Much of the aftermath of USA Ultimate’s announcement of the Triple Crown Tour focused on the Men’s division and whether those teams and players would stay within USAU’s system or join NexGen’s proposed league. But the new format and, particularly, USAU’s stated focus on marketing the sport stand to alter the women’s division just as much.
Following the announcement of the format, a group of women’s players from a wide range of club teams organized to discuss and express its concerns to USAU regarding the impact to the division, describe the desires and goals of the Women’s division as a whole, and figure out going forward how the new format and potential broadcasting deals will impact the division.
“I think many women felt like there wasn’t a voice for the women’s division as a whole” in the creation of the TCT format, said North Carolina Phoenix’s Lindsey Hack.
Of particular concern to the Women’s players is the impact on the gender equity policy.1
The gender equity policy essentially requires USAU to cover and promote all divisions equally — offering equal numbers of photos and articles in the quarterly magazine, for instance. It also allocates funds to programs to increase participation in the women’s division, until growth and participation reaches that of the men’s division.
It was introduced in 2008 by Peri Kurshan, then a board member. She was also a longtime player for Boston’s Brute Squad who most recently coached San Francisco’s Nightlock.
Before the policy was put into place, Kurshan said the women’s division wasn’t growing at nearly the same rate as the open division. “The magazine had very few pictures of women and there weren’t a lot of programs in place for things like women’s clinics,” she said.
Since the policy, she explained, “there’s been a lot more parity and equity in terms of how the women’s division is portrayed in the magazine and on the website and in streaming video, and I think that’s made a big difference in encouraging women and girls.”
Following the announcement of the TCT, many women were wary of USAU’s emphasis on promotion and marketing of the sport, and potential loopholes that could allow the gender equity policy to be overlooked.
“At the time we were forming, we heard that the board was going to be discussing the policy at the annual board meeting,” said Kate Leslie, who most recently coached Atlanta’s Ozone. Prior to the board’s annual meeting, the group of women submitted a policy statement to the board in support of the gender equity policy.
In drafting the policy statement, Leslie spoke with a Title IX expert, who told her that the current USAU gender equity policy is “probably the most protective policy around gender in any sport,” and that most professional sports have no protections at all. She encouraged Leslie and the group to not cede their rights or give leeway to the board to alter the current policy.
Following its annual meeting, the USAU board did reaffirm its intention to uphold gender equity, which Kurshan thinks “strengthens their commitment to the policy.” USAU CEO Tom Crawford told Ultiworld in January that the organization is “fully committed to the gender equity policy 150%.”
However, the board also made clear that if a television broadcast deal was struck, the media company would not be beholden to the policy. While the board would encourage said partner to cover all divisions, the choice would be at the production company’s discretion.
“That’s all very vague to me,” said Hack, noting that it seems to “leave a lot of loopholes.”
Ensuring those loopholes don’t get taken advantage of will require vigilance, said Kurshan.
“Once the promotion of one division over another starts to impact not only the promotional material, but the playing experience, that’s a line I wouldn’t want to cross,” she said.
The concern is that if ESPN, in their new multiyear deal with USA Ultimate, features the Men’s division more than the Women’s division, it will impact more than just TV time. The teams being televised will be playing on the best fields, at the best times, relegating the Women’s teams to suboptimal playing fields and schedules.
“That’s definitely one of the concerns,” Kurshan said, “and it’s been voiced to the USAU as one of the reasons that, even if we would be okay with less promotion by an outside organization, it can be a slippery slope toward being treated like a second class citizen.”
However, she said, under the gender equity policy, it would fall on the USAU to ensure that promotion of the sport by outside organizations did not end up impacting players’ experience of the sport.
Another issue is how unequal coverage of the divisions could impact the growth of those divisions. The USAU argues that the promotion of Men’s ultimate will benefit all divisions — more visibility to attract future players, more money to support growth and development opportunities, for instance — but another argument can be made that unequal coverage of the divisions now will lead to further disparities in the future.
“If we just accept some extra money and support to build up youth and college women’s ultimate now — by the time [those youth] get into club women’s, they will have a bigger uphill battle to get equal or similar footing as the open division,” said New York Bent’s Cara Brown. “Focusing on building women’s, girls, and college women’s ultimate should always be a focus, rather than just our take from the broadcasting deal for [Men's].”
“It’s important to showcase the sport if you want to get girls to play and continue playing the sport,” said Leslie.
And, who’s to say that women’s ultimate doesn’t deserve equal broadcast time? “I feel like there is a market for high-level women’s frisbee,” said Leslie, citing the women’s national soccer team as an example of a women’s sport that appealed to men and women both and of all ages. “Women’s frisbee has worlds champions, too, that win world tournaments, and that definitely has appeal.”
Going forward, Brown said it would be important for women players to be loud and vocal about what they want, and for the USAU board to remember that its responsibility is to be an advocate for all divisions, not just Men’s.
“In general, I think the fact that USAU had to actually take another stand on the issue is a positive step,” added Brown. “It’s easy to forget about a policy if there is never any continued discussion about or review of the policy.”
The group of women ultimate players continues to discuss among themselves and with the USAU about their role going forward, said Leslie, and how they can continue working with the organization to ensure that as the sport advances, the desires of all its players are met.