In late August, President of the USA Ultimate Board of Directors Mike Payne wrote a long article about some important changes coming to the organization’s governance after new bylaws were passed in May. It is compelling reading and even more compelling news.
There is a lot at USA Ultimate that goes on behind the scenes, far from Tournament Central at big USAU events. But the boardroom changes may be the most important ones in the sport — USAU is the global leader in ultimate. 65% of registered ultimate players play in North America.
Here, we break down what we see as some of the most important parts of the new bylaws and raise some questions for the future of the sport.
USAU’s (Current) Board Still Chasing Olympic Inclusion
As we reported this week in our coverage of the World Flying Disc Federation, Ultimate is unlikely to become an Olympic sport at any point in the foreseeable future. In the near-term? Even USAU admits “the path towards inclusion…is long [and] at least 20 years off by the estimates of our internal experts familiar with the IOC and USOC.” But the statement is equally clear that the long odds won’t stop USAU from gradually pushing the organization into compliance with International Olympic Committee best-practices.
Before jumping on the USAU for wedding their future with long shot Olympic inclusion, it’s worthwhile to consider which changes would have or should have been coming anyways. The evolution of organizational governance is inevitable in a rapidly growing organization like USAU. The number one goal of USA Ultimate’s current strategic vision was “increased visibility” – which already necessitates the direction of resources towards elite players. Stronger organizational stability was another stated goal, suggesting that many of these changes were years in the making. A static, stand-pat approach was never in the cards.
The Most Significant Changes Towards IOC Compliance Are on the Board of Directors
The most important changes towards Olympic compliance will be taking place with regards to the Board of Directors, which may be the single most important institutional power in all of Ultimate. As a brief background, it’s tempting to think about USAU as primarily the small staff that you occasionally communicate with in Boulder, Colorado. But the Board of Directors is an equally important institution and have lots of say in the long-term direction of our sport, even as the staff do the tough daily legwork of carrying out that direction.
USAU is upfront that these changes are intended to bring them into compliance with the IOC specifications. They also do a great job of explaining what the exact changes will be. The two most important changes are that seats are reserved for Independent Directors and Elite Athletes.
In general, Independent Directors are board members who do not have a strong tie with or stake in the organization that they direct. The new bylaws define this as having “no material relationship with USA Ultimate, either directly or through an organization that has a material relationship with USA Ultimate.” One prevalent school of organizational thought is that ensuring that a board has at least a few independent directors is ideal. They can often bring diversity, outside expertise, and, at least theoretically, an unbiased approach to decision-making.
The elite athlete requirement is potentially more impactful.
Again, however, the more critical question to ask is whether the bylaw change might be in form only. The current USAU Board of Directors isn’t exactly short on Elite ultimate influence, starting with the widely respected player and spokesperson Gwen Ambler, the USAU Board Vice President. Colin McIntyre has observed the game at the highest level, and Ben Slade is another high-level player, playing with the DC-area open team Medicine Men. Other members of the board also have connections to the game at the highest levels. It’s fair to wonder whether the percent of elite ultimate representation will really change as a result of these bylaw moves.
The fact that they will be selected by a vote of other elite athletes could be an important factor. It is possible that players elected to the newly created elite athlete spots may feel especially obligated to now represent the interests of elite players, rather than thinking their constituency is the membership of USAU more broadly – even if broad representation remains their strict legal obligation.
Other Changes Should Be Good for Players Generally
Another positive development is the introduction of arbitration as opposed to direct Board appeal when there are grievances. USAU’s bylaws are now in line with other National Governing Bodies, which should make the appeal process more objective.
USAU is also, in their words, “doubling down” on Spirit of the Game. As they already outlined in their strategic plan, they are seeking to revamp the dated and increasingly toothless definition and understanding of SOTG. This will include more publicizing of players who exemplify Spirit; the creation of a new Spirit, Observers, and Rules committee; and more clarification about how SOTG connects to particular on-field actions.
WHAT WE STILL DON’T KNOW
1. Does the appointment of elite athletes to the Board further risk alienating the casual membership segment?
One of the main complaints with the Triple Crown Tour format was that it diverts USAU resources towards the most elite teams, in the name of visibility, spectatorship, sponsorship, and a meaningful regular season. This critique has been levied both intradivisionally (by mid- and lower-level teams) and interdivisionally (by Mixed and Women’s teams complaining that the Open Division is being gradually favored).
The trend of encouraging the elite segment of the sport may continue with changes like elite athlete appointment to the board, heavy marketing by USAU of the Triple Crown Tour, and the shortening of the Club Season so that Nationals can take place earlier in the summer.
Of course, it’s possible that certain elite club players who are elected to the Board will have the best interests of all club players in mind; they may have friends on non-elite club teams that they want to look after. But as the push towards spectatorship continues, it’s fair to wonder if conflict is inevitable.
2. What does the ESPN deal really look like?
For an organization that is sometimes criticized for its communication skills, Payne did a wonderful job of presenting the new bylaws. It’s very readable and carefully crafted. One word appears over and over again: ESPN.
Count this as an example of USAU playing its trump card: ‘to all the naysayers about the Triple Crown Tour and supporters of other leagues, remember that we’re continuing to bring three tournaments a year to the worldwide leader in sports.’ There may be no more powerful organization in all of sports than ESPN.
What’s less clear is the exact terms of these broadcasting arrangements. USA Ultimate has been adamant that they will not reveal any of the details of their arrangement with ESPN.
The two extreme possibilities – that USAU is using membership fees and funds to pay ESPN to broadcast the sport, or that ESPN is paying USAU for the right to broadcast Ultimate – are likely to conjure up entirely different levels of support from the members. Based on statements from USAU and the trajectory of the sport more generally, it’s likely that USAU is somewhere in the middle. There is no doubt USAU is paying for coverage, but they are sharing the risk (and upside) with ESPN, who is contributing to the production costs.
The finer details — like how much or what percentage USAU is paying — are unknown.
3. Is there true unanimity within USAU about the professional leagues?
It’s easy to think of organizations like USAU as monolithic, and sometimes we at Ultiworld are guilty of assuming it to a fault. There are 12 Directors on the Board and an additional 14 staff members. Just because the public statements from Tom Crawford and Will Deaver have been largely dismissive of the approach of the American Ultimate Disc League and Major League Ultimate (largely stemming from their use of referees) does not in fact mean that everyone is in agreement.
There’s no question that the pro leagues have already had an impact on the visibility of the sport. This Spring, MLU plays were frequently featured in the ESPN SportsCenter Top 10, which gets seen far more than any individual ESPN3 broadcast of a USA Ultimate game. It may be that some Directors see that visibility as very much in line with what USAU is trying to accomplish and Payne highlighted the professional leagues’ “good visibility” in their first year as a positive for Ultimate generally.
Depending on the makeup of the new incoming Board members, it is not inconceivable that there could be more institutional support of the pro leagues coming out of USAU in the coming years.