Officials in the AUDL: Promoting the Spirit of the Game

Going into this inaugural season, it seemed pretty clear that the AUDL was trying to make ultimate more friendly to spectators.  Several aspects of AUDL have been crafted with this goal in mind.  I can tell you after weeks of watching games that the game pacing is much faster and there is much less downtime compared to USA Ultimate games.  I think this is due to a combination of several factors, but the most positive change I’ve notice as a fan is the inclusion of officials.  There are many ultimate faithful that think officials will/are ruining the spirit of the game.  I’d like to explain why I believe the inclusion of officials has made ultimate into a better spectacle without eroding the spirit of the game.

I have been playing ultimate for 16 years now, though my first few years barely qualify.  Many people cling tightly to the idea of the spirit of the game.  Though spirit has nothing to do with whoever makes the calls on the field, there is a blind belief that ultimate doesn’t need officials and that taking away self officiating somehow robs the game of precious spirit.  I think this belief is a misplaced projection of what the spirit of the game, or as it is called in other sports generally sportsmanship, really is.

I empathize and somewhat agree with the utopian view that ultimate can rise up through the spirit of the game to become somehow morally better than other sports.  Unfortunately, ultimate players really aren’t much different from other athletes when it comes to competition.  Putting the word “spirit” in the rulebook and tying that ideal to self officiating doesn’t make players more spirited.  I’ve seen some of the best spirited athletes on an ultimate field, but I’ve also seen some of the worst. As a result, I struggle to see how self officiating is the key to the spirit of the game in ultimate.

Even if we assume people are striving to be honest and fair which is a stretch in any intense competition, the problem with the traditional solutions for dispute resolution in ultimate is that there is a heavy reliance on the opinions of players who have invested hundreds and hundreds of hours into their team.  Of course players want to win, and most good club players have worked hard to place themselves in a position to be successful.  I’m not saying these players are dishonest or lack spirit.  They could have excellent spirit.  They are simply fundamentally biased.

Notice how great football receivers will sometimes argue with their coaches asking for them to challenge a dropped pass, only to have the instant replay later clearly show it was a drop?  The players know there is replay.  They aren’t trying to get away with anything.  They legitimately believe they caught it.  Sometimes, when you live and breathe a sport it is hard to get out of your own head when trying to make a call.

I like to think of myself as good spirited, and I’ve fallen victim to this bias on more than one occasion.  Most recently, I “toed in” a catch for goal.  Admittedly, the sideline was very crooked (the other end zone was not even marginally parallel with the end zone on camera), and opposing players confirmed my call.  Watching the video though, it was clear that I was at least an AU out of bounds.  I owe a serious apology to Michigan Tech.  Sorry.  I’ve called myself out more times than I can count, but at that moment, I really thought I was in.

My point is that perspective is biased and subjective, even with the best intent.  As people invest more into a thing, they are more likely to allow their wants and desires to influence their perspective.  It only makes sense to try and minimize that influence. In the above example, I was playing an alumni game with a bunch of college teammates that had always relied on me to make exceptional plays.  That artificial pressure likely played a role in my terrible call.

Observers are certainly a step in the right direction.  They are able to provide great perspective and an unbiased ruling in situations where it is difficult for players to be focused on playing and making the call simultaneously.  This works great for calls at boundaries and for travels.  The observer is effective for these decisions because he/she simply makes the call and spends time in between acquiring a good perspective to watch for future rule breaking.  For travels and boundary calls the observer basically acts as an official.  They still get it wrong sometimes, but so do players, and observers have both the focused perspective and the lack of bias to be a more trustworthy pair of eyes.

So, it is pretty easy to think observers seem awesome (and compared to completely self officiated games they are).  As a result, you don’t hear too many people complaining that observers are destroying the spirit of the game.  The trouble is that observers are a compromise, a half measure.  They are only given some power in an effort to maintain some level of player officiating.

This is where you can really notice the problem with observers.  They start to lose their appeal on pretty much every player initiated call.  Even again assuming completely honest players, there are going to be disagreements or contestations about calls.  The result is essentially that every player has a “whistle” they can use to stop play and stoppages can last longer than timeouts.  Coming back to my initial point, player initiated calls make the game generally confusing and bog it down.

Sure, some stoppages are quick, but most contestations have to be argued.  The players have to make their case to each other.   Then, the players have to bring in an observer to rule on the dispute.  Once an observer is called, they will hear additional arguing before they rule.  All of this is painfully slow as a participant on the field, and it is excruciating as a spectator.

