On our radio show this week, we spoke with USA Ultimate CEO Tom Crawford about the Triple Crown Tour, the discussions with elite teams considering the NexGen league, and the forthcoming broadcasting announcements.
Below is the transcribed interview, lightly edited, for those who prefer to read their news.
Ultiworld: How have the discussions with the elite teams been going? And where does that stand?
Tom Crawford: Charlie, I think as you know, we sort of have an agreement with teams that we are going to keep our discussions between us and them. And we’re going to honor that agreement, we both think it’s the right way to go. I can say that the discussions have been really productive, really constructive, really enjoyable from my perspective. I love talking to these guys, they’re really smart. And they’re now really engaged, which is really helpful for us because we can work really closely together to be sure that — moving forward — we do exciting things together. I’ll just leave it at that.
They’ve been super constructive, really positive, great back and forth. We’re really excited about the future.
UW: You announced some changes after your board meeting this week to the Triple Crown Tour: notably, that one fewer tournament will be required for the Pro Flight teams and that you’ll have a new player elected board put into place to help make decisions going forward. How much of that came out of these discussions with teams? And, I’m sort of surprised, do you know why we haven’t heard any announcements from teams yet about what they’ll be doing next season?
TC: Not sure on that. But I can definitely describe the goals around athlete representation.
We’ve been working closely with WFDF – the international federation – for quite some time on helping them achieve recognition with the International Olympic Committee. And then the whole movement towards getting recognized by the Olympic world as a serious sport going forward. And so basically what we’re doing going forward is aligning ourselves with what all of the Olympic sports already have in place.
We’ve had really good athlete representation, we’re actually not worried about it right now. From the Women’s Division, we have [Seattle Riot’s] Gwen Ambler. For Men’s, we have Mike Payne, who up until a couple years ago captained and played on [San Francisco’s] Revolver. We’ve got Colin McIntyre, who plays actively in the Mixed Division, and others.
So we have plenty of athletes with good perspective on the board. What we wanted to make sure was that we got that not just by chance of an election, but actually make sure that athletes themselves have a chance to identify representatives who will sit in the room at the board meeting, and have really strong representation. And so all of our planning going forward is aligned with what the top teams and top athletes are thinking.
And that aligns us nicely with the Olympic world and it helps WFDF in their IOC application to be able to say that the biggest organization looks just like the other Olympic [National Governing Bodies], that being USA Ultimate.
UW: Interesting. It’s interesting that you say that the player representation is meant to parallel you with the Olympic world. Because I see this as paralleling the major professional sports worlds to a degree, in that for the first time we’re seeing these elite ultimate players collectively negotiating to a degree (or at least having collective representation in their discussions with you).
Do you see that as a trend that will continue into the future? As much as USA Ultimate is the players association, it’s almost like the elite teams made their own offshoot of that?
TC: I don’t think I do see it that way. We’re an amateur sport and we’re gonna be an amateur sport for quite a while, I believe. I think that AUDL and MLU may be aligning themselves more along the lines that you’re describing, but USA Ultimate is – we’re focused on everybody across the entire membership and across the entire sport.
I think what we want to make sure of is that we have some top athletes always sitting at the table. And, by the way, this goes well beyond just the board room. We’ve also set up a process where these athletes will be part of the Championship Committee. They will sit with us after every season and have a lot of input on: ‘What did you like? What did you not like? If we were gonna make a change, what change would you like to see? How would that impact the other divisions? Is that what we really think is in the best interest of the sport?’
All of those kinds of discussions will be had probably right after the season and then again before we launch into the next season, same thing. Because we have those discussions all the time, it’s just that the athletes that tend to volunteer for the Championship Committee and some of our other committees haven’t always come from these top teams. And so we want to restructure it to be sure that they are sitting at the table with us, understanding all the different variables that we are juggling, and have a strong voice and input into the future of that part of our sport.
But as far as USA Ultimate goes, we want to represent everybody and think about everybody, with a particular emphasis, right now, on youth. We want to grow youth like crazy. Many of the things that we’re doing in many of these areas is all about growth, and all about gaining credibility and visibility so that growth can accelerate a lot faster than it’s going right now.
UW: Speaking on the visibility point that you just made, I’m curious to know how the season is going to look next year now that you’ve reduced the number of tournaments from three to two for the top teams. Is the US Open still a priority? And how will affect any kind of TV deal if you now have one fewer top tournament?
