given the recent controversy surrounding the league.  The AUDL actually has a short but consistent history of being pretty terrible at promoting and presenting their league games.  There is no reason to think the AUDL will be any better at promoting games against Nexgen than the top club teams in the nation.

 

Even if you disagree and think the AUDL is a great promoter, Nexgen is pretty good about promoting/marketing their games themselves.   Heck, they even have a much better video on demand service/system setup to charge for video content.  You can buy ala carte games or subscribe for a package deal.  As a further example, take a look at the Nexgen Tour’s website.  Now look at the AUDL’s site.  Now look at Goliveultimate.  Now look at NGN.  If you want to be blown away, check out some sample footage of games covered by the NGN and compare that to the video quality of the AUDL games.

 

 As an AUDL fan, I can honestly say more people I speak with are familiar with the Nexgen Tour than with the AUDL.  Up until Brodie Smith started endorsing the league, 80-90% of ultimate players I mentioned the league to had not heard of it.  I might not have even heard of it if I hadn’t lived in Indianapolis for a number of years and played with the coaches.  Even after Brodie got onboard, the league has primarily relied on the individual teams to do PR and marketing.  The first AUDL highlight on Sports Center was generated by film from Brodie’s crew. 

 

I think the AUDL would really be the one to benefit from any relationship with Nexgen.  The only compelling reason I can imagine for Nexgen to add an AUDL team or two to their schedule would be to establish a rapport with the league in order to leverage a contract for the NGN to cover AUDL games in 2013.  That would be a truly win/win scenario, since the AUDL’s video production is still not a high quality product.  It only makes sense though if the NGN is looking for more work (they seem to be pretty busy at the moment). 

 

I suppose, fan interest could also persuade Nexgen to play a game or two against an AUDL team.  Nexgen really does seem to care a lot about giving ultimate fans what they want.  As a professional ultimate fan, it would be pretty cool if the Nexgen Tour collaborated with the AUDL, but as a realist I just can’t see much reason why.  I think it is pretty unlikely (based on the AUDL’s current problems with franchises their sloppy preparation and planning). 

 

Plus, the 2012 Nexgen Tour schedule has already been announced, so I suppose this whole article is really predicated on a pipe dream.  I guess we will just have to settle for watching Nexgen face off against the likes of Chain Lightning and Revolver.  Ok!! I guess things could be worse….

 

AUDL Expansion: Professional Sports Need to be Profitable

I just finished reading a solid article about the AUDL expansion for next season.  The article does a pretty good job looking at the current AUDL teams and takes some guesses at the success of the league based on team profits from year 1.  The question the author raises is whether the league will be profitable for investors that have purchased a franchise.

I really enjoyed the article because it addressed a concern I’ve been having for a while.  Will owners be able to make money from a team?  If they can, I suspect the AUDL is here to stay.  If not, the league may last a few more seasons, but it won’t be around much beyond that.  A profitable investment is, after all, what owners/investors want to get out of a professional league.  

In the short term, I think teams will be able to make enough profits to offset costs, and/or owners that can’t break even will be ok with small initial losses while hoping things pick up.  As I’ve touched on before, the AUDL did not really do any national or big scale advertising or marketing before season 1.  Nonetheless, several teams seem to have generated enough local buzz to get people into the stands. 

Obviously, none of the teams are selling thousands or tens of thousands of tickets for a game, but many teams seem to have numbers sufficient to generate a reasonable revenue stream.  A couple owners might already be making a buck off ticket sales.  Other owners may be breaking even or experiencing a small loss.  It is all speculation and conjecture based on loose numbers.  My point is that a local revenue stream could be sufficient to support an AUDL team in most cities.

Unfortunately, local fan support (primarily from the ultimate community in a team’s hometown) doesn’t really grow the sport.  That means a team that can’t survive purely on ticket sales will only be in existence as long as an owner is willing to lose money on his/her franchise.  The league could probably survive a failed franchise or two, but teams folding will likely have a huge impact on the league.  Losing teams affects the schedule, causes problems balancing divisions, incites panic in other owners, etc.  Consequently, the professional sport has to grow in national popularity for the league as a whole to be successful.

I’m very interested to see what the AUDL does in terms of marketing and advertising for future seasons to grown the sport.  While I recognize that marketing may have not been affordable before the onset of the first season, it has to be a priority as the league expands.  The league has to find a way to generate buzz, reach a broader audience than just ultimate players, and find a way to create diversified revenue streams for both the league and the teams. 

 

I’m not sure exactly how they can do this.  I’m not really a “marketing guy”.  Getting a TV contract with a network, even if it is a smaller cable network, would be a step in the right direction.  I suspect that isn’t really in the cards yet though.

 

 In lieu of getting the sport on TV, the AUDL might be able to find a way to monetize their online content more effectively.  It seems to me that there has to be more effective model for selling games online than an ala carte service.   Perhaps a “league pass” or something similar would be a way to generate up front revenue. 

 

Those are just a couple ideas, and I’m sure there are lots of other great ways the league could expand its brand recognition and fan base.  I’m really curious what other people think about this topic though.  Do you think the AUDL will be able to be successful with their current model?  If not, what changes do you think they need to make to expand their fan base?  Do you even think the AUDL as a product is good enough to succeed? 

 

  

 

Expanding Blog Articles

I’ve been writing pretty exclusively about the AUDL for a bit longer than the past month.  I plan to keep that up throughout the season, as there really isn’t a lot of other in depth analysis of the league on the web, which is a shame. 

I did want to give you a heads up that I plan to expand my writing focus a bit.  In particular, I’d like to talk a bit about club ultimate.  As I am trying out for/possibly playing with a competitive mixed team this year, I’d like to share my perspective on that as well as some of my insights and stories. 

I plan to keep it all related to ultimate, and I’m likely to spend quite a bit of time still writing about the AUDL, but I wanted to give everyone a heads up. I’m also looking at this as an opportunity for you to let me know a bit more about what you’d like to read.  Throw a suggestion or two out, and it is pretty likely I’ll take you up on it.