When we look back, the ESPN television deal will be a landmark moment in the development of the governing body of Ultimate. USA Ultimate’s transition from the Ultimate Players Association, their expansion & refinement of the observer system, and eventually, the creation of the Triple Crown Tour all led up to it. The sport is auditioning for the type of television deal that powers sports institutions in the US.
The Triple Crown Tour and the ESPN broadcast relationship have been focused squarely on the club division. USAU continues to look at growing the sport’s visibility in order to increase the growth, hoping to create a swell of youth participation that raises the bar across the sport. It makes sense, right? Why not take the sport at its most elite level and showcase it to the world? The Club Championships is the most competitive Ultimate tournament in the world.
What is the Club division missing and USAU desperately seeking? Brands.
The college division comes stocked with well-established brands with strong emotional resonance with consumers. Schools such as the University of Oregon, University of Wisconsin, University of Florida, and University of Pittsburgh have strong sports fanbases and have teams that have seen success on the big stages of Ultimate. In fact, I was very surprised by how often the ESPN broadcast team referred to En Sabah Nur and Fugue rather than the much more identifiable school names — Pittsburgh and Oregon — during this past season’s debut College Championships broadcasts.
Hitching Ultimate programs to these brands could be a ticket into a consumer base that organizations – whether they be USAU, MLU, or AUDL – have struggled to reach. Ultimate is a beautiful game, with lots of excitement and an ever-increasing level of athleticism, but if all we ask is for the game to sell itself, it could be a long uphill climb. Is Joe Public in Texas more like to identify with Austin Doublewide or the University of Texas? Is Jane Doe in Seattle more likely to feel tied to Seattle Riot or the University of Washington? Getting the foot in the door so people can see all that is intriguing and wonderful about Ultimate is a challenge and these university brands offer that opportunity.
An added benefit could be a boost to the growth of the sport. Not only can we create growth at the youth level by growing the exposure of the sport, but we could reap additional benefits at the college level, bringing in players directly to that level of play. It has been discussed that the most direct path to financial support from an outside institution may be through NCAA recognition for Women’s Ultimate, another factor with noting. Schools and the NCAA would likely be more inclined to work with teams if they were being broadcast extensively on ESPN.
While the Club Division showcases the highest level of the sport, the College Division showcases the most marketable. ESPN already spends millions to air college football, one of the most important sports on its docket. Let’s leverage the success of existing, profitable college sports to help drive ultimate forward.