It seems to me officials are able to take over where observers fall off.  They can make the game better for spectators and give us calls that are closer to truth.   It is a win win, so why haven’t they been used sooner?  The real answer, as far as I can tell, is that a lot of entrenched ultimate players strongly reject the idea of officials.  It could be that they generally don’t trust authority or that they worry that ultimate will become too serious at all strata of competition.  I honestly don’t know all the reasons.  What I do know is that all the reasons people don’t want officials in ultimate get grafted onto the idea that officials will somehow hurt the spirit of the game.

I’ve always rejected the idea that spirit is tied to self-officiating.  It just doesn’t make sense to me.  A pickup game of basketball doesn’t have any better spirit than an NBA game.  Refs neither bring nor remove spirit.  They simply police the game more efficiently and effectively than players.  Don’t believe me?  Try to call charging or travel in a casual game of pick-up basketball without starting an argument.  Self-officiating has never been a boon in that scenario for me.

Maybe the argument for spirit in self-officiating is broader though.  Maybe people believe that a sport loses spirit top to bottom once it starts being officiated, as though officials hurt the essence or soul of a games spirit.  I just don’t think spirit is tied to some kind of absolute cosmic on/off switch though.  While I think all sports have unique character based on their rules, tradition, history, and specific qualities, I don’t think that character translates into something spiritual.

The truth I fear, and it does sting a bit for some ultimate players, is that competition becomes less spirited as competitors become…well, more competitive.  For example, I’ve never had another player scream at me in anger during ultimate at pickup.  It has happened several times at competitive tournaments though.

The method of competition is spirit neutral.  There is nothing that makes ultimate a special little snowflake when it comes to spirit.  People who play seriously want to do well and win just as much as in other sports.  Give them the ability to make the calls, raise the stakes, and watch the players raise their voices.

Sure, the sport has a higher number of affluent educated participants.  You could certainly make an argument, though I wouldn’t, that this demographic fosters greater spirit.  If true, that spirit is localized to a segment of players.  It does not imbue the whole of ultimate with spirit magic that can and is bestowed on any individual that sets foot on an ultimate field.

The reality is some ultimate players are jerks.  Why on Earth would you want to give them the power to make calls?

In my experience, self-officiating results primarily in yelling and arguing.  In many situations, I’ve seen newer players bullied into changing calls they thought were correct.  I honestly believe it is unreasonable to presume that all players will act in the best interest of the sport at large or that as a player in a game you could possibly be in a better position to make a call than an official.  It is conceited and arrogant.

The AUDL changed all this nonsense for professional ultimate.  They did away with the idea that you need to make your own calls in order to be spirited.  Officials were already in the pipeline at some tournaments, and USA Ultimate has been making use of observers for a few years, so the AUDL doesn’t get all the credit.  The AUDL was simply the first to recognize that the spirit of ultimate is not tied to self regulation, and games that are called by independent observers are more equitable.  Whether the AUDL succeeds or fails, I hope we as a community can finally embrace officials and move past our ridiculous infatuation with self officiating.  If that one change is the only effect the AUDL has on ultimate, it will have been a success.

Where does that leave the spirit of the game, though?  Personally, I think officials are a great thing for the spirit of the game in ultimate.  They remove the association of spirit from who is making the calls and place it on the history, tradition, and character the sport.  That is a spirit far greater than a misplaced belief in the idea that players can/should perform the dual role of player and official on the field.  Saying that is the spirit of the game belittles the sport and whittles the spirit of the game down to a gimmick.

Ultimate is more than that.  It is a unique, exciting, and dramatic sport.  Its history includes UFOs, grass roots organization, philanthropic outreach, battles with Wham-O, and many decades of non-professional national and worlds based competitions.  The elevation of skill and strategy required to play has skyrocketed astronomically since when I first began playing, and the sport’s popularity has expanded along with its quality.  These are the things that make up the spirit of ultimate.  It doesn’t who is making the calls.

Because I can’t help myself, I’d also like to briefly mention that the spirit of the game rule was historically so ambiguous that as a rule it had little impact on the field.  It was nearly impossible to distinguish between a player who was being a good sport, one who was being bullied out of making a call, and one who was applying the spirit of the game rule.

It is obvious just how confusing the “rule” is when people cheer “good spirit” if a player calls himself out.  If he was out, it is his duty to call himself out.  Spirit does not factor into it.  The idea that this act is good spirit is ridiculous.  It implies that normally in those situations an ultimate player would call themselves in even if they were out and thus act in bad spirit.

In the AUDL rules you won’t find the words “spirit of the game” scrawled cryptically in the rules.  There is however an integrity rule which gives players the opportunity to make calls that adversely affect the player compared to the call made on the field by an official.  It is a clear rule that lets players put the truth ahead of their own personal benefit.  The best thing about this rule is that, since the players aren’t making the calls, it is absolutely clear that the player is trying to correct a bad ruling.  If the crowd yells “good spirit” in response to a player enacting the integrity rule, they would be right.

