There is a growing chorus of players — highlighted by today’s op-ed — arguing that USA Ultimate is no longer actively representing the interests of its constituents in its push to increase the visibility of the sport. This storm has been brewing for over a year due to one simple fact: operating a players’ association is always going to be in tension with operating a spectator-focused league.
Over the winter, John Korber, a former general manager with the AUDL’s Connecticut Constitution, was doing some important thinking and writing about the new spectator-driven ultimate landscape. One of the themes he hammered home was the challenge that USA Ultimate faced when trying to change the club structure to accommodate spectator interests when the players are the ones footing the bill.
“In the USAU’s case, there’s a particularly challenging reality, which is [that] if we’re going to serve spectators with resources that came from the participants, we have to ensure that the participants can appreciate the intent of that effort,” Korber said in a podcast. “And I think the ultimate community isn’t sure how it thinks on that subject. And it’s something that leads to some controversy with the Triple Crown.”
The clash had led to calls for a players’ union that can collectively bargain with USA Ultimate as a solution (much like what happened during the NexGen League saga over the winter). But think about how bizarre it is to call for a players’ union to bargain with a players’ association. It goes to highlight just what a difficult situation USA Ultimate finds itself in.
Other National Governing Bodies do find ways around this challenge — the US Tennis Association, for example, operates similarly to USAU in that it operates leagues for recreational level players, mid-level players, and the elite. The difference is that the elite — who in USAU’s model pay the most to play of anyone — are generally competing for significant cash and prizes on the Pro circuit in tennis.
If USA Ultimate was able to start heavily subsidizing top teams (beyond the small cash prizes for winning Triple Crown events), a lot of complaints would evaporate. The problem is, though, that USAU can’t get to that point without going through the gauntlet of lurching the sport into a more spectator-friendly position.