TC: So it’s not going to affect it at all. Our plan has always been with the Triple Crown Tour to cover it and get exposure through a blended broadcast system. So it’s not just going to be nationally broadcast with a TV partner, but rather a blended approach where there’s streaming and national broadcast so we get as much exposure as we possibly can, with an emphasis on the US Open and the National Championship. That’s where we see a national broadcast being really effective at getting a ton of exposure and visibility. Really helpful for us building credibility as a national sport that’s taken seriously within the sports landscape. But blending that and complementing that with – we hope – streaming of everything else, including some streaming from the US Open and some streaming from the National Championship.
So we’ve always envisioned a blended approach to try to give all of our members as much as we possibly can but also gain national exposure for the sport with people that otherwise would not be tuning in.
UW: So far the only people we’ve seen streaming games has been NexGen. Obviously there is now a situation where perhaps there is some animosity between Boulder and NexGen. Would you consider using NexGen in the future? Will it still be bid out and considered in any way, assuming that the NexGen league will not go forward? Or do you have other broadcast partners in mind?
TC: First thing I’d say is that if there’s any animosity, it must be coming from that direction. There’s none from us. We really like NexGen. We are really excited about the work that they’ve done, how they’ve elevated the quality of the streaming.
We had very specific plans to include NexGen in everything that we were doing in 2013, and none of that has changed. There’s no animosity here. I’ll just give you my very personal opinion about that. That’s like a waste of time and does nothing for anybody.
We think what NexGen has done and we hope continues to do has been super creative, really well done, great for the community. I mean the NexGen Tour, I know when I learned about it I was like a little kid. I said, ‘That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard of.’ So there’s no animosity from here whatsoever.
Our goal going forward is to do what I just described which is this blended approach. Now, we do have plenty of interest from other people who do this very professionally for a lot of other sports. For example, we had one at the US Open that covers a ton of sports and is dying to get into the ultimate sphere. We had another group that covers some of the other elements of disc sports that has been talking to us for two years about wanting to be our livestreaming partner that does very, very high quality work. So there are lots of people out there doing it. One way or another, we’ll end up with a livestreaming element to the TCT because that’s an important part of our plan.
There’s no doubt that we’ll end up with a blended way of getting exposure and covering the Triple Crown Tour.
UW: On that same note, in the past, ultimate has been a notoriously difficult sport to capture on film and broadcast. Do you have any reservations about bringing in these not ultimate-specific companies and then start from scratch?
TC: Yes and no. They cover a wide variety of sports. It’s not like they’re just doing – pick one – and that’s all they do and they get really good at it. For example, one of the companies we’re talking to has done sailing, equestrian, boxing, and on and on. All of those have met the standards of NBC, CBS, ESPN, et cetera. These production companies, what they do is “study film” and learn about the sport. But they’re actually real pros – this is what they do all day every day. And they produce sports programming across a wide spectrum of sports, all different kinds of sports. And we look at it, they pitch us, they show us what they’ve done – it’s really high quality stuff.
So I don’t think we have any trepidation about that because the groups we’re talking to are super professional and this is what they do for a living.
UW: One of the things you mentioned in the press release that came out last week was that there may be an adjustment to the gender equity policy if outside media providers are more interested in covering one division than another. So, in this blended approach that you’re discussing, does that mean that something like a national broadcast might be focusing on the men’s division whereas the livestreaming games would focus on women’s and mixed, for example?
TC: First of all, we didn’t make any adjustments to the gender equity policy. We are fully committed to it. I think it’s one of the coolest thing about this sport, and I know the board feels the same way.
As we said, we are fully committed to the gender equity policy 150%. We think it’s been fabulous for the sport. We think that the women’s division and the girls playing the sport are an incredibly, incredibly important part of the community and add tremendous value. And we are 150% committed to the gender equity policy, I just want to be really clear about that.
When it comes to outside entities getting involved in the sport, and you asked specifically about the broadcast side, we recognize that when they are putting financial resources at risk, we can’t dictate anything to them. Because it’s no longer that USA Ultimate is just paying for everything, other people are putting financial resources at risk. And they’re gonna have very strong opinions about the sort of coverage that they want to have.
Our approach to all of these groups has been and will continue to be that we strongly encourage them to cover all the divisions, because we think it’s a good way for eveyrybody to understand all the cool elements of our sport. But they are gonna have very strong opinions and they are gonna have rights to do it they way they see fit if they’re putting some of their own resources at risk, and we have to respect that.
