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15 Ways Major League Ultimate Can Improve For Next Season

by in Analysis with 36 Comments

The logo of Major League Ultimate.Let’s all give a round of applause to Jeff Snader, Nic Darling and the rest of the Major League Ultimate team. In less than one year, they took the idea of professional ultimate that began with the American Ultimate Disc League and made a great product that was arguably more successful that the league they left, even as the AUDL gained new ownership with deeper pockets.

I wasn’t at the championship game, so I can’t speak to the in-stadium experience, but the video work was good, benefiting from the season before it. There were lots of camera angles too, which was great. And, of course, it was free to watch at home on the big screen. The injuries in the game itself were unfortunate, but handled professionally and not obviously avoidable.

So, onward and upwards, right? Lets take a look at what the MLU can improve for next year.

1. Figure out your pricing and stick with it.

The league needs to figure out what its price point will be. Year one was $16 on paper, but most people paid 20% less. If you didn’t know a player, a staff member, or were not in a league (all 20% discounts in the Vancouver market)…well, you probably weren’t there at all.

The pricing and product have to appeal to the current people playing, mainly 20 somethings that have lots more social options on any given weekend night.

The discounting, while a reasonable strategy in a limited extent, seemed a little weird, more like a retreat from the original price point rather than a real discount strategy. With proper pricing, discounts should be limited to home openers, season finales, and season tickets.

2. If you don’t have the best suitable stadiums, move. Central and convenient venues that are “good enough” seem to be a better idea than great fields that are less central.

Judging from online commentary, centrally located fields are a must. New York is an example of this, though not in a good way. An inferior central stadium is arguably more important than a great facility that is less convenient. Knowing the fan demographics is key. Where are they coming from?

Obviously, pricing and availability of the field might be deciding factors, but from a audience building perspective, more convenient is best.

3. Get the demographics of your fans if you don’t have them already.

4. Use great food options and big banners to make the in stadium experience even better and more “branded” for the MLU teams.

Work on making the food options awesome and mix of good and cheap. See the AUDL’s Madison Radicals “bacon on a stick” and french fries in a (branded) cone for examples. Corndogs with food grade logo’d stencil would be another branded option.

And make some BIG banners to make the stadium feel like an MLU stadium. Vancouver fans had to look across at a huge banner for the university football team and that detracted from the experience.

5. Schedule games when social or school tournaments are in town.

6. Almost all the marketing push should be for opening nights. The crowd on opening night seemed to set the bar for the rest of the games.

7. Take every good idea from major league sports for fan involvement and do as much as you can, especially for season ticket holders and kids. Look for a good base of season ticket holders.

Consider offering great benefits and having the best season ticket holder package in pro sports. Think about things like:

  • Play catch on the field before / after the game.
  • Limited-edition Season Ticket Holder Pin
  • Invites to exclusive events, or just heads up on planned events. Like a special practice or similar.
  • Early access to prime seating, if general seating.
  • Ability to give up tickets to one game for extra tickets to another.
  • The ability to purchase single game tickets at your discounted season ticket rate.
  • Exclusive prize draws.
  • Shirts off the backs of players.
  • Invitation to exhibition games.

8. Have cheap options for merchandise and free gifts for the kids in the audience.

Have some fun cheap stuff. A buck or two merchandise lineup: bumper stickers, seat cushions, paper sun visors, towels, cups, car flags, bandanas, headbands, anything to build the brand in a fun cheap way. Pick a half dozen items and give fans some choice for less than a hot dog. Having cheap swag options makes it easier to give away some to VIPs, groups, etc.

Handout some free gifts for kids under 10, ideally different every game. Free stuff = future fans and return visits. Temporary tattoos, small stickers with a “grass field” page to stick them on, inflatable noise bats, mini discs, etc.

9. Be the better league.

Be better than the AUDL and better than the 2013 MLU. Be transparent, be proud. Expand smartly, but don’t duck a fight (Toronto, anyone?) and aim high. Make the 2300-person record crowd of the AUDL Rush home opener a regular MLU crowd.

10. Pay the players more.

Continual improvement in player compensation sends the right message to the players, the fans, the media, everyone. This is semi-pro now, but make sure it’s more “pro than semi” every year.

11. Align more formally with the club teams that form the MLU team.

Cross promote with the club teams that are “supplying” the players, so that fans can keep on supporting the team or elements of it and keep watching ultimate after the season is over.