Whether the game is more or less spirited with officials is obviously a point we could debate.  I understand that my opinion may be in the minority regarding officiating, and I’d love to hear what you have to say regarding what the spirit of the game really means and whether officials negatively impact that spirit.
I would also like to move beyond spirit to talk about why the game is a better spectator sport with the inclusion of officials in more depth.  However, this post has gone a bit long and I haven’t published in a couple weeks due to the start of my ultimate season, so I’ll have to address that topic in a follow up article.

 

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AUDL Alley Cats Replay and “High Quality Streaming”

I just replayed the Indianapolis Alley Cats and the Columbus Cranes game.  It was interesting to watch the footage a second time.  I really enjoyed taking a closer look at the team strategies and trying to figure out how the teams were adjusting to each other throughout the game, but I didn’t get to do too much of that, as the camerawork was so poor.

*Spoiler Alert* At times, I can get pretty mad or energized.  Watching this replay was one of those times.

I found myself constantly distracted goliveultimate’s poor camerawork/video coverage, and worse yet, so much of the action happened off screen it was difficult to understand what the offensive/defensive strategy actually was.   I already talked about this when I discussed my first impression of the league, but everything I noticed live about the camerawork was worse on replay.  It was so bad in fact that I felt the need to vent.

Please understand that I am primarily discussing this as a means of constructive criticism.  If it hasn’t become glaringly obvious, ultimate is very important to me.  I am excited about the prospect of professional ultimate.  After seeing the work and effort the players put forth, I’d hate to see the AUDL fail because of poor video/broadcast production quality.  The production was so poor from a technical standpoint thought, that I am seriously concerned about its impact on the league if it isn’t fixed immediately.

**huge tangent**

You may wonder if I really think this league will live or die at the hands production.  I do.  I hope I’m wrong, but I do.  The problem is money.  The league hasn’t advertised heavily on a national level.  I suspect they don’t have the cash for that, as it is expensive.  They also need to find a way to leverage potential customers into watching the games.

As a result, he AUDL needs to be cyclically profitable.  They need to make money off their initial customer base in order to be able to spend money on advertising/expansion to increase their customer base.  Once they have enough eyes watching the games, they will be able to sell more advertising.  Plus, if people attend or stream regularly, they are more likely to be willing to buy merchandise.  The whole system really builds on itself, so the AUDL needs to make money so it can make more money.

Right now the AUDL’s revenue channels all funnel through people attending/streaming the games.  As far as attendance, there was some really solid attendance for a couple of the opening day games.  I think the Spinners game had something like 1700 fans in attendance.  When you factor promotional tickets, kids, and everything, I imagine that number is generously closer to 1200-1300 for paying fans.  That is still pretty good.

Not all games faired that well though.  The Columbus/Indianapolis game had a few hundred attendees.  It was raining, but it is difficult to tell how much that affected ticket sales and attendance.  You also have to consider these numbers were for the first games of a brand new league.  I’m worried that those numbers will die off a little after the first week, and the middle of the season could get pretty bleak if the fan base doesn’t grow as the season progresses.  Lastly, these demographics are fixed by location.  You can’t sell tickets to people who can’t get to the stadium, so the number of potential customer for potential ticket sales is limited.

You also need to consider teams are going to take a good amount of money to run.   Owners have to be getting a cut from ticket/stream sales in order to fly players around, rent practice facilities, and pay non-volunteer essential staff.  Renting the venue for the games will also be a big expenditure depending on the team.  All this makes me think the league and most teams would be lucky to break even from live attendance as a revenue stream.

If I’m right, I know how much the league is banking on streaming sales to provide income.  It is a good strategy.  There are ultimate fans all over the world that are interested in the AUDL.  The AUDL only currently has teams in the Mid-Eastern United states.  The internet allows the league to harness an enormous fan base, and use that fan base to drive cyclical profitability, and ultimate fans across the web have shown that they are willing to pony up to watch games.

There is a problem however if ticket sales alone aren’t enough to keep the league afloat.  If streaming sales are needed to keep the league and teams out of the red, then the league’s growth and future depend on streaming game sales.

**end huge tangent

This brings me back to the source of my frustration – the video production/coverage of the game.  It has to get much better.  I can watch good ultimate videos on Youtube for free.  I can pay for great live game coverage through CSTV, UltiVillage, or the NexGen Network.  I’m willing to support the AUDL by buying streams initially because I sincerely hope it will get better, and I believe in professional ultimate.

