Commentary: How To Reach A Larger Audience For Ultimate

This is a guest post from an author that requested anonymity. It was originally posted to an Ultimate forum. The quoted sections are from our article about Ultimate becoming an Olympic sport — you should read that first. The comment has been lightly edited and links have been added throughout.

[quote]”Through the grapevine,” he explained, “we heard that the IOC loved the sport and thought the self-officiation was an incredibly cool component and thought, ‘Wow, this is sportsmanship at its best. This is what the Olympics is all about…’ I think there is a natural attraction for the IOC for a variety of reasons.”[/quote]

Self-officiation is cool, just like world peace is cool. However, attaining either ideal is tricky. Can you imagine the fallout from a game like Canada vs. Japan being put on display in front of the world in the Olympics? I think the IOC would look at that video and suddenly think it’s not quite as cool. The greater the stakes, the greater the risk that a game like that happens. I can’t see any way Ultimate would be on that stage without at least observers. And to even get to that level of popularity probably means there would have to be some kind of observer/ref system or the only people who like it will be the people playing it, like right now.

[quote]”The Olympic movement is a business,” explained Rauch. “They are looking to sell. In order to be considered, we have to be able to convince the powers that be that we will make money.” That would be driven by increasing sponsorship and spectator interest. He suggested that that is how snowboarding became an Olympic sport and Rugby 7′s will join the 2016 games.

Can Ultimate achieve that amount of interest? “It is not an unrealistic medium- to long-term goal,” said Rauch. “But it’s one where we have to take it step by step.” Balancing sponsorship growth with the costs that entails can be tricky. He pointed to the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), the nascent professional Ultimate league.

“One of the other things that this whole AUDL experience has raised is whether the focus should be on players and what they want or on spectators. I’m not sure they’ve found that balance,” he said. “Trying to put too much effort just on those elite players means you are not able to focus on the much broader community…I think we’d be poorly served by putting our resources just on those elite today.”[/quote]

There’s a video on YouTube of the famous sports announcer Howard Cosell covering the UPA championships on TV. And I remember way back in the day seeing all kinds of frisbee stuff (guts, mta, ultimate, etc.) on Wild World of Sports. This was all back in the 80’s. What has the coverage been like since then? Nearly nothing (except Fleming’s catch) until some dedicated franchise owners put relatively scant resources (when compared to USAU) into fielding and filming some professional games and — boom — multiple SportsCenter spots and a modicum of respect and recognition from a broader audience.

I’m not saying that USA Ultimate (USAU) should put resources into professional ultimate. I think USAU does a wonderful job at grass roots initiatives and teaching the sport. The college and club level championship tournaments are well run and administered (except for too low a number of observers). Basically, those that play Ultimate pay their dues and are reasonably well served. But for those members wanting Ultimate to have a broader appeal, particularly from a spectator standpoint, USAU and the game as it exists are just too specialized and inexplicable (particularly when it degenerates into call-fests) to be very marketable.

I’m also not saying that USAU should have refs. I see a real value to teaching Ultimate the way its being taught now. It definitely teaches and increases sportsmanship. Still, witnessing this sportsmanship classroom is tedious for all but the most die hard ultimate players to watch… especially when the stakes are high. USAU should definitely increase its training and recruitment of observers. Why is there always a shortage of observers at USAU’s premier events? Makes no sense.

What I am saying is that professional ultimate and the USAU could both be greatly served by working together to advance the sport. Over-simplified, if the pro-level contests spread interest in the sport, that just increases the growth of USAU as more and more people try the game out themselves. More people learning the sport means higher talent reaching the pro level, more exciting plays for people to watch, and on and on.

It seems to me that USAU and WFDF would be happy to have the extra influx of funds being spent to promote Ultimate! Then they can pay more attention to the things they think are more important than getting the word out and building an audience. The only reason i can see them having resistance to it is being afraid of losing their “meal ticket” elite players to another organization.

I don’t understand the point that WFDF’s Robert Rauch was trying to make regarding the AUDL’s focus. Was he saying too much focus was on the players, or on the spectators? Seems like he’s saying that putting too much focus on the elite players is counterproductive. If so, that would be funny, considering that the only reason the World Championships get any notice at all is that these elite players all pay out a small fortune in expenses to attend these tourneys, all for the benefit of WFDF and its sponsors. And it seems clear that neither USAU or WFDF care at all about spectators — they don’t need to. They’re fully funded by their sponsors and their captive audience, the players themselves. (USAU generates enough money for Executive Director Tom Crawford to pocket $125,000 a year…with NO fans. Thank about that.) So to say that the AUDL doesn’t have the right balance between paying attention to the elite players and fans is ironic, since the AUDL seems to be the only organization that has even tried to balance that.

Listen, the AUDL as an organization is poorly formed and perhaps more poorly administered. However, professional Ultimate definitely reached an unprecedented number of non-ultimate people and created a small but loyal fan base. In select cases, most notably Indianapolis and Philadelphia, it turned out to be a viable enterprise. The rules aren’t perfect, the refs aren’t perfect, the players aren’t the best in the world. But people came to watch and had a good time at the games and there were millions of Sports Center YouTube hits generated. It was a first step in professional Ultimate; one that I hope is followed by many others.

I can only imagine what could happen if the top players and coaches in the sport put their minds and bodies behind professional Ultimate.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

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

TAGGED: , , , , ,

More from Ultiworld
Comments on "Commentary: How To Reach A Larger Audience For Ultimate"

Find us on Twitter

Recent Comments

Find us on Facebook

Subscriber Exclusives

  • Film Room: Throwing Hammers in the Wind – Part 2: Using Hammers In-Game
    video for Mini subscribers
  • Mailbag: Overhauling USAU’s Approach to Events
    Subscriber article
  • Deep Look: Radical Rethinking of Ultimate
    Includes bonus segment
  • Cash Line [An Ultiworld Disc Golf Newsletter] - Issue #6
    Subscriber newsletter