12. Work on getting media sponsors, locally and nationally, even if the deal is almost totally one sided.

I was amazed that in Vancouver, there were no radio and/or TV sponsors. A big banner sign, or maybe ads in the youtube videos, would be well worth it just for mentioning the game in the daily scores and maybe the odd ten-second spot of “official station of Major League Ultimate.” No money would be involved, but media exposure beyond a few “new league” stories was limited.

13. Look for sponsors that can extend the marketing reach of the league and trade exposure of games for exposure to game fans.

Specifically, this should be offered to “ultimate” media, exclusive features for them to post and in-stadium exposure for them to reach the MLU fans.

14. Choose the championship game location early.

Either pick the spot at the start of the season (and promote all year) or put it at the home of the top seed.

15. Expand the playoffs to at least 3 teams, regardless of the number of teams.

It would be more exciting, even if it does feel silly with only eight teams. It works for the Canadian Football League, and the same format is keeping the AUDL more interesting for longer.

BONUS: Challenge the AUDL Champion or the NexGen All-Stars to an exhibition.

***

The MLU is a good product. The games have been high-quality, the in-stadium atmosphere has been fun, and the demographics of the fans are impressive to advertisers.

The league should continue to build on its success and continue to focus on building the audience of professional ultimate. I’m looking forward it!

About Greg Facer

Greg Facer is a small business owner and Vancouver Nighthawks fan. He earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of British Columbia and looks at the world with the eyes and ears of a marketing guy.

View all posts by Greg Facer →

  • L

    So basically: “Magically print more money and make everything better”?

    • Full Field Hammer

      Of the 15 suggestions, I see probably 5 or 6 that involve the “more money” strategy, and most of those are providing low cost options.

  • Ted

    16. Try to fuse with AUDL in 2014, how difficult that may seem now. Both leagues were catching our attention now and ( although for me MLU clearly got more attention ) that was kind of shame. While both leagues are practically doing the same thing. Work something out.

    17. Expand to the South wit Raleigh, Atlanta, Orlando, Nashville and Austin/Houston/Dallas as good options.

    18. Try to stick to 1 game per team per weekend ( although I understand that sometimes costwise it’s better to do 2 games on the road. ) But so far we’ve seen strange things happen that 2nd game and it’s not fair to those teams if not all the teams have that same problem. Besides, with only 1 game per weekend the clubs can travel with smaller rosters and thus limit the costs.10 games per conference is enough. I was interested during the whole MLU-season, while I lost track during AUDL’s 16-games season. Besides, there’s not more space on the calendar.

    19. Avoid clashes with National Teams’ training camps !

    20. To me it feels strange that you play 3 times against one opponent and 4 times against another. Against every adversary you should play once at home and once away.

    22. It’s easier for fans to visit matches if you play on the same day of the weekend ( at the same hour )

    23. … and always at the same venue.

    24. Skip the conference finals, because we have already seen that game twice ! I know it is done in every major professional sports in the US this same way, but in an Ultimate tournament you play semis 1-4 and 2-3. So West #1 should play East # 2 and vice versa. And then a real final between the best 2 teams. Be innovative, be Ultimate, don’t copy everything of the other pro sports.

    25. In short : Next year I would like to see 4 conferences ( West, North, East, South ) of 6 teams. Go MLU !

    Bonus : And yes, somewhere in August please organise a game between Whitecaps and Rush or Wildfire. That should be a good way to start talking about point 16. :o )

    • G

      I agree with your points. Most of the author’s list is kind of no brainer stuff and not specific to MLU. Plus quoting the AUDL multiple times goes to your point #16 – we as fans should push for a merger. I think the AUDL would listen, as I think they’ve hinted in past articles. Instead of dividing attention the two leagues could be maximizing it by working together. Demand MLU come to the table and give it some serious consideration. It makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons and is in both league’s best interests and the best interests for the fans. No better way to kick off a merger than an exhibition game between the champions this fall (especially if the Rush go undefeated too).

      • Ted

        thanks for your support. ;o)
        —– Original Message —–
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        Sent: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 4:17 PM
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        G (Guest):
        I agree with your points. Most of the author’s list is kind of no brainer stuff and not specific to MLU. Plus quoting the AUDL multiple times goes to your point #16 – we as fans should push for a merger. I think the AUDL would listen, as I think they’ve hinted in past articles. Instead of dividing attention the two leagues could be maximizing it by working together. Demand MLU come to the table and give it some serious consideration. It makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons and is in both league’s best interests and the best interests for the fans. No better way to kick off a merger than an exhibition game between the champions this fall (especially if the Rush go undefeated too).
        10:17 a.m., Tuesday July 16

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        G’s comment is in reply to Ted:

        16. Try to fuse with AUDL in 2014, how difficult that may seem now. Both leagues were catching our attention now and ( although for me …
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    • Bill Bourret

      Am I the only one NOT wanting a MLU + AUDL merge? As they say, competition is great for the consumer. I think one combined league would be awfully boring. Two leagues mean way more games to follow along on the weekend, and more opportunities both as a player and as a fan (fantasy).