I don’t know who goliveultimate is, but they did the streaming for the game I saw.  I’ve never seen their hat in the ultimate broadcasting ring prior to the AUDL.  They are a division of SoundQue Multimedia who describes themselves as a “broadcast in a box.”  Based on the description, it seems like they are a turnkey solution for streaming video.

I don’t think they have any experience with ultimate.  That makes sense because it didn’t look like they did.  The production team also doesn’t appear to have any experience researching how to broadcast events they don’t have any experience with.

If the AUDL wants to sell streams at a premium price point ($8-$10 per stream), the streams had better be at least as good as other products that are already available.  What goliveultimate produced was not.  It was grainy.  The players were fuzzy, even in the “better quality” replay, and the cameras had limited prospective.  They even attached a shoddy on screen graphic to track the score that just looked tacky.  If they had only failed in that, I would note that the quality needed to be improved and leave it alone.

There was however a bigger problem.  It wasn’t just that the broadcast needed polish.  The video recording they produced wouldn’t have even looked good if you managed to polish it.  The camera operators did not appear to have any idea what they were doing.  This was really just unacceptable.  I noticed the poor camerawork in the live play through, but when I watched the replay, it became clear that the camera crew lacked the skill, the experience, and/or the equipment to effectively capture an ultimate game on video.

To begin with, the camera was almost always focused on the thrower/mark.  That is fine, but the angle was too tight to include the cutters into the frame.  You didn’t get to see hardly any of the downfield cuts that led up to the throw.  This also meant that every time a disc was thrown down field, the camera had to chase the disc to the action.  As a result, the camera often got lost heading to where it was going.  The shot ended up zoomed in on grass in the middle of the field or showing the empty end zone 10 yards to the right of the back cone where “something” happened.  Even if the camera did ultimately point in the right direction, it captured the remnants of the action which the camera had just missed as often as it actually captured the action.

I can’t tell you how many times I missed something: a layout, a goal, a key drop, a great cut, or some other play.  I think there were two cameras, but I’m not sure.  If there were, they were both filming from roughly the same spot and used the same chasing style.

One of my close friends started filming games last year, while coming to watch her husband play.  She used this chasing style out of necessity.  She had never filmed anything before.  She was using a Sony Handycam, and she lacked bleachers or any other means of getting a better angle of the action.  Despite all this, she still missed less action than they did.

High quality productions of ultimate solve the camera chasing issue primarily by not doing it.  They typically use a wider angle (as is done in soccer) and then zoom in on the action.  This makes sure the audience doesn’t miss anything, while allowing tight shots of really great plays.  UltiVillage used an end zone perspective for some of their ETP games, which provided a different angle, but they still used a wide shot for most of the action.  Sometimes another camera is used to offer a different perspective or to get close-up action shots.  The NexGen tour did a particularly good job of this, and it allowed for some really spectacular replays.

It is clear goliveultimate dropped this disc on this one.  There is film out there that they could have studied in order to produce a quality product.  They must have chosen to not bother.  All it takes is a little research, a little experience, a little knowledge of the sport, and/or a little planning to make the live broadcast of ultimate work visually.  I could be nice and just blame the rain.  To be sure, players blame wind and rain for dropping the disc all the time.  The rain may have caused other production problems like the feed, but the lack of professionalism displayed in the first broadcast had nothing to do with rain or wind.

It was bad enough that it makes me not want to pay for games exclusively because I don’t want to support a broadcast company that thinks this level of work is acceptable, and I question a professional league that would hire them.  Still, I have to place most of the blame at the hands of goliveultimate based on my observations.  Goliveultimate pretty much accepted a check to film an event when they didn’t know how to do it.  They didn’t look at how other professional quality productions were filmed in the past.  Then, they showed up and slapped “that’ll do” onto a production which is announcing the AUDL to the world.  It is just plain unacceptable.

If I were Josh Moore, I’d be livid.  I’d be limping around like Brodie with my ankle taped up, because I’d just broke my foot off in goliveulitmate’s ass.  I’d be furious that a wounded and soaring Smith sky’d into ESPN’s Top 10 via footage that wasn’t taken by a goliveultimate camera, or if I’m somehow wrong and it was a golive camera, I’d still be furious that clip didn’t ever make it into the live feed or the replay.  I’d be trying to make sure that my biggest revenue stream and cyclical profit generator, live streaming, looked amazing for this weekend, or I’d be finding someone who can deliver that kind of production.  This league, these players, and all the fans deserve better.

