NEW YORK — With the emergence of two professional leagues, an ESPN broadcast deal, and ever-tighter regulations, it can often seem that ultimate is undergoing rapid change here in North America. Behind the scenes, however, the World Flying Disc Federation is taking the long view as the organization looks to position the sport for success twenty years in the future.
In late May, after an arduous application process, WFDF was granted provisional recognition by the International Olympic Committee, one of the first steps towards earning ultimate a berth in the Summer Olympic Games. It was no easy task. After submitting a 170 page application in April 2012, WFDF found out abruptly in December that the process had changed and that they would need to submit a new application with 26 new items and dozens more pages.
With a deadline of March 15th, they had to race to prepare their paperwork. Out of the eight applicants, WFDF was the only international federation to be approved for provisional recognition.
“The process is one where you need to be responsive positively on every single aspect,” said WFDF President Robert “Nob” Rauch. “They’re really trying to propagate best practices.”
WFDF showed that the sport fulfilled, at least in part, each of the requirements laid out by the IOC.
In a statement in May, the IOC wrote:
WFDF still has work to do. The Federation will have to go in front of the general assembly of the IOC in 2015 to make the case for permanent recognition.
The IOC gave WFDF feedback — both positive and negative — about its current status. The IOC Sports staff liked the emphasis on Spirit of the Game, the popularity and growth of the sport, the gender inclusiveness, and its youth appeal. Areas for improvement included more gender inclusiveness on the WFDF board, more voting members from athlete commissions, and more global growth. WFDF meets the 50 country minimum for IOC recognition, but is still a good distance from the 75 country minimum required to be considered for the Summer Games.
Even if WFDF were to meet that minimum tomorrow, there is almost no chance that ultimate would be included in the Olympics anytime soon. There is currently a 28 sport, 10,500 athlete cap on the Summer Games — another sport would have to be booted to make room for ultimate.
This year, wrestling was removed from the Olympic docket before being reinstated this week. Experts say that it was a warning call to the Wrestling Federation, which had become complacent and entitled, a big no-no in Olympic circles.
WFDF is aware of the need for lobbying and good politics and spent a lot of time at the World Games in Cali this summer speaking with other international federations and IOC officials.
“There were a dozen or more international federations that came by to see what ultimate was all about,” said Rauch, who acted as the sport’s ambassador in Colombia.
WFDF does enjoy some immediate benefits as an IOC-recognized sport. The organization will receive a $25,000 annual stipend, pennies to many large sports federations but a sizable payment for WFDF, which has a quadrennial budget averaging around $125,000 per year.
WFDF will be able to double its events budget and hire a part-time events person to expand their tournament offerings. They also hope to be able to “dedicate some more resources to finding additional resources,” according to Rauch.
The fact that a brand new, non-Olympic sport like Flying Disc — the sport is Flying Disc, which includes disciplines like ultimate, disc golf, and freestyle — gets thousands of dollars from the IOC every year is a sign of just how lucrative the Olympics have become.
“The IOC, in the 70s, was a rinky-dink organization,” said Rauch. “Now it’s massive.”
The Olympics earned $3.9 billion in revenue from the broadcast deals alone in the 2009-2012 quadrennium. The numbers aren’t final, but they will show to have earned billions more from ticket sales, sponsorships, and licensing.
The Olympics are a big money business, which is an additional challenge for ultimate becoming a part of the Summer Games. Currently, ultimate simply isn’t commercially developed enough to be attractive for inclusion in the Olympics. Sponsorships in the sport are limited and mostly endemic.
Rauch sees that as a hugely important area of growth for ultimate in the coming decade. He points to three main themes — branding, growth, and commercial development — as critical to ultimate’s success in the world of sport. Branding elements include Spirit of the Game, the flying disc itself, and the fun roots of the sport.
He sees growth as needing to come in various tiers — elite, recreational, and, particularly, youth.
Commercially, he sees the USA Ultimate-ESPN deal as very important. “If we can highlight elite competition and get attention through the broadcast media, we can spur growth,” he wrote. “This will require us to provide opportunities for participation on a local level. More people will be drawn to the sport if they understand why Ultimate is different and we will avoid the trap of trying to be like ‘other sports,’ which studies show are losing participation. If we can get the growth of interest, then the media and sponsors will want access to our competitions. This is the virtuous circle.”
Rauch didn’t pull punches — making the game more spectator friendly is going to be critical to its growth.
“As much as people complain about the focus being taken off of players and put onto spectators, it is eventually going to become a reality to be in the Olympic Games,” he said.
There were a lot of questions about the spectator friendliness of the WFDF-style game after the World Games, which were marred by some matches that highlighted the biggest limitations of the self-officiated game — long delays and frequent questionable calls.
“Over the three days of the event, virtually every game was incredible in terms of being highly competitive and highly spirited,” said Rauch. “I will say that the bronze medal game was not the best demonstration.”
Colombia took on Canada in that match — it was such a tedious game that it prompted immediate calls for observers to be integrated into the WFDF game.
“Some other international federations said, ‘you really need to find a way to tighten [the delays] up,’” noted Rauch. “And, you know, it’s hard to refute that.”
Could observers be added to the game? Maybe. WFDF will be considering it with a new taskforce formed specifically to address the issue of the viewability and pacing of the game.
“We really want to address the issue from the top down, without any suppositions,” said Rauch. “There are many, many different ways to ensure that there is enhanced viewability.”
The taskforce should be formed before the end of the year — since WFDF had just approved the outline of the idea this week, there were few specifics offered.
Rauch emphasized that the self-officiated game has “perfect” elements for branding.
WFDF will continue to position itself for Olympic inclusion, although the odds of ultimate reaching the Summer Games anytime in the next 20 years are still very slim.
However, big changes are on the horizon. Just today, Thomas Bach, a 59-year old German lawyer and head of Germany’s National Olympic Committee, was elected the new President of the IOC after a 12 year stint by Jacques Rogge.
Bach, the favorite leading into the vote, has stated publicly that he would institute more “flexibility” into how sports are added to the Olympics, a good sign for hopefuls like Flying Disc.
Rauch said that ultimate’s chances of reaching the Olympics could change suddenly, making WFDF’s focus on putting the sport in the best position even more important.