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.

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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. 

 

 

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? 

 

  

 

AUDL Streaming for Week 2: Better but Still Needs Improvement

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Alright.  I finally got to check out the Alley Cats stream from last weekend.  I want to give credit to the production team.  They added a few features that made the overall quality a bit better.  First, they actually had a camera with a second perspective on the field.  They didn’t get many shots of value from that perspective, but I’ll give them some credit for the effort.  They also added more consistent replay.  This was a nice feature, and goliveultimate really did a pretty good job with adding this feature.

Unfortunately, those were the only marked improvements in the production.  All the other issues I raised about the poor production quality remained unchanged.  Most notably, the cameraman still seemed obsessed with the handlers, which made it next to impossible to see the cutting motion downfield.  It is really a shame. 

They also added a goliveultimate logo and an advertisement onto the screen.  The graphics were just pretty much slapped on the screen.  In fact, the score ticker was partially covering the advertisement for the majority of the game.  

Thinking about a person either that bad at their job or that lazy to allow overlapping graphics on the screen for the whole game would have made me really sad, if the whole thing wasn’t so hilariously ironic.  I know the AUDL is struggling for sponsors, so you’d think special care would be taken to highlight and reward  sponsors, especially one willing to pay for the placement Ray Skillman got.  Instead, the sponsor logo was in low resolution compared to the other graphics (though it was still higher resolution than the game), and it was covered by the score ticker. 

Then again, maybe it is a new marketing technique to get people to pay attention to the sponsor by making the audience feel bad for them.  I actually do, so here is a link to Ray Skillman’s site.  I just wish they had a button that said, “I came here because of the AUDL streaming ad.”  That may be the best way to show the sponsor value in advertising.  Goliveultimate surely did not.

There are still many weeks left in the season though, and the production value of week two was marginally better than the previous week.  There are at least some steps in the right direction.  I’m skeptical, but encouraged. 

I’d like to take this opportunity to also apologize to the readers out there.  I haven’t had as much time as I’d like, so I’ve been limited to watching one of the two steams a week.  I chose the Alley Cats games because I lived in Indy up till April of last year, and I know a couple of the players, a couple of the coaches, and apparently nearly all the officials.

 I don’t plan on spending too much time talking about production moving forward, as I’d really like to start talking more about the players; the way the game feels compared to USA Ultimate, and the various strategies being used.  Until then though, leave a comment or two and let me know what you think of the AUDL so far.  You can talk about you experiences with the production or really discuss anything.  It would even be cool to hear what people have to say about the sales on live games from week 3. 

Places to Discuss Ultimate?

I’m planning on offering some more AUDL focused content as soon as I can view the games from this weekend.   My real ultimate commitments kept me from watching the games live, as I was playing on both Saturday and Sunday during gametime.  I’m trying to play club mixed this season, and my largely broken and battered body is resisting, so I’ve got a lot of weekend training and practice that I need.

Since I haven’t been able to catch the games and write, I have been spending a lot of time traversing the web in search of intelligent discussion about ultimate.  I have found a few isolated articles that are solid (and I’m considering reblogging a few).  There are also a couple really neat blogs, but I haven’t found many spaces that attract more than a few active members. 

I thought I might turn here for advice or suggestions.  Has anyone found a great place to discuss ultimate on the web?  Is there a secret handshake I need to learn first?  Will cookies be served at the meetings?  Since I’m already throwing a shout out to anyone who might be reading this, please feel free to request specific topics you’d like me to write about.  If the topic seems cool, I’ll try to tackle it.    

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…