Can Semi-Pro Ultimate Make It?

Forbes published a great article late last week about the state of Major League Soccer and how the league, after being perilously close to folding a decade ago, is starting to thrive.

The numbers really put into perspective just how far ultimate has to go in the crowded pro sports arena.

Way back in 1996, Major League Soccer kicked off their inaugural season and posted an average attendance of 17,406. Attendance dipped to a low of 13,756 in 2000 before reaching a zenith in 2012 of 18,807.

All of those numbers dwarf what Major League Ultimate and the American Ultimate Disc League have posted in two years of existence. Neither league has really even come close to establishing an average attendance of 1,000.

Of course, there are plenty of smaller semi-professional sports leagues that average well below what MLS does. Major League Lacrosse posted an average attendance of 5,608 in 2012 showcasing a sport with a similar style to ultimate (invented and heavily based in the USA, driven by college participation, affluent).

The question is: what is a realistic expectation for the growth of semi-pro ultimate? Is there really enough interest and money in it to sustain one league, let alone two?

MLL players get paid, on average, $10,000-$25,000. That would be a financial gold mine to most ultimate players, many of whom have spent that much over the course of their playing careers. But the semi-pro leagues would need to see astronomical growth to pay anywhere near those figures.

Given an improving product and smart venue choices, MLU and the AUDL could see slow attendance growth this season. But the history of pro sports points to an emphasis on the slow — there is simply no precedent for booming growth in today’s sports market.

With the rapid expansion of the AUDL and the heavy spending of MLU, I am not seeing the same belief about slow growth coming from the leagues. While the AUDL is somewhat more insulated from the dangers of over-acceleration because the local owners take on much of the risk, can the league afford to fold half a dozen teams if owners can’t stay solvent?

I really want to believe that semi-pro ultimate can be successful. I do think there is evidence that a small, spectator-subsidized league can enable players to travel and play for free (something many players find very appealing about the semi pro setup right now).  But I am very skeptical about the sustainability of the current situation, which is encouraging both leagues to compete hard with each other, spending ever more money and not doing what they should be doing: trying to minimize costs as they slowly grow.

I would love to be proven wrong. I would love to see the leagues grow attendance by more than 100%. But, without a more conservative approach, I simply don’t see a sustainable model for success.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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