Like many fans, I’m willing to weather this storm, especially since the AUDL is so new.  I’ll be watching to see if things improve, but if things don’t improve I can’t guarantee how much longer…

What Worked and What Needed Work: The AUDL Week 1

I spent the last few days writing about the AUDL.  After opening day, I wanted to provide you with my first impression.  Please note that I was only able to watch one game, so my perspective is limited.  I watched the Columbus Cranes play the Indianapolis Alley Cats.  I’ll probably be watching the second game later this week, as it just recently became available to order.

Overall, I was very happy with what I saw on opening day.  The league met most of my expectations, and it even managed to exceed a few.  I think this season is going to be a lot of fun to watch.  That doesn’t mean there weren’t some big areas for improvement, and to be fair, my expectations were low for some things.  When I consider all the good and the bad though, it was a good day for professional ultimate.

There are really two general areas I considered in coming to this conclusion: the actual game itself and the other non-game related factors like the support crew, technology, etcetera.

The game itself was really interesting.  The overall experience felt more fluid and moved at a little faster pace than USA Ultimate events.  I think the officials can take a lot of credit for that.  There were a couple times when calls took a minute to make, but those pauses were few.  Interestingly, these glitches felt like an interruption.  That may sound like a bad thing, but I don’t think it was.

What I’m really trying to say is that aside from a couple hiccups, the game really seemed to flow, even through calls, and it made the whole spectator experience much more enjoyable.  That made the rare times the officials affected the game’s pacing noticeable.

As the officials get better and keep the game constantly moving, I suspect the AUDL games will be more fun for spectators to watch than USA Ultimate games, and I love watching USA Ultimate games.  I have watched literally hundreds of USA Ultimate games.  It is simply that the AUDL game doesn’t bog down for every single call, which makes the spectator experience more enjoyable.

I was pretty happy to note that the players also did a pretty solid job.  I won’t pretend the players are all the best the U.S. has to offer.  I don’t need that though.  Sure, the game wasn’t as clean and controlled as a top tier club game.  The players made some poor throwing decisions, dropped a number of discs, and sometimes fell out of rhythm.  Still, there was a lot of really good ultimate on the field.  The game was packed full of gutsy layouts, aggressive throws, and big air.  The game actually had a lot of similarities in my mind to the Nexgen vs. Revolver game that I attended last fall, which is pretty high praise if you are familiar with those teams.  The bottom line for me is that it was still very entertaining, even if it wasn’t polished.

The rules also didn’t really seem to have a negative effect on the game.  I wrote an earlier post about the rules and concluded that players would still be playing basically the same game of ultimate under AUDL rules as they were under USA Ultimate rules.  For the most part, I think this was true.  The only big difference I saw was that play was more aggressive on defense, as players were less likely to get whistled for every minor infraction.  All in all, I was really pleased with the game.

Things off the field were a different story.  I streamed the game.  I’m glad I did, and I’ll do it again.  Still, the production quality and overall technical feel of the game was pretty poor.  The stream for instance was initially very choppy and often cut out.  The game took place in the wind and rain.  I’m sure that had an effect on the production, and the quality got better as the game went on.  The stream was still considerably less fluid than the play on the field and my experience suffered for it.

I tried to go back and watch some of the game, since I missed portions due to the inconsistent feed, and I discovered another problem; viewers are only licensed one view of a game.  Paying for a live stream or even a replay shouldn’t grant you permanent access to the game, but I figured I’d at least be able to go back and view it for a little while.

At a $10 price point per game, especially in today’s world of DVRs, TiVo, and Youtube, it is a little hard to justify paying to watch the season without being able to replay the broadcast.  What kills me is that the decision to limit views isn’t even logical.  Right now, the best thing for the AUDL is more people watching and re-watching the games.  The league needs exposure.  They need early adopters to evangelize the AUDL.  It is hard to do that when product access is restricted.  After all, it’s not like ESPN is going to be replaying highlights for people that want to see them.

There was an interesting turn of events.  Due to problems with the first stream, live watchers were sent an email giving them the opportunity to watch the game again.  I’m glad they made the effort, but you are usually still limited to just one viewing.  I hope the AUDL strongly reconsiders this decision.

Limiting fans’ access to the games they paid to watch just doesn’t make sense to me.  Personally, I’m not sure why they didn’t follow the Nexgen Network’s model and provide access for a number of days after the event.  If online piracy is a concern, the AUDL should know that if people want to pirate stuff, they are going to find a way.  Why punish the people who are actually paying streamers, but I digress….

On top of my issues with the stream, the picture quality was also rather poor.  Somehow, this got better as the game went on.  I’m not sure how or why.  Again, it was raining and the email I received assured me the replay would be better quality, so I’ll let you know.  As of right now, the live video never looked as crisp or clear as productions produced by Nexgen or UltiVillage.  Still, the video was good enough to show most of the action, and I didn’t grow up on HD.  As a result, I was pretty happy.