      Also, a mega league wouldn’t necessarily have that much more of an advantage than one league. If the two were to combine, I could see more available resources and personnel, but financially I wouldn’t be surprised if there was little or no increase in funds.

      And the most terrifying question – what happens if it fails? Currently, if MLU *OR* AUDL fails, we still have one pro league. But if they combine, and THEN fail? Not good to be putting so much hope into a single league, especially this early on.

      Most importantly, I think it’s just way too early for talks of a merger. Both leagues need time to iron out a working and solid format. This is the prime time for new ideas and strategies and asking them to merge now seems like a great way to diminish that amazing potential. Let the two battle for market ownership and we’ll see some great concepts come out of the woodwork.

      • Greg Facer

        All valid points. It might be that one of the leagues ends up at a notch above and another below, sort of Major League / Triple A scenario. The problem is that they still need to pay for travel and ideally they need to attract the mainstream audience. Having one league might (arguably) be the best for that.

  • Jedi

    Would be happy if it was possible to order the original team jerseys to germany … It cant be that hard to sell the team jerseys every player wears … disappointed by this.

    • Greg Facer

      I don’t think the team jerseys were available anywhere, in stadium or online. That might be for a good reason. I was a lucky recipient of one of the game-worn (and washed!) jerseys at the end of the season and it was not doing so well, the logo was starting to peel off.

      I think this was mainly because they waited until the last minute in the hopes of jersey sponsors to come on board. Therefor they were not sublimated or even screen printed, but used heat transfers. I would expect jerseys would be available in 2014, but that is a guess on my part.

      • Richard

        The MLU jerseys looked really good and professional, especially compared with the ridiculous sublimated AUDL jerseys. There’s a reason you don’t see wacky, full-body designs in any other sports: they’re ugly. If MLU had sold real jerseys instead of t-shirts, they would have at least gotten some money from me!

  • Guest

    How did the MLU/AUDL teams do financially? Did they break even on their costs? If not, where did the extra expense cash come from?

    • pm

      New busnesses almost never break even the first year. When you go into business, you aim to be profitable in year 5.

      • Guest

        Sure. But that doesn’t really answer my question. Maybe if I phrase this another way – will the MLU/AUDL teams be releasing financial statements?

        • Titus Tradewell

          The successful ones, maybe. Rainmakers, Rush, Wildfire?

          • peter

            they are private companies, so this is doubtful.

          • Titus Tradewell

            Right, just pointing out that the only ones that might open up are those that could prove it works.

      • Greg Facer

        I would put 5 years as too long, but this is a little unique for sure. Someone posted on Rec Sport Disc that they figured the break-even was about 1000 fans and I agree that the figure is probably somewhere in that range for the first year, although perhaps not including all of the league costs.

        It all comes down to capitalization, how long can they run at a lost and survive (and how small is the loss). The MLU was supposed to start with 1.5 million in investor’s funds, so they should be OK for a few years with the attendance figures I would guess. The AUDL of course doesn’t have to precisely worry about the profitability of the individual teams, as long as the current owners are willing to continue with losses or new owners come in.

        As for financials…..I’d be very surprised if they were announced by any of the leagues. I think the MLU should be transparent in many ways, but I wouldn’t make the financials public at all.

    • Guest

      I think it is reasonable to assume that most teams lost money, and will continue to do so for the next few years.

    • torontonian

      only Toronto prolly came out in the green

  • anon

    definitely need a merger. AUDL won’t be able to compete on the weat coast, and MLU may have a tough time in the Midwest

    • Greg Facer

      I avoided the merger issue in my article because the business models are VERY different and it wasn’t my focus. The blog titled Semi-Pro Ultimate also has covered the ideas of mergers and expansion for both leagues in much more detail than I would care to think about.

      A merger would not be impossible but very tricky unless a more money comes to the negotiating table. Even expansion of the existing leagues into areas requiring more travel between cities is problematic at this early stage, and that would be only one more issue for merger talks.

      A merger would be great from the fan perspective, but I would put any possibility at a few years away myself.

  • will

    The players need to ‘buy in’ to either league. While these are professional leagues, they are still grass root and fledgling organizations and the players need to be a part of the building process. They need to understand the commitment to the team and the market they play in and not spread their time too thin with club teams.

