NexGen Founder Discusses His League And Vision For Elite Ultimate

Earlier this week, we spoke with NexGen founder Kevin Minderhout about his new proposed league on Deep Look, our weekly radio show. We encourage you to listen to the full interview and analysis there, but we have transcribed the vast majority of his comments below. This is only lightly edited for clarity.

Ultiworld: Where did you come up with this idea? People have looked at this and know what the basic concept is, but how long was this idea gestating? What is the impetus for why you put this out there to try to start this new league?

Kevin Minderhout: Good question. How long was the idea gestating? Not super long. I think I’d had ideas – I kinda wanted to make what I tell the teams when I’m talking to them: I want to increase access to elite ultimate. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for the last 2+ years. Always something I’ve wondered – how can we make this better?

A lot of the things that I think this improves are things that I’ve been thinking about. And the obstacles for what I want to do making elite ultimate more accessible. But it hadn’t really come together as something I was even considering until, more or less, around when the Triple Crown was announced. I certainly was not expecting to be where I am right now.

Seeing the leagues come out, I started thinking about the players and their perspective on it. The reason this even came – and when I had the “Aha” moment — was kind of thinking about it after seeing about the Triple Crown. I was just sitting around, thinking, the players need to own this thing. What can distinguish this, what can make it possible to do something really great and still being really responsive to the community aspect for the game. But maybe improve where I thought the Triple Crown wasn’t really doing enough for the part of the mission that I’m interested in: increasing that elite access.

…I need to remove myself more from the proposal. That it can’t be about me going in saying that this is me wanting to do this. And that was kind of the part where I was like, ‘Ah this is it and this is what I want to do.’ I’m interested in doing this stuff, but it can’t be a me enterprise, me against other people. It has to be everybody together. I just started working from there. Then it became 60-70 hour weeks in the office just thinking about this research and putting together this proposal that everybody’s seen.

UW: You mention that this needs to be player-owned and that the Triple Crown doesn’t achieve what you hope it would achieve. Can you talk a little bit about why the Triple Crown won’t work as well? You talk about increasing elite access. At least in theory USA Ultimate wants to do the same thing. They’re trying to get more of the Pro Flight teams on TV, presumably. Is that not increasing elite access and what are the distinctions between what you’re trying to do and what they’re trying to do?

KM: My main commitment is serving the community that exists and making the access available to the community that exists. To me it doesn’t benefit greatly by having the – even the college sports, the CBS coverage of college nationals. It’s great, but for a fan? For somebody that’s in the community that doesn’t really do that much for you. The USAU focus is going to be more on, as Tom Crawford says, eliminating the Tom Crawford’s of the world.

And that’s not as much my objective as it is to make something really great for the people that area already in the community, the community that I belong to and was brought up in and made ultimate so special for me.

When we do that, everybody’s doing such good work in the community right now. You know one thing USA Ultimate is doing a really fantastic job with is that youth development. And so making this product, as those people get involved in the community and they became a part of what’s so special for everybody that’s playing ultimate. So that’s where my focus is: on the access and the product. Rather than just getting one contract to add three more games onto national television, which doesn’t really do – it might be kinda cool, but getting 81 regular season games out there, which really makes it possible for the community to become fans and more closely tied with the highest level of the sport if that’s what you’re interested in.

UW: You mentioned that your efforts are to serve the existing community and increase the access that they have to elite ultimate, and make sure they can get 81 games if they want to instead of the kind of sporadic coverage they’ve had now. But, in a way, you’re also going to disrupt what they already know to expect out of ultimate – to drop a pebble into a still pond, so to say. Have you heard back from USA Ultimate or anyone who sees you as more of a disruption than an advancement of the community?

KM: That’s certainly been brought up, that’s been a discussion I’ve had with the teams that I’ve met with so far. It’s always very easy to stick with the status quo – that’s the easiest thing for everybody. But the status quo might not always be – not to make a judgment here, but speaking in generalizations – sticking with the status quo doesn’t always get you the best results.

It also brings me back to something that is really important and has been communicated to the teams and that I feel about myself. The whole thing is a community effort. In order for it to come into existence, it requires everybody to come together at one point. If anybody is not a part of that group – if any of the relevant parties aren’t part of it, and the community is certainly one of them – if the community is not part of it and they’re not interested in it, I would love to solicit feedback. If people have things to say, that’s why I’m out there trying to answer them out there on the community forums. Shoot me an email – it’s kevin@nexgenultimate.com.