I feel like I’ve been piling on the negative here for a little bit, so I want to hit on one of the biggest positives of the game from a production standpoint.  The solo announcer for the game was outstanding.  Providing commentary for a whole game alone is tough.  He was really good.  His coverage was actually some of the best live ultimate commentary I’ve heard, and he did it by himself.  When I re-watch the game, I will give you his name, so he can get the props he rightfully deserves.  He did make a couple small errors, and laid on the praises of Brodie Smith a little too thick.  Despite that, it was top notch live coverage.  Kudos!

Unfortunately, the camera crew found a way to be as bad as the announcer was good.  I’m actually looking forward to watching the game again with no stuttering and better quality, but even if the quality is superb the replay likely won’t be.  As far as I could tell, the camera crew didn’t really have much experience filming ultimate games or other things with motion, or maybe they had an off night or are allergic to rain or something.

The zoom was often too tight.  I like a close look at players but only if I can see what is happening.  I routinely missed out on cutting action or only caught the aftermath of a bid because the camera was busy panning to catch up.  Worse still, a few throws to the end zone were missed because the camera didn’t react to the disc.

All of this could have been avoided by using a wider zoom.  Sure, you wouldn’t get great close-ups, but the possibility of close ups only adds production value if you capture all the action.  In this particular game, they didn’t even get a lot of good close up action anyway, so the whole effort was wasted.  My hope is that for future games, the camera crew watches some other game recordings and learns a better way to portray the action.  It astonishes me that there wasn’t more polish in the production.

Wow!   I just looked back over this article, and it is really long and sometimes pretty negative.  I guess it just shows how excited I was for this league to get started.  Obviously, I was frustrated by a lot of technical issues.  In fact, there were even a couple rants that I cut because they got really off topic.  The truth is that the AUDL as a product on opening day was not polished. It was rough.  There were issues, and the whole production felt strapped together at the last minute.

None of that matters for me though.  I didn’t really expect those things to be great initially.  The experience was enjoyable where it mattered.  The game looked like ultimate, and it felt like ultimate.  As a spectator, it possibly even looked and felt better than USA Ultimate offerings.  The action was really entertaining as was the pace.  The implementation of officials kept the game fluid in a way that never happens at high level USA Ultimate events.  The players were impressive even if they weren’t the best I’ve ever seen.  I’m already starting to root for certain standout players.

Most importantly, all of the things I complained about can all easily be improved upon and made better.  The AUDL has a fantastic product – the game of ultimate.  They just have to find a better way to deliver that product to the fans and enhance the spectator experience.  Once that has happened and the AUDL is polished, it really has the potential to shine.

That is what I think, but I want to hear what you think too.  If you saw the games, reply with a comment or send me a message.  Am I being too optimistic or is anyone else amped after week 1?

 

Off topic – It would also be really cool to hear from people that attended the two games that were not broadcast.  Let me know what you thought of those games.  After all, I got to see a game that went to double overtime/universe point.  I’d love to know if the other games were entertaining without the added drama and tension I got to witness.

 

Will the Community Fight for Professional Ultimate?

Despite the inaugural pull being less than 24 hours away, the start of AUDL has been a softly spoken secret.  If you are a big fan of ultimate, finding out information about professional ultimate is certainly possible if inconvenient. It worries me because so few people know about the league.  The season hasn’t exactly been, well, marketed…at all.  I even have friends who play ultimate and hadn’t heard about the league.  To stay afloat then, the AUDL is initially going to be relying on the wallets and interest of the ultimate community.  Certainly, the big fans of ultimate have to get on board for the league to succeed.

The problem is that ultimate fans can’t even decide what to make of the AUDL.  They are generally conflicted.  The AUDL has made a number of changes to the rules, and a lot of the best players in the country/world won’t be competing in the AUDL.  Plus, USA Ultimate already offers a competitive platform for the sport. On the surface, it is hard to see the point of another league.

As a result, ultimate players/fans are having trouble getting behind the AUDL.  Some even feel angry or slighted by decisions the AUDL’s has made like adding officials or changing the field. The community’s dissatisfaction and ambivalence may be the AUDL’s death knell.  If the ultimate faithful don’t get on board, who exactly will sit in the seats?  Who will provide value to potential advertisers?  The game hasn’t been marketed to anyone else.

Daniel Lametti has an interesting article about the AUDL over at Slate, and I highly recommend the read.  The article asks the basic question; is America ready for professional Ultimate Frisbee?  I don’t think that question gets to the root of the problem though.  The AUDL hasn’t been pitched to America.  It is too small of a startup for national advertising.  As an initial offering, they are relying on the ultimate faithful, those of us who regularly keep track of what is going on with the sport.

