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.