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:
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!