How Will Major League Ultimate Stack Up?

With details beginning to emerge on Major League Ultimate, it’s natural to start pondering how the newly-formed professional league will differ from the American Ultimate Disc League. Considering the circumstances surrounding the MLU’s creation, some of the basic structural shifts that can be expected are apparent and have already been discussed briefly by the league’s organizers. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though, as the long-term success of both the MLU and AUDL will depend on the product that each presents and the strategies they use to promote their respective visions for professional ultimate.

The one thing that we know for certain about the MLU is that the organizers — Skip Sewell, Jeff Snader and Nic Darling — want to avoid conflict. If you’re reading this, you’re probably well aware that the AUDL’s inaugural season was marred by scandal. Battles between the league and individual teams disrupted the regular season schedule, tarnished the AUDL’s reputation and, undoubtedly, influenced Snader — owner of the AUDL champion Philadelphia Spinners — in his decision to move forward with the MLU. While it’s difficult to place the blame for this debacle on the AUDL’s organizational structure — I would argue that the league’s decision to start a very visible conflict by filing a lawsuit against its own teams probably did the most damage — employment of a stronger model would’ve prevented the situation from ever arising.

Fundamental to the way that the MLU intends to set itself apart from the AUDL is by better aligning the incentives of the team and league in order to promote cooperation. In the AUDL, franchises are sold individually to the owners and, for the most part, left to their own devices. They receive no support from the league and are expected to handle marketing, tickets sales and sponsorships independently. I’m no expert on optimum organizational structure but this model seems better suited for gas stations than a professional sports league.

When Darling spoke with Ultiworld earlier this week, one of the few specifics he was able to provide at the time was that the MLU would use a more interdependent approach. Guided by the single-entity model employed by Major League Soccer, they plan to make league-wide operations much more cohesive and mutually beneficial. The finances of each team will be intrinsically tied to the other clubs and to the league itself, which Nic suggests will provide greater stability to the teams and to the MLU. How well this model actually works for professional ultimate remains to be seen but it’s hard to imagine it being worse than the AUDL’s survival of the fittest approach.

Before we dive any further into what sets the organizations apart, it’s important to keep in mind who’s running these leagues. At the helm of the AUDL are two ultimate-outsiders, President Josh Moore and VP of Marketing Brent Steepe, who ostensibly see their league as a business first and foremost. While the fact that they’ve never been avid players shouldn’t be held against them — I have the feeling that David Stern wasn’t playing much hoops before becoming NBA Commissioner either — their basic lack of familiarity with the sport does seem like it would make effectively promoting it more difficult.

In stark contrast, the MLU is being organized by individuals with deep ties to the ultimate community, particularly Sewell and Snader. The years of collective experience they share will inevitably give them an advantage identifying and locating their audience. Simply put, they have a better idea of what people want out of a professional ultimate league and what it takes to deliver that to them. 

As more details about the MLU start rolling out next week, I expect to see the organizers’ experience with ultimate to show in a few specific ways. To start, the MLU’s approach to engaging talent and rostering teams will likely be a crucial component of the league’s overall strategy, as it must be. Aside from the Spinners — which was primarily comprised of players from the 2011 USAU Club Championship qualifiers, Southpaw — the teams in last year’s AUDL really struggled to lure talent from elite club teams. For professional ultimate to be successful in the long-term, though, the level of competition will need to be dramatically increased from where it currently sits. This means smarter and more effective recruiting should be a priority for both leagues.

Building on that idea, I anticipate that locations of the MLU’s original franchises will be closer to ultimate hot-beds than some of the AUDL’s. Establishing teams in regions known to be deep with talent will lead to better squads and capitalize on naturally existing fan bases. The MLU is being planned as a bi-coastal league, giving the league access to thriving ultimate communities in places like Seattle, Portland, and Boston immediately.

While the AUDL’s original focus on putting teams in northeastern cities and towns — with seemingly little concern for the popularity of ultimate in each location — was intended to reduce travel costs, the result was a number of underperforming teams with limited local support. I suspect the MLU’s organizers will be more meticulous and more effective in identifying ideal franchise locations.

Major League Ultimate has the potential to do big things for professional ultimate but, despite the number of negative comparisons made in this piece, that doesn’t mean the AUDL is over. In fact, it’s important to remember that without the pioneering done by the AUDL — in addition to their terrible contracting — there probably wouldn’t be an MLU, or pro ultimate in general. If we’re lucky, the two newly-introduced rivals will simply push each other to innovate and advance, creating an ever better product for the fans.

  1. Wes Cronk
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    Wesley Cronk is the Vice President of Business Development of Ultiworld. Originally from West Palm Beach, Florida, he started playing ultimate in high school and split his college ultimate between the University of Florida and New York University. He has played open club with Vicious Cycle (Gainesville) and Fox Trot Swag Team Unity (New York). He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can reach him by email (wes@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@wescronk).

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