  • Backhand Flick Turfed It

    16 – State the obvious

    • Greg Facer

      Ha, yeah. Marketing isn’t rocket science!

      After looking at some YouTube numbers, number 16 has to be get Brodie Smith on board. His viewers on the everything ultimate channel are way ahead of the MLU numbers.

      • Backhand Flick Turfed It

        Totally agree. My #16 was more for the commenters and not yr article. Ultimate has to channel Bill Veeck and get freaky deaky.

  • Window

    Have something like spring training before the season starts. Just like in the MLB. It gives the chance for the players to interact with the fans more and can show off a bit more and be goofy. Fans will want to like the players as people and not just of how skilled they are.

  • pkap & the zman

    USE LOCAL ORGANIZAIONS BETTER-

    if Snader Co really wants to expand and be something more akin to a pro game- LET GO! The league needed to approve too much- a reaction from the AUDL in its innagural year basically taking the money and running away.

    Local sponsors are not impossible to get in ultimate- Surly brewing in Minneapolis, Georgetown brewing in Seattle (their best selling beer is named for an ultimate player!)… these are things that could bring a fun and legitimate sense of community back to it where as (at least in Seattle) it seemed to be functioning in this awkward no man’s land.

    Get the local crews on board, allow teams to choose a few more unique things for them- local identity is how you grow a niche game, not one uniform image that certainly does not fly with everyone. Chicago has the Neuqua Valley high school program at least passingly involved with the team and that is massive- the state champ high school and growing program- being attached means even if 1/3 of those kids come that’s excited fans each week and are eager to volunteer to help

    -HAVE FINALS AT POTLATCH!

    The west coast crushed attendance this year (except PDX)… why not put the event close to something like Potlatch- 2000 ultimate players EASY who would absolutley go. Its a build in rowdy crowd that love the game… It would not be impossible to find a stadium close ish to redmond at all… or at least put it at a tournament- Wildwood etc… allows the natural crowd already attending the tourney would certainly have an interest in going

  • JohnB

    Fix the camera angle too to include more of the downfield play. Nobody wants to see a handler fake 5 times and not know what’s going on.

  • Sam

    More teams? Certainly seems like interest is high enough and more teams means more games and more fans.

  • Bob

    1. Stadiums inside the major cities of the teams, easily accessible by public transportation. Ensure easy access for high school kids and their parents. This is actually numbers 1-48.
    2. Cheaper tickets. $15 is too much (yes, discounts, I know). Try $10.
    3. Sell beer. Have tailgating at the stadium be a thing. Better food too.

    Actually, that’s it. Do those three things.

    Bonus: Each team should host a club tournament every home game, include tickets in the tournament fee. It’s not that hard to run a tournament, and not only will you get people to the game, you may actually profit off the tournaments themselves.

    • Bob

      Wait, one more thing:

      4. Stats and box scores should be available no later than like an hour after the game. Live updating would be best if possible, but right-after-the-game stats should be easily doable. It’s almost a week after the championship game and they don’t have a box score. Make it easy for fans to follow their teams.

  • Anon

    Use observers rather than refs. Keep other rule changes if you want, but don’t pretend like the “integrity rule” is sufficient to keep fair play and personal responsibility front and center, or to prevent the sport from eventually having many of the same problems other sports have with diving, intentional fouling, etc.

    The only reason that isn’t happening now is b/c all of these players have developed in the self-officiated system. If you think otherwise, then you truly must believe that ultimate players are better people than athletes who play other sports…which is ridiculous. The reason ultimate players can play relatively cleanly in a reffed match is a testament to the system under which they learned the game. We could wait to see what happens with the sport with a few more years under our belts with refs…but why? Look at EVERY other sport that has refs, and part of the game becomes to foul strategically and intentionally, sell fouls that aren’t actually occurring, and work the officials. Do we think ultimate players are so special that isn’t going to happen? That’s crazy. It’s the system that creates the framework for behavior.

    And the observer framework is simply better. Timekeeping is fine with observers. Many calls can be made by observers, and it makes sense to experiment with potentially even a few more (travels, stalls). But the marking fouls and downfield contact fouls are best left in the hands of the players for the sake of fairness and the sake of how sports should be played.

    Some arguments against:
    Refs keep the game moving faster – Maybe a little. But is it necessary to get those few seconds in exchange for what you give up in clean, fair play? Spectator sports are not about “keeping the action going”. They are about the production. NFL and MLB crush NHL in terms of spectators, and have many times more stoppages and much more down time. Fact. It’s simply not relevant once you reach a certain point of continuity and clarity. Observers can and do provide that.

