In late October, just days before the North American Club Championships, USA Ultimate announced the Triple Crown Tour, its overhaul of the club structure. The TCT makes a lot of changes, but, at its core, it creates tiers of play so that teams with relatively even skill levels will play each other more often during the regular season. That season is much more structured for teams in the highest tiers, who are required to play in specific tournaments around the country. There are also predetermined “crossover” tournaments between tiers that allow teams to play up (and down) to get a more accurate final season ranking.
After the Club Championships, teams began to fully digest the new structure. In a live chat with Ultiworld, USA Ultimate revealed a critical piece of information: teams in the top two tiers are required to play in the TCT regular season to be eligible for the Series (the postseason). Before this point, any team was able to play in the Series regardless of what they did during the rest of the year. As an example, last year, the Toronto/Ottawa Capitals skipped the regular season due to the expense (they had recently traveled to Worlds in Japan) and then earned a bid to Nationals upon entering the Series.
No more. This was explosive news, and many were not happy about the change. Teams started to weigh in on the TCT. Teams that finished just outside of the top two tiers were generally unhappy about their lack of opportunity against top teams. Top teams, while happy about parts of the plan, were concerned about the increased cost.
Kevin Minderhout, the founder of NexGen, wasn’t excited about it either. NexGen, a video service that records elite ultimate games for purchase as a livestream or download, had worked extensively with USA Ultimate in the past two years, offering coverage for ultimate fans of some of their top events, the College and Club Championships.
Whether this new model was threatening to NexGen’s business model (as USAU has been outspoken about their plan to involve a national broadcaster as a way to showcase and spread the sport) or just unappealing to Minderhout, he got to work on developing an alternative plan for the elite men’s teams (the vast majority of the top two tiers of the Triple Crown Tour).
On November 30th, he sent an email to 18 teams with a proposal for a new quasi-professional club league.
“Many of you have a decision to make next season about whether you will participate in the Triple Crown, play “pro” ultimate or possibly both,” Minderhout wrote in his proposal. “I’d like to introduce a third option that I believe does a better job of making you the players and us the fans the biggest winners while at the same time addressing some of the inherent problems that arise out of profit and sponsor‐driven models for elite competition.
“This proposal comes out of my dissatisfaction with the [Triple Crown Tour] and “pro” models and my belief that ultimate does not need to nor should strive to imitate today’s model of professional sport. We need true innovation that upholds the values of the community, meets the needs of players, meets the needs of fans and allows ultimate to evolve and grow without finding itself beholden to sponsors or profit as its driving motive.”
The league would essentially restructure elite men’s ultimate to focus on smaller tournaments closer to teams (as opposed to the cross-country travel required in the Triple Crown Tour), showcase night games with paid admission for fans, and an ownership stake in the league for the teams that, if the league were successful, could someday significantly reduce costs to players. (As an aside, here is a look at the current cost per player for San Francisco’s Revolver for a season playing under USA Ultimate).
The league is a direct competitor with the Triple Crown Tour, as both operate during the same time of year. It is clear that teams would not (and could not) commit to both. However, players could feasibly play in one of the “pro” leagues — the American Ultimate Disc League or Major League Ultimate — while still playing in the NexGen league or the TCT later in the year.
In a subsequent interview (transcribed version here) with Ultiworld, Minderhout talked at length about his vision. We spoke to him from his cross-country road trip that he embarked on to meet with each of the 18 teams in his plan. He said that he would need unanimous support from teams to consider moving forward.
In late December, USA Ultimate made their first public statements about the league in an interview with Ultiworld. In an email to the 18 teams, they warned that the NexGen league would have a “major negative impact” on the sport. USAU officials told us that the league is “incredibly risky” and has no interest in partnering with NexGen.
The idea of a partnership between the two entities was first floated by Lou Burruss, an influential pundit. On his blog, he fleshed out the idea over the course of a week; others provided some context for the advantages of such a partnership. This week, an unscientific poll showed that most Ultiworld readers want to see a partnership as well.
Minderhout has been very open to the idea of such a partnership. But he wonders about USAU’s goals. “The question for me is: does USAU want control over the elite ultimate division, or do they want to increase visibility for the sport?” he explained in an interview with Ultiworld. “I don’t think it’s a partnership if it’s about controlling the elite open division.”
Minderhout initially set a deadline for teams to sign a “letter of intent” for his league by January 1st. He later extended that until January 7th to give teams more time to decide. That letter is merely an indicator of interest from teams, saying that they like the NexGen league idea. It is non-binding and largely has no meaning beside a symbolic one.
However, the news earlier this week that all 18 teams had signed the letter of intent was still an important first milestone. Teams are signaling that they are unhappy with the TCT and are at least considering leaving USA Ultimate to play in the NexGen league.
This news came in advance of a scheduled meeting between USAU officials and representatives from some of the top teams, including Austin Doublewide’s Kurt Gibson. There are rumors that a player from Boston’s Ironside, Raleigh’s Ring of Fire, and Revolver will also be involved in the discussion. Those four teams were this year’s semifinalists at the Club Championships.
Teams, to this point, have been publicly silent about their intentions. Many see the signed letter as a strategic move to gain leverage over USAU in the discussions, enabling the teams to more easily press for desired changes. USA Ultimate also holds some cards, however, as they determine the process for allocating bids to the World Club Championships, a prestigious opportunity for top teams.
We are unlikely to hear anything from teams until after the meeting between the player representatives and Boulder officials. We have repeatedly reached out to USA Ultimate for more information about the meeting, but they have not responded to requests for comment.
In the meantime, Minderhout says he will continue to plan for the possibility that USAU will not be interested in a partnership.
For a comparison of NexGen, the TCT, the AUDL, and the MLU, check out this infographic.