USAU, The AUDL, MLU, And NexGen: Understanding The Distinctions Between The Leagues

The four possible options for semi-professional and professional leagues in Ultimate Frisbee.Sports for the benefit of the participants and sports for the benefit of spectators are fundamentally different. Although they often resemble each other on the field, their motivations, management, and funding all work in different ways.

Fundamentally, participant-focused sports are funded by the participants, and use structures which deliver value to the participants. USA Ultimate, since its inception, has operated in this way.

In contrast, spectator-focused sports are primarily funded by the spectators (although often initially funded by investors seeking to earn a return from eventual spectator revenues) and are managed to deliver value to the spectators.

There is no doubt which of these two models has greater reach and ultimate profitability. There are countless examples throughout mainstream sports of spectator-focused operations managing toward its desired end. A particularly recent one is the NBA fining the San Antonio Spurs $250,000 for resting their most marketable players in a nationally televised game. The message from management is loud and clear: delivering value to our fans, tv viewers, and in turn corporate sponsors and broadcast providers is more important than the competitive interests of the participants. It’s awkward, but the mission is clear: deliver value to the spectators.

Ultimate is in a tricky place. Everyone within the community (and some outside it) can tell that it’s an exciting game to watch, and that interest will grow as more people are exposed to it. USAU, via the Triple Crown Tour and other initiatives, is hoping to increase participation in the sport by providing access, as spectators, to a larger audience. The AUDL and MLU are seeking to deliver financial returns to investors by capitalizing on the unprecedented mass exposure to local sports markets. The NexGen plan, in founder Kevin Minderhout’s words, comes from his dissatisfaction with these two models. As he describes, his goal is to provide a better venue for showcasing the sport within the community, and to serve the players better than the Triple Crown Tour does.

These various professional initiatives cause an uproar in our community because they seem to move away from some of the core ways that ultimate delivers value for us. By their own admission, the MLU and AUDL products are not designed to serve the players first. USAU, an organization which prides itself in serving the players, is now trying to incorporate a spectator serving component of their offering. Minderhout’s NexGen proposal also introduces a spectator serving component, although targets the offering primarily at the existing ultimate community and fanbase.

The MLU and AUDL models draw capital from outside investors in hopes of producing a product that new spectators will pay for. That’s a bet those investors have chosen to make. In Kevin and the USAU’s model, the investments come from the participants. In the former, the elite teams’ ownership and management costs could ultimately produce a monetarily valuable product. In the latter, players across all flights will pay dues and travel expenses to facilitate a mechanism for showcasing ultimate to fans outside the existing community.

The fundamental change here is that these two models are asking the existing ultimate community, a highly participation-centric group, to invest time and money in the pursuit of an interest that is not directly their own. This is a real change, and it changes what ultimate means and requires of players.

It’s a fundamental distinction, and one that needs to be understood. The real professional leagues are making no secret that they’re taking outsiders’ money — and our game — and trying to make something which unsuspecting fans will pay for. The models which leverage the existing ultimate community are taking the community’s resources and trying to serve a smaller, but equally spectator-centric audience.

  1. John Korber

    John Korber is a longtime ultimate player, coach, and administrator with experience at the youth, high school, recreational, college and club levels. In 2012, he served as General Manager and Head Coach for the AUDL's Connecticut Constitution in its inaugural season. He also played for the team and led the league in goals scored. He graduated from Tufts University in 2005 and earned an MBA from the University of Connecticut in 2012. John currently lives in Hebron, Connecticut with his wife, two sons, and two dogs.

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