    Refs keep people from cheating – Nah. They just cheat in different ways. And the self-officiated system leads to more players who play clean and within the rules b/c you literally can’t get away with BS fouling. It will get called every time. And if you go down that path, observers can punish your team or kick you out. Either way, it stops or is minimized, and the culture and expectations for the competition stay high.

    Refs allow the players to just play – Nah again. They just have to learn the rules and how to work them in different ways. Instead of knowing the rules so you can follow them and make calls, you end up knowing the rules so that you can bend them and play the officials. It takes about the same amount of effort and brain power…but with a pretty different result in teaching behavior.

    Pro leagues – While you are “innovating” with the game, do something truly innovative. Refs aren’t innovative. They are what every sport has always done. For as long as you might last, don’t change the parts of the sport that don’t need to be changed. Showcase the parts that are the best parts, which include not only speed and skill, but also integrity and fair play.

    • Greg Facer

      I’d still call them refs, as it makes no sense to call them anything else if they are making some calls (traveling, stall count), but I agree that the players could be involved more, and that removing the need for them to regularly call fouls lends itself to pushing the boundaries more.

      Obviously, the players are the ones that know what is a contact foul and what isn’t, but I can also see that putting the calls back on the players might indeed slow down the game and make the calls more personal than the Ref system.

      In general, I`d like to see the Pro game follow the UPA rules as much as possible, but it does have to work as a spectator sport and will change more as time passes. That will happen for no other reason than a successful Pro game will allow for technology based rules that the amateur game does not (stall counts on a clock, stall time added for fouls rather than yardage as one possible example). As a side note, reading up on wikipedia the history of the shot clock in basketball was quite interesting.

      I agree that keeping the spirit of fair play is good for the game…but I would also admit that having a player overrule a ref is the most dramatic example of that for new fans. If the issue of spirit of the game losing out to gaming the refs becomes common, i.e. fouling becomes a purely “economic” issue (as per the recent article looking at that)…..I`m OK with working with other economic principles to counter the problem, at least within the pro game.

      Bonus money for the most spirited player is part of that such a solution, but it`s too early really see the problem right now. Keep the communications with the players open and I think it will get sorted out, especially since the pro level isn’t the highest level of competition at the moment…..they are playing for entertainment, so I doubt the issues of cheating the system will be dire until that changes or the money involved is more significant.

  • Derek Medina

    NO! NO MERGER! I don’t see the audl working out right now. the first year they lost a lot of money and alienated a lot of fans. The over-expanded this season. Plus, got almost no marketing compared to the mlu. I don’t want the AUDL to drag the MLU down with it.

  • Derek Medina

    16. Brodie Smith. The only reason the AUDL has a legit following. Even if you have to offer a few hundred (the wildfire can’t be giving him too much money).

    17. Better camera angles. My suggestion is have two camera views at once on the screen side-by-side. One one the handler and one on the cutters.
    18. Like everyone central stadiums and cheaper tickets & merchandise. In the beginning merchandise is to get your name out there, not make money. Sell the merch as cheap as you can, even if you only make a dollar, because the more people that see that shirt the more people will hear of the team and the more money you will get in the end.

    19. Sponsorships with companies NOT related to the sport. This may sound odd but it will expand the sport outside of the already-established community. If you play ultimate seriously then you already know of the mlu and/or audl.

    20. This year, expand to the other locations you were going to do this year: san jose and new jersey. Personally, I would move san jose further down south or better yet: to las vegas. Now, the central division is tough. I would wait till 2015 for the central division but if you do their is a chance that the audl will have a monopoly on all the teams and make it difficult for the expansion to be successful. If you over-expand though it might end up like the audl and eventually cause problems.

    21. Hold the championship at the top seed’s stadium. That way the most people will go. Over 2000 people went to the championship in a state where neither of the teams were based out of. Now imagine it being held in boston, only a few hours away. I bet 3,000+ would have gone, including myself. Also, it would allow for a lot of media attention.
    22. Spend more money. Hardly any business makes money the first few years. Take out a loan and buy whatever you need if you have to. The mics were horrible! atleast invest in an audio-limiter. Also, youtube commercials would have been a very good idea to attract your demographic. Also, many local news stations (or even public access) allow commercials for dirt cheap. Just air a few commercials on the local news station (like necn for new england) and that will attract many people. In other words: PUBLICITY IS NEVER A BAD THING!
    Bonus: let me commentate the games :D

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