I want to hear from people that like it; I also want to hear from people that don’t like it. If there is a strong sentiment within the community that it’s something they don’t want, that we are disrupting what they’re used to, that would be a dealbreaker. I’m not so tied up into it that I need it. I have a vision and I’m putting it out there because I think that it’s great and it’s something that I’m excited about. But I don’t need it so much that I want to upset anybody or try to screw people that don’t want it.

I’ve done my best work in how I envision the proposal and put it out there that I believe that everybody’s a winner – everybody except for the Triple Crown Tour. If all those people come together – the outside investors, the teams – with an emphasis on something this is we want to do.

The local communities, the local leagues – I’m about to get in touch with them as soon as I have a moment that I’m not driving and I can send some emails and get in contact with people. Part of it is talking to the local leagues – ‘Hey we want to bring this event here but we need your support. Here’s what we want to do in exchange.’ Part of creating a win-win relationship on the level.

Part of the budget is that we’re going to have five people to help me out with the events. Instead of paying those people, maybe working with the local league – ‘we have $750, can we put that into your league and maybe you guys can give us some volunteers to help make this event happen. And also can we work with you guys to maybe give access to the youth in your community and help your youth program develop. Give those people free or reduced access to the games. In exchange, maybe get access to the community leagues that are there.

That’s an important part of going forward. If that’s not there – they’re one of the relevant parties – if that’s not there, we don’t go forward. If we start a conversation with the observers and they’re like, ‘Hey, we’re not OK with this. This doesn’t work for us.’ Then the whole thing stops. It requires and is predicated on everybody being involved.

UW: To piggyback on that question about disruption, you said that the status quo isn’t always the best option. It seems like everybody is admitting that at this point: USA Ultimate’s doing it by changing the way they handle everything with the Triple Crown, there are two other professional leagues shooting up. Did you see this as the perfect timing, where things are being shaken up anyway so if you’re going to make that move it kind of had to be now? With everything changing there wasn’t that system that people want to stick with?

KM: I think that’s a fair way to say it. I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown hadn’t been what it was, this proposal never would have come out. It’s very much a direct response to the timing of it. It wasn’t something I was sitting around thinking about. What I was working on was: how can I do what I’m interested in doing, increasing that access within the elite structures? How can I do little parts in the current structure to increase the access.

UW: Using the system as opposed to creating a new one.

KM: Yea, and it was only because of the restructure – the disruption of the restructure. A different plan – one that I thought improved significantly both the player experience and the fan experience – I would have been on board with that. Even if this doesn’t go – it’s not gonna happen right now unless everybody’s on board – so it doesn’t exist yet. If it doesn’t exist, then I’m gonna go back and put my effort into doing what I can with what’s available. But this structure is going to allow us to do a lot more to make that access possible.

And hopefully also seeing some evolutions in how game play works. Especially when you start looking at things like the reduced amount of games per day – two maximum, five over the weekend maybe – seeing an elevated level of play. We don’t exactly know what effect that that’s going to have. But it’s not gonna make it worse, presumably it will make it better.

Also, these regional matchups. How it changes things when you know your schedule five months in advance for these elite teams and this evolution in strategy. ‘Well, we’re gonna be matched up against this person three teams.’ And you start developing strategies looking at their film, developing strategies related to certain players. Right now it’s pretty much not possible, and the Triple Crown doesn’t really enable you to do that any better.

There are wins, I think – I’m trying to be win-win-win for everybody and I think the proposal does that. But if a group doesn’t feel that and it doesn’t come together, then I’m gonna work within the structure as I can. I’m not gonna be upset and feel like I didn’t get anything. I’m not going into this like, ‘I have to have it,’ as much as it’s gonna be really cool if it does happen.

UW: Can you talk about how the initial feedback has been from the teams you’ve met with so far or heard back from by email? Have any things changed in your proposal based on their feedback?

KM: It’s been really great and going out and talking to the teams has been fun. I give my presentation – that takes between an hour or two hours – and then we talk for another hour. It’s been really great talking with the teams and answering questions and looking into the idea more.

