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.

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. 

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.