The ultimate community has a choice to make it seems.  There are certainly enough people involved in the sport here in the U.S. to support a professional league with estimates of over 4.7 million players who have tried ultimate.  People that play ultimate as a demographic are also typically more educated and affluent than many other demographics, so we have the money.  Do we want professional ultimate though?

When I played in college, I frequently talked with my teammates about the future when ultimate would be a professionally recognized sport.  Even back then, it was on our minds.  Obviously, we wanted to watch the sport we loved.  We wanted to root for our favorite teams, follow our favorite players, and track their stats.  More than that though, we wanted legitimacy for ultimate, the sport we loved.

After all, Mr. Lametti’s article isn’t wrong.  People outside the ultimate community don’t really take our sport seriously.  It’s true that articles written about ultimate almost always lead in by detailing the rules and creating assurances that the game is more than a bunch of hippies hanging out. It gets under my skin.   Reading stuff like that sucks.  It means the author thinks the readers need that information!  Sadly, those authors are probably right.

Ultimate players pour their hearts and souls into the game.  We play despite people’s perceptions about ultimate because we recognize how amazing it is as a sport.  You’d think we could have moved past irrelevance and mass ignorance by now.  Anyone who has seen the USA Ultimate (previously the UPA) collegiate or club championships in the last decade wouldn’t question for a second the level of skill and athleticism needed to play.  They wouldn’t need to associate hippies with the activity to define it.  People outside the sport don’t get to see those games though.

The problem is systemic.  Americans, as a larger collective, don’t really recognize or pay much attention to a sport unless you can get paid to play.  The mindset seems to be that only professional sports are “real sports”.  Even then, sports get disrespected, but at least they get disrespected as sports.  Ice Hokey doesn’t get as much respect in America as football, but no one thinks Ice Hockey is just a thing you do in between passing a bowl.  In terms of recognition and legitimacy, one highlight on ESPN’s Top Ten has done more for ultimate than more than a decade of high-level competitive play.  It was an amazing play.

Sadly, one play just isn’t enough to change a cultural perception.  On the eve of the AUDL’s opening pull, I should be ecstatic.  I’ve waited for this moment for over 10 years.  I’m not excited or pumped though.  I’m nervous.  Professional Frisbee’s fate now rests in the hands of the people that live and breathe the sport.  We’ve grown up with the UPA/USA Ultimate rules, and many aren’t happy with what the AUDL done to the rules.  There are other choices the AUDL has made like picking franchise locations far from ultimate hotbeds where many of the best players reside, which has upset many people including myself.

Despite those choices, I can only hope the ultimate community is able find a way to support the AUDL.  Ultimate has given us all so much.  It deserves a legacy beyond hippies and border collies.  It deserves legitimacy as a sport.  We too, as a community, deserve that legitimacy, and we now have the power to seize it.  I don’t want another decade to pass by while college players are forced to define ultimate for the people who ask in the framework of other “legitimate” sports, while thrashing their bodies day after day playing one of the most physically demanding sports around.  I want ultimate to be recognized as a legitimate sport for what it is.

The players that step onto the field on this Saturday are fighting for that goal.  Love him or hate him, Brodie Smith gets that this league is about more than personal fame or making money.  It is about giving back to the legacy of a sport that has given so much.  The AUDL is certainly not perfect, but supporting professional ultimate is bigger than officials and stall counts.  The question isn’t whether or not America is ready for professional ultimate.  The question is; will the Ultimate Community Fight for Professional Ultimate?

I know I will.

AUDL Rules: Changes that Hopefully Don’t Change the Game

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.

Big Changes

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.

Small Changes

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.

*tangent alert*

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.

In good company

It is really cool and crazy to realize that even some of the “big names” in ultimate didn’t really have much experience with the sport until college.  I get the feeling that my high school experiences with the sport were more universal than I thought.

Paved by Pagan Plastic: The Penultimate Ultimate Path

Each game as I step onto the field, a war rages within me – the battle between what once was and what is.  The disc flies high.  Ancient demons lure me, promising unmitigated glory.  Their siren’s song beckons.  It takes all I have to resist.  The thrower’s eyes meet mine.  The disc spins.  I chase the wind….

At least, that is how I imagine the omniscient line would be delivered in some Hollywood by some star like: Keanu Reeves, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, or more likely Buddy.  Fortunately, I don’t think I have to worry about my story popping up on the silver screen, even showcasing a golden retriever.  I’m just a guy who loves ultimate.  The best I can strive for is to tell my story in black and white.