Some of the stuff became fleshed out a little bit more. I probably made the incorrect assumption that certain parties were gonna be definitely involved. I haven’t communicated with the observers yet and I haven’t communicated with the leagues. I have this idea for how that would work. But then it came up when I was talking to Bravo, “Oh yeah, of course you have to communicate with those people. You can’t just go forward with this.” So it’s been valuable for me too, in ways to achieve that.

I haven’t really heard from the teams I haven’t talked to, but it’s been quite positive from the teams I have talked to. Regardless of what happens, the discussion has been really valuable, I think, in increasing the understanding of what’s going on there. And it’s been a lot of fun.

One thing that has changed significantly is…the value of NexGen. I had a little bit of a feeling that 25% was heavy handed. I wasn’t being super defensible of it. The reason it existed in the first place was because when I first was working on the proposal I hadn’t included a salary for myself. So in order to make a living off of the league making maybe $50-100,000 in year one or two. That number would be more year two, there’s a little loss in the first year. It’s like, ‘How do I go making a living off of that if I’m not drawing a salary and I’m only pulling on that?’ So it was kind of going back through and looking through some more numbers and bringing in the salary number, and I realized hey this isn’t a good deal here.

So that’s been reduced down to 16.4%, which I do feel like is a much more reflective value of what NexGen brings. That brings team ownership up to 75.6% of the league, at 4.2% each. That outside investors still staying at 8%. That would value NexGen at $164,000, which I think is about $50,000 in assets, $20,000 in cash, and all of the knowledge and experience that we can bring. And the time sink going forward. And being able to generate revenue from some of the sources we’ve talked about. That didn’t necessarily come out of talking with teams but it’s changed since I’ve been on the road.

UW: You’ve really made a name for yourself and for your company with your work with various tournaments and USA Ultimate. This certainly represents a departure from what you’ve been doing. Beyond just trying to increase elite access, this is a bold business venture as well. Are you concerned at all that if this fails, there’s nothing to go back to?

Are you concerned that if you go for it and, as many business ventures do, it fails that USA Ultimate will no longer be interested in working with NexGen? Certainly this represents a break from the USAU model, and whether or not they take well to that or not is unclear. We’ve been trying to talk to them and they don’t want to comment on the situation. Are you worried about that?

KM: No. I obviously am aware of the implications for it with USA Ultimate. And I don’t feel like I’m going at it like it’s a personal – it’s not me against USA Ultimate. And maybe they feel that way. And maybe it gets interpreted that way, and maybe that’s the consequence of the fact that they say it’s me against USA Ultimate.

But, again, I’m doing it because I love what I’m doing and not to just make a paycheck. So it’s not enough motivation for me to just preserve a paycheck and keep doing something that I’m not super excited about. I guess that’s the reason it’s a no. Because it would be a decision that was based off of me being afraid to lose a contract or two in what I’m doing. But then maybe there’s something that I’m not as passionate about. It wasn’t much of a decision for me.

If this doesn’t happen, is there any room in [USA Ultimate’s] model for making this stuff better? And that would be a great conversation to have, but maybe it won’t happen. There’s not really enough money to do it without being passionate about it, so the decision was more about following what I’m really interested in.

It would be a bit of a disservice if I’d gone forward doing things in the interest of how I can serve myself better. That was the ‘Aha’ moment here. It’s not just about serving myself, it’s about serving the community.

UW: It seems like in the proposal there are a lot of moving parts that have to come together, 18 teams around the country. In your mind, what do you see as the odds of this coming to fruition? And out of those 18 teams on the list, do you need all of them?

KM: I think it’s becoming more clear that it’s gonna be all 18. If there’s a conscientious objector and they’re really intent on not participating and the other teams talk to them and they’re like, ‘No, this is a really bad idea,’ something like that could kill the whole project. That’s the whole point – it has to be a strong enough community idea to go forward. The idea has to be that good and people have to be that interested in it.

If I felt like I could just ignore somebody and go forward and still be successful, then maybe that would be an option. But if we don’t have everybody we’re pretty much guaranteed to fail. I don’t want to lead us down that route that doesn’t give us a chance to succeed.

