I lived in Indianapolis up until the beginning of last year, so it shouldn’t be at all surprising that I am very excited about the start of the AUDL season. For those of you who don’t know, the AUDL is a professional ultimate league that is starting this spring. There is currently an 8 team roster with one team is based in Indianapolis. Tons of interesting, controversial, and polarizing information is floating around the ultimate community about the league, but the bottom line for me is that this league is the first shot ultimate has had at being a professionally recognized sport. I’m really pumped!
Since the first games are still a couple days away, I decided to channel my excitement into writing about the league. More specifically, I want to talk about the rules. They are pretty different from USA Ultimate rules, and I noticed browsing the web that no one had really taken time to talk about all the differences in one spot. Sure, you can get an idea of the rules by watching a scrimmage or listening to what people have to say about the league. You won’t really be able to find a solid comparison though unless you read all of the USA Ultimate rules and then cross reference them against all the AUDL rules. That would be long and boring. I know, because that is what I did. Now, you can just sit back and read my summary of the key AUDL differences! Hopefully it is at least slightly less long and boring.
There are some big changes that I want to highlight right off the bat. These are the more broad sweeping changes and are generally structural departures from the current game.
- Officials – There are officially officials. They are not observers. They call boundaries. They assess penalties. They make calls. More important than having someone there to make calls though is having someone who doesn’t. Players no longer get to blow the whistle. I think this is going to be a big adjustment for a lot of players used to stoppage of play whenever they felt a foul occurred. I imagine players are going to struggle with having to continue play despite contact on the mark or in response to aggressive defensive bids. It will be interesting to see how players adjust.
- The Field – The field is bigger. To be more accurate, the field is wider. USA Ultimate field width is 40 yards. The AUDL width is 53 and 1/3 yards. This change seems to be primarily so that the game can be played on existing football fields, but widening the field will certainly provide additional advantages to the offense. The 80 yard long AUDL field of play is also slightly longer than that of USA Ultimate’s 70 yard field (at least in the 11th edition rules). Total field lengths are both the same though, with USA Ultimate using end zones that are each 25 yards long as opposed to 20. Basically, AUDL players will have more real estate horizontally for positioning and swinging but they will have to stretch their goal line to goal line throws a little further.
- Fouls – AUDL fouls are generally divided into categories by the level of their severity. Severity matters because, like football, yardage penalties are assessed for violations of the rules. I find this system interesting because it discourages contact. Still, yardage penalties, particularly the 5 yard variety, don’t seem like they will have much of an impact on the game. Ultimate isn’t a linear battle down the field like American football, so I’m not really sure what the short yardage penalties accomplish.
- Winning Condition – The AUDL has followed the example of many other professional sports by choosing to play timed games rather than score-capped games. I understand why this change was made. It makes the sport logistically more predictable. Spectators have a rough idea of how long a game is going to be, and timed play eliminates the possibility of a really fast game due to a blowout. Plus, stats for scoring are not capped in this format, which paves the way for scoring records and the potential for players to break those records down the road.
I do worry about this rule though. Without some sort of “shot clock” component that drives the offense to score, I worry that teams could adopt possession oriented strategies designed to protect a lead and run down the clock. At the very least, teams with a lead may be less likely to take risks (which usually result in more spectacular/athletic plays). I suppose this is the case in USA Ultimate sanctioned events anyway though. Tournament games also have a score cap and a time cap, and teams can implement these strategies to cautiously nurse a lead as hard cap approaches.
Those are the general changes I wanted to highlight. There are some really fascinating new dynamics that come along with the AUDL, and it will be interesting to see how these big changes affect the sport.
My instincts tell me these changes won’t be as big of a deal as many people are making them out to be. After all, USA Ultimate has used observers for some time; the responsibilities of observers has increased during that time to including calling lines and travels; and some tournaments have even experimented with the use of officials. Officials aren’t really that different from observers, and I honestly think the sport has been moving in the direction of non-player officiating as it has become more competitive anyway.
Similarly, the larger field will certainly impact play, but there is already an awful lot of space on an ultimate field. A little more won’t change the game too much.