I grew up in Northwest Indiana.  In my hometown, ultimate was just another adjective.  All disc sports were encapsulated under the moniker Frisbee©, and most people assumed a dog was a necessary requirement for play.  Luckily, I ran cross country on a team with connections to distant lands.  Alumni runners returned from exotic locations of higher learning such as Greencastle, West Lafayette and Bloomington spinning captivating tales of glory, chivalry, and athleticism all distilled into one word, “ultimate”.  The name alone piqued our interest.  Eventually, we acquired a secondhand disc, and I got my first taste of this mysterious foreign delicacy.  I was hooked immediately.

If you’ve been to Northern Indiana, it should not surprise you that introduction of a round plastic disc to the location was a fascinating alteration to our ecosystem.  The disc had the immediate distinction of being more interesting than corn and grass.  Watching it hover and glide through the air was even more spellbinding than the sight of a sleeping cow knocked from a standing position onto its side.  The disc was indeed so wondrous that in years to come it became a talisman of sorts for our team.

This was lucky for us.  You see, runners desperately need a talisman.  In the realm of sports, most competitors can rally behind the silhouette of a ball, a racquet, or other piece of equipment.  Runners don’t have equipment.  They just have shoes.  Everyone wears shoes.  Not surprisingly, footwear made a poor symbol for our teenage identity.

The disc on the other hand was a round hovering emblem of grace and power.  We became so attached to our totem that it began to consume and reshape us in its image.  To be sure, we were still distance runners at our core, but were warped and twisted.  Often, long scheduled runs would transform into treks to remote field locations where we could practice our dark art of disc.  Divining into the disc’s curving depth, we conjured endlessly; summoning scenes that rivaled the grand stories handed down by our forerunners.

I was an early and avid convert of Disc.  Ultimate allowed me to take advantage of my athleticism and mentality in a way distance running could not.  I was never more than a fair distance runner at the best of times.  My twitchy energy, nervous stomach, and finicky joints manifested themselves in mediocre race day performances.

Ultimate felt tranquil in comparison.  There was no gun blasting a start and no tedious tracking of splits and places.  Disc allowed me to center my attention and lose myself in the flow of the sport.  I wasn’t driven by an invisible internalized clock.  When the disc was in the air, my head wasn’t occupied counting numbers.  I could lose myself in the simple joy of chasing plastic.

Unfortunately, my teammates and I existed on our own island.  The governing body of the UPA did not have sovereignty over rural Indiana.  Our ultimate only existed in the arms, legs, hearts, and minds of a small group of young men.  Lacking an authority to consult about rules, we filled in the gaps as best we could.  In truth, the acts in which we engaged could scarcely be called ultimate.

It was wild, uncivilized, and pagan.  Our sessions were brutal and lacked nuance.  Impact in the air was common and encouraged.  There were no fouls or picks.  We also allowed the thrower to move laterally along the field (None of us had a useful forehand and, being unaware of the rules for pivoting, our apocrypha allowed the thrower to get around a mark).  Since throwers could easily move and huck downfield, this rule in particular was responsible for spectacular and bone shattering midair jousting battles.  We typically played on an enormous field, and we were completely unaware of the concept of subbing, as we did not even know how many players were supposed to be on a side.

This was my introduction to Ultimate.  Glory and violence proved more important than possession or precision.  Few Ultimate players would ever participate in this sort of game (and I wouldn’t encourage it), but I am grateful to have learned in this environment.  The simplicity of our game kept me engaged, the brutality kept me always poised, and the emphasis on the spectacular plays honed valuable skills like sure hands, aggressive defense, and powerful throws.

In the years to come, I was taught most things I learned about Ultimate before college were very wrong.  I’d discover the sacred rules and struggle to bring my existing practices in line with dogma.  I developed new throws, avoided contact, and always set my pivot foot.  I committed to the “spirit of the game”.  There was still glory to be had, but it was muted and culled.  Savagery gave way to civility.

Eventually, I made pilgrimage to my hometown bringing the sanctified texts and precepts back to a people in need of order.  A few other missionaries from the old days of distance running were preaching the word as well.  There were many converts in those years, and the new religion spread like wildfire in drought.  True Ultimate began to shine in my hometown.

Today, there is a small group there that communes regularly.  The disc shines high above their game, a beacon of glowing white that confirms they follow the true path.  It is easy to recognize that these people have been redeemed.  Yet, I know keenly what price paid in that conversion.  Our pagan rights were flawed and barbaric, but part of me can’t help but be saddened by what is lost.  I have been playing ultimate now for over 15 year, but the games I first played will always hold a special place in my heart.  Pagan plastic will always be a part of me.