After managing and leading the Indianapolis Alleycats to the inaugural Championship of the American Ultimate Disc League, Indy’s President and Co-Owner Thom Held is strongly considering leaving the organization, he told Ultiworld over the weekend.
When asked directly if he wouldn’t be back next year, he said, “It’s looking that way…I’m leaning on being out.”
Held’s reluctance to come back is multifaceted. The organization, like most — if not all — in the league, lost money last year. Facing a second year with eight new teams and “double [the] travel expenses” doesn’t bode well for a second year in the black. But he truly believes that the sport can “draw large crowds” and be profitable.
His disenchantment is more with the leadership of the league. “I don’t want to make it me against [AUDL Vice President of Marketing] Brent Steepe or me against [AUDL President] Josh [Moore],” said Held, “but respectfully I don’t think they’re even close to figuring this out…Who the hell is going to sponsor that league? I mean, they’re suing their own teams.”
He also believes the front office isn’t interested in helping him or the other owners succeed. “They seem to me to be just using people until they can get people more qualified financially to come on board, leaving the owners who built it with a pile of bills,” he said. “The other concern is not being a chump in life. If I’m just being used, it doesn’t make much sense to continue on.”
However, the Alleycats franchise will almost certainly be back next year. Tim Held, Thom’s brother and co-owner of the team, is committed to continuing. “I’ll find a way to play the second year, regardless,” he said. “I can’t see that not happening.”
Tim agreed with his brother that the “league isn’t under the greatest leadership” and said “it’s obvious there needs to be some change” in the structure of the AUDL, but he wants to give Moore a chance to make those changes.
Behind the scenes, however, the Held brothers are considering taking their team away from the AUDL. Thom has already expressed to the front office that he has thought about starting a rival professional league. “I feel like I have a better chance of taking ourselves, Connecticut, and Philly,” Thom said. “I think the three of us could broker more sponsorships for ourselves and stay out of the agreements with the [AUDL].”
Tim added, “We’ve both had those conversations together…Thom has excellent organizational skills, he could run the league better than it’s being run, it’s not even close…We don’t have the tools right now…But we just want to see what happens here in the next six months.”
The structure of the AUDL, which leaves owners with no profit sharing or real control over the direction of the league (which remains in Moore’s hands), seems designed to cause this tension. As Tim noted, “All the risk comes to us, not the league.” The owners are expected to build their own franchises with scant support from the front office, but they only reap the benefits of ticket sales and individual sponsorship. Any financial success for the overall league mostly benefits Moore and Steepe.
But it is clear that the Held brothers believe that professional ultimate is here to stay. Tim said that in five to ten years, “I think we’ll be on television. I think we’ll have a game of the week.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t face challenges. Both brothers have been insistent that real pro ultimate requires the sport’s best players to come on board. “You have to continue to develop a higher level of talent,” said Thom. “It’s certainly not a comment that’s denigrating the players on our team…But if you’re going to be professional ultimate, you’re going to have to be better than the club teams. And that means bringing players here.”
Bringing players in — like they did this year with Brodie Smith — is expensive; they acknowledge that. But they are looking to continue that this year — a sign of just how much belief they have in the sport’s commercial viability.
Whether that success comes in the AUDL or a new league that perhaps they start themselves isn’t important.
“The AUDL doesn’t matter,” said Tim. “I see this thing coming fast.”