UW: Is the deal that you ultimately make with a national broadcaster going to include USA Ultimate paying the company to come and film the sport? Or is it more like there will be a rights agreement where you don’t pay and they come and shoot the games and try to make money on advertising?
TC: Without getting into specific contractual details, where we are as a sport – I actually had an interesting talk with Kyle [Weisbrod] about this down in Sarasota – is we’re not in a position, unfortunately, where any broadcasters are coming to us saying, ‘There’s so many people watching you guys when we put you on the air. And there’s so many advertisers that want to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to be on the air with you that we’re gonna pay you a rights fee.’
We’re not there yet – we’ve got a long way to go. Where we are – and I think this is in large part because we’ve got such a good relationship with CBS Sports – is that we’re in the mid-zone. There’s a lot of sports that get on TV by literally doing a buy. They buy the time, they pay for the production, and they buy their way onto TV. That’s where a lot of sports start. Even a lot of the other Olympic NGBs right now – that’s where they’re at in the realm of television.
Then there’s the other groups, like the National Football League and the NCAA. Where they’re getting bids – serious bids – with rights fees from the various television properties, because they can make so much money off of them.
Television is a money game. They’re in it simply to make money, and big money. And so their approach to this is always, ‘How do we make money?’
We are lucky because of our CBS relationship to be in the middle in what’s called the barter region. We do have to bear the costs that go into getting onto TV. They are not paying us rights fees. But what they do is what we call barter deals where we get commercial inventory, they share in the production costs, they take some risk. And by the way, all of these broadcast partners still see ultimate as a big risk. Because we’re an unknown sport and there’s not a lot of built-in viewership they can count on because we just don’t have the size of some of the other big sports that are out there.
So they are taking a risk on us and it’s what we call a barter deal. We bear some of the costs, they bear some of the costs. And they take the risk of putting a relatively unknown sport on a national broadcast and we see where it goes from there.
UW: Are there any plans to change the coverage of the College Championships or the College Division in any way? Or will it look a lot like it has in years past?
TC: I think it will look a lot like it has in years past. We’ve gotten a ton of really positive feedback about the way it’s covered, and people have enjoyed it.
CBS has done a great job. A quick example is when we livestream a good game, a championship game, we get a few thousand people to watch. When it was on CBS, there were 600,000 people watching. That’s pretty good exposure for the sport of ultimate and that helps in a lot of ways that people don’t think about.
I’ll give you a quick example. In the fall after that happened, we got a call from a kid at a high school incredibly excited that he’d finally convinced his athletic director to have an ultimate team at the school. And it’s because he told him that ultimate was on CBS and the athletic director said, ‘What are you kidding me?’
And the athletic director was like, ‘Wow, let’s give it a shot. I didn’t know ultimate had come that far.’ That’s just one story and an example of how the exposure not only gets people interested in the sport but it adds credibility in a way that helps our league organizers, the kids in their high school that are trying to get athletic directors to take them seriously, the college kids that are in their club sports departments saying, ‘Hey, we need help. We have one of the coolest sports on the planet and we want to get a team going here.’
It helps all of those people in addition to getting families and kids excited about what a fun and athletic sport is.
UW: Just going back to Club as the last question, when can we expect more details about the Triple Crown Tour? And do you have any idea when top teams will make their decision about what they’re doing next season?
TC: They’ll have to make that decision pretty soon just because we’ve given them deadlines to make the decisions. Just to be really clear, we are full speed ahead with the Triple Crown Tour. And we’ve made that very clear – it’s part of the reason for that announcement. We’re not planning it anymore; we’re in full execution mode.
We’ll be making announcements really soon. We’ve got great bids in for the US Open and the National Championships that are being evaluated really carefully right now. We’re gonna be making announcements about where the host cities are gonna be. There’s all kinds of execution underway. We’re full speed ahead on the Triple Crown Tour.
Any team at any time can tell us that they’re in, we don’t have any specific ways that they do that. They just call us up and say, ‘Hey, we’re in.’ But for planning reasons, because we have other teams that are actually really anxious to find out what’s going on because they want in, we have given the teams a deadline that they have to let us know by so we can start contacting the other teams that want to be part of it.
UW: What is that deadline?
TC: Will Deaver had that discussion and I’m not sure exactly what it is.
UW: OK. Thanks very much, Tom, for taking some time out of your day and speaking with us. I think this is very helpful for everybody to be able to hear. Good luck with everything in the upcoming college season and going on into the Triple Crown Tour.