Do I think everybody can get on board? Well, I’m optimistic, and that’s why I’m out here on this trip. The response has been good. It’s not unrealistic that it could happen and everything could fall together. I haven’t heard anything yet that has led me to believe that a certain piece is not gonna be there. I think if one of those pieces does come strong and says, ‘Hey we’re not a part of it,’ then that’s really gonna effect — If I get around to my Christmas break and I’ve gone through everybody through Austin going clockwise around the country. If I’ve heard back from two or three of those teams that have said, ‘Hey we’re not gonna do this no matter what,’ then I probably won’t even continue on the trip. And I’ll have a lot more free time.

UW: One of the things we haven’t talked about yet is the other pro leagues: the AUDL and the MLU. You mentioned in your proposal that you’re not happy with they way they’re going about changing ultimate, moving it forward, however you want to think about it. What don’t you like about what they’re proposing and why is your model better?

KM: That’s a great question. And probably that statement was a little bit uninformed. What I was missing when I wrote that little piece was what the objectives are of those two leagues. Right now I’ve been talking with [Creative Director] Skip [Sewell] of the MLU and some of the team owners from the AUDL. First of all, we’re not gonna be overlapping seasons. I don’t have as strong of an opinion as I probably wrote down there. I don’t really like the referees. When we played that Philly Spinners game with NexGen, to me it wasn’t as fun a product. It wasn’t really the ultimate that I wanted to play.

There is a spot for it. It’s just not a spot for the kind of ultimate I’m interested in, with the relationship between the players and the teams. I think you guys keep referring to it as a professional league, but it’s still, at this point, a club league, because they’re still paying money to go and travel to these tournaments. We’re just adding some features that are beneficial to a lot of people involved.

They’re going with a professional model, and there’s a realm for that professional model. There’s also room for these two to coexist and probably benefit each other. I think there’s an opportunity here for a win-win. How they relate with each other is totally on them. The people that they’re going to be bringing in are probably a little bit different than the people that the league that I’m talking about will serve. So how those would interact is going to be an interesting thing in the future.

I did make a strong statement in that proposal in relation to that, but as I’ve gone through and started talking with those owners and the people involved there – that’s not where I really want ultimate going with the referees. I’ve made a big change on my standpoint from referees from when I started doing this two years ago to now, where I really do feel like self-officiation is one of the important things for ultimate.

USA Ultimate has hit on one of the things that I think is the most important which is the Spirit of the Game/self-officiation aspect of it. Two years ago when I started this I was quite pro-ref and I thought that this was something that we needed. The reason I thought we needed refs was to increase the watchability of the game. I think we’ve done certain things – the observer system is great. But also on a philosophical standpoint, to keep it as a self-officated system. The potential for ultimate to really become successful is not gonna be a sport replacing the models of the big four pro sports. They’re doing that the best it can be done. If ultimate gets its start, it’s going to be because those fan bases are going to be interested in something a little bit different, that isn’t about the money or conflict or billionaires bickering about getting an extra $10 million.

Most people have identified clearly that we’ve got the Triple Crown and this proposal that I’m doing, and then there’s the AUDL and the MLU. I see opportunities for those to enhance each other, but there’s also a really significant divide there that prevents them from being the same product. It goes down to spirit of the game and referees, it’s quite significant.

As long as you’re aware that the products are different, you can see that they’re useful and they can coexist together. But also acknowledging that they are essentially different products.

Just as the indoor lacrosse is a much different game as the outdoor lacrosse…but they also compliment each other. And a lot of athletes in lacrosse play in both leagues to survive. There’s people who are fans of outdoor lacrosse, there’s people who are fans of indoor lacrosse, and there’s people that like them both. We should have those opportunities available to those people that want to have them.

I would take back my criticism of the AUDL and the MLU, in that really what I hadn’t done is acknowledge that they are attempting to achieve something quite different thatn what I’m attempting to achieve.

UW: This year is a [Club] Worlds year. This is something we see as a real stumbling block, because it seems like it will probably be impossible to play in both the USAU Triple Crown Tour and your proposed league. If teams are forced to choose between them, is Worlds going to be something that pushes them towards playing in the Triple Crown? And are you considering reaching out to USAU to maybe change the qualification structure for teams to go to Club Worlds?

KM: This is certainly a conversation that I’m having with teams, and it’s been brought up in each of the three meetings. I put a slide in my presentation about it. It’s hard to tell exactