Despite some significant restructuring of the initial plan this past winter, USAU plans to move forward with the Triple Crown format, citing player and ESPN enthusiasm.
So far, there have been three Triple Crown events: the US Open, the Pro-Elite Challenge, and the Elite-Select Challenge. This weekend’s Pro Flight Finale will cap off the Triple Crown regular season.
USAU Managing Director of Competition and Athlete Programs Will Deaver said the US Open was a success, with “close to 90 percent” of participants calling the event good or excellent on post-tournament surveys.
“One of the things that came through was that teams really like playing that level of competition,” he said.
Tom Crawford added that “ESPN was very happy with it: the timing of the event, the quality of the play.”
USAU hopes to continue to encourage high-level international teams to make the trip to the US for the tournament. This year, there were some top teams (Japan’s MUD, Colombia’s Euforia, e.g.), but a lot of weaker competition that simply could not challenge the US teams.
One of USA Ultimate’s biggest goals with the TCT is to build interest around the advancement and relegation of teams across flights.
A big component of that is organized interflight play at the Pro-Elite and Elite-Select Challenges. These events, unlike the US Open, are not run by USA Ultimate directly, but are instead organized by local tournament directors. Those tournaments, like Terminus and Colorado Cup, retain their identity but also play host to the TCT events.
“One of the designs is to get these local events competing with each other at the outset,” said Deaver. “I think that’s going to improve the quality of ultimate events throughout the summer.”
He said that the structure, which gives the local organizing committee a list of the qualified teams months in advance, gives them an opportunity to more effectively plan the event to include things like showcase games.
“To be able to have a set field of teams really allows you to ramp up the quality of those events,” he said.
2014 And Beyond
At this point, USAU says it’s too early to say what changes will come next season or in the future, aside from a general push towards a late summer Series instead of a fall one.
“As we get into the last part of the season, we’ll talk about how things have gone and where we’re headed,” said Deaver, noting that they are beginning to contact team representatives to formulate athlete-run Divisional Councils that will work with USAU to plan for the future.
Next summer’s World Club Championships will require additional planning, but USAU hopes to have a similar structure and timetable, with top teams deciding their tournament plan in January.
“I think that was where you found teams reacting poorly [to the TCT] early in the year,” said Deaver. “That was a big change for teams, having to think about in the winter what they’ll be doing in the summer.” He expects those complaints to be greatly reduced this year now that teams have had a chance to see what the season is like with an early plan.
He did acknowledge some shortcomings this year, and USAU will work to begin planning tournaments earlier, setting schedules earlier, and communicating better next year.
One of this season’s most notable changes is the addition of live ESPN3 coverage of the US Open and upcoming Club Championships. The network also covered the College Championships in May.
“They’ve been incredibly excited, to say the least, about the first two events under their belt,” said Communications Director Andy Lee.
Tom Crawford said that the network has already approached USAU to see if they want to expand the coverage, either to include more games from the existing three events or to cover more events.
Reportedly, the network has been a real positive in meetings, brainstorming new ways to make the game better for television. ESPN executives were the ones to suggest putting mics on the observers to capture their interactions with players.
“It’s been great to get some validation from ESPN that you don’t need refs to make the sport spectator friendly,” said Crawford.
It is too early to say whether the ESPN deal has been a success, but early signs are all good. USAU’s desire to move the Club season into the summer also suggests that enhanced media coverage may be in the sport’s future.
For now, ESPN is still learning about the sport and best practices for filming and presenting the game. Since ultimate is a “whole new ballgame,” as Lee put it, they are still honing their production technique.
What About Pro?
USA Ultimate has not been shy in the past about their general distaste for the two semi-professional leagues, the American Ultimate Disc League and Major League Ultimate. USAU is committed to a self-officiated game with observers and, like many at the top levels of the sport, see it as a unique selling point for the sport. Referees are not welcome.
One thing that the pro leagues have done much better than USAU is marketing and creating stars. With consistent team identities and rosters, lots of available video coverage, and extensive statistics keeping, the pro leagues have been able to raise the profile of some of their athletes onto the national stage.
USAU thinks the new Triple Crown format will make it possible for them to do the same.
“We do want to promote teams and help them gain an identity in their local communities,” said Deaver. “We do want to promote athletes and help them gain an identity in their local communities and even nationally. We think we’re in a much better position to do that within the TCT structure.”
There continues to be no plan to work with the pro leagues – and the recent announcement about pushing the Series into the summer may even have a direct negative effect on them by forcing athletes to choose between playing pro or club.
USAU simply isn’t considering the pro leagues in their decisions.