As I discussed, yardage penalties for fouls probably won’t be a big deal – with the possible exception of big 20 yard penalties for personal misconduct or flagrant fouls. Like in soccer, negative net yardage plays are both acceptable and encouraged in many situations. Offense is more about relative field position in ultimate and soccer than it is about being 5 or 10 yards further up field.
Even switching from score capped games to time capped games probably won’t have a substantial impact on the sport. It seems like a big change and philosophically maybe it is. Still, competitive games are currently time capped with a hard cap and a soft cap. The real difference is just that the timer now artificially ends the game regardless of play. In effect, the only substantial change is that the AUDL will have last second throws and catches, and the last team to score may not necessarily win.
On the surface, all these changes appear to dynamically shift the face of ultimate, but I don’t think that is going to happen. Ultimate is more than who makes the calls or how big the field is. The AUDL will still be the sport we’ve grown to love.
Whether the AUDL will still be the sport we’ve all grown to love or not to me hinges on the smaller rule changes. There are a bunch of them. In truth, the AUDL drafted the rules very differently on the whole than USA Ultimate. I want to draw your attention to a few of those specific rules that could make for big changes to the sport as it goes pro.
- Double teaming – You can do it. It is legal, and it is weird. The scrimmage I linked to above has a few examples of this new rule in action. Basically, you can have 2 people marking the thrower, within a disc space. Two people on the thrower can block out a lot of field. This creates a whole lot of opportunities for new zone coverage and defensive strategy. It also increases the need for quality up field hammer throws. The double mark also places additional pressure on the thrower, especially when coupled with….
- A Seven Second Stall Count – Three less seconds really puts pressure on the thrower to make good decisions fast. Your cutters have to time their cuts better, and you have less time to set up a dump. Still, it has been pointed out to me that seven seconds counted by an impartial official is probably equivalent to most ten second stall counts in today’s competitive ultimate environment. The bigger deal really isn’t the actual time you are given. It is that the stall count is silent. Players are going to have to develop internal clocks to avoid the stall in the AUDL.
- Thrower Traveling – Traveling can result in a turnover, if you are deemed to be a “thrower” at the time of the travel (the official determines when a receiver becomes a thrower and there is a separate less severe penalty for receiver travelling). This is a very interesting rule because it has the same problem as travelling in basketball. No one wants to enforce a rule that is difficult to call and has a severe penalty. It will be interesting to see if/how this rule impacts the game.
I want to talk more about this travelling rule for a second. Possession in ultimate is more important than it is in basketball. Yet, referees in basketball are hesitant to call traveling. They are so hesitant in fact that the rule has slowly eroded over time allowing players more and more freedom to walk all over the court. Allowing jump stops, letting players palm the side of the ball, and increasing the number of steps a player can take after the dribble to two are all examples of this erosion. The rule is so withered that people don’t even pay attention to a player’s pivot foot. Watch a game some time and you will see what I mean.
My point? How can we expect observers not be hesitant/avoid calling a travel with the in game implications of the call being so large? Watch some collegiate or club level ultimate games and you will see what I mean. A lot of elite level players pick up and move their pivot foot all the time. Sometimes, it isn’t even while they are in the act throwing or slipping. They just….move it! Observers are often responsible for making those calls. They do a pretty good job, but they also let some stuff go. They also know that making the call won’t cause the offensive team to lose possession. Still, they miss a lot of calls – primarily when the travel won’t affect the play. Like when, on stall two, the thrower picks up his pivot foot and moves it slightly to the right. It was a travel, but it didn’t hurt anything. In the AUDL, every travel will affect the play because it changes possession. This will either result in weird turnovers on stall two or more likely in the officials not calling travel and letting throwers ignore the suggestion of a pivot foot.
Personally, in future seasons I think they should consider taking away 20 or 30 yards from the spot of the travel and making sure if a travel occurs on a throw that the throw is complete first. If you take away the disc on a travel, you take away your officials’ ability to comfortably make the call.
*tangent off* ….back to the list
- Picks – The changes to picks are primarily in the language. Without getting bogged down in a word for word comparison, there is a little more leeway given to the offense in the AUDL concerning picks. The goal of the change seems to be aimed at preventing defensive players from positioning themselves in a manner which would create a pick when the offensive player cuts. I only really mention this change because it shows a lot of forethought on the part of the AUDL. Under the USA Ultimate rules, picks are usually fairly innocuous calls. If a pick is called, the call itself rarely has a negative effect on the offense. Either the play was unaffected by the call, the thrower misses a throw to the picked player anyway, or the player who set a pick catches the disc and resets the play. The AUDL assigned 10 yard penalties for each instance of a pick, so they needed to make sure that defensive players wouldn’t abuse the rule.
- Time outs – Time outs are now a much bigger deal! The rules change two major things about timeouts. First, timeouts reset the stall count, and second, you can substitute during a timeout. I really like these changes. Timeouts in the AUDL have many additional strategic applications. Sure, you can still use one to set up an iso and punch it in at the goal line, but you can also use one during a long point in windy conditions to get a fresh line on the field, or to put your O line on after you D line comes up with a big stop. A thrower can even use it as a get out of jail free card and avoid a penalty.
- Injury Time outs – This change is interesting because it isn’t really clear how the rules will be practically applied. Players do not call injuries officials do. The rules say that “during an injury timeout the health and safety of the injured player are of primary concern”(emphasis added) and also that the official should stop play immediately when the injured player’s team gains possession. The rules never specifically allow for a play stoppage at any other time. Based on this information, it seems that there may be a requirement that players tough out an injury if they are on D when it occurs. Still, there are catchall rules that allow officials to use discretion generally, and calling injury timeouts at other times may ultimately fall into that category.
- Disc Brushing – This is the last rule change I want to discuss because it is the only one I don’t understand. There are certainly more changes, but I think I’ve covered most of the significant ones. I want to talk about the disc brushing rules in the AUDL because one aspect of the rules is very odd. In general, the rules are just like the USA Ultimate rules. You can’t intentionally brush the disc to yourself to gain yards. However, there is a weird thrower rule which is tacked into a section discussing receivers:
It is legal to tip/brush your own throw. However, if after a tip/brush, one is the first player to touch the disc, then it is deemed a tip/brush to oneself and it is a travel.
So, that is odd. The wording makes it seem like you can throw the disc and then alter its course once by tipping or brushing it like you would when making a kickpass. **edit** Suncho pointed out, and rightfully so, that USA Ultimate and AUDL both allow the thrower to brush the disc after it is thrown. I still think it is odd, but it is part of the rules for both leagues. That means kickpasses and intentionally serving up a throw and then brushing it are legal. **edit** I can also think of some crazy scenarios where the thrower is able to chase down his own throw and then brush it to another player before anyone else touches it but that is highly circumstantial.
There is one other problem with the AUDL though. “Tipping the disc for the purpose of evading a defender is a travel.” Even in the above highly unlikely scenario, I can’t imagine a situation where the thrower wouldn’t be trying to evade a defender when they eventually get to their hovering throw and try to tip it.
So, when can you tip the disc? Most intentional tips (not that they happen often) are either to keep the disc inbounds or to evade a defender. So, you can tip it to keep it in bounds but not as a strategy to get around a defender? What if someone is defending the tip that keeps the disc in play? The whole thing is just really odd. The only option the rules clearly leave open for tipping is to brush or throw and then brush a disc to an open player when no one is around. I really hope they fix or clarify this rule.
If you ignore my rant about disc brushing rules, the AUDL has gone to a lot of trouble to make rule changes. It is pretty clear that many “smaller” specific rule changes that the AUDL has made will have a bigger impact on changing the way the sport is played at a professional level than the broad changes like adding officials. It will be interesting to see in what ways the dynamics of ultimate affected by these changes. Still, I’m excited and hopeful that the new rules won’t detract the overall feel and spirit of the game. That way, I can just focus on how awesome it is that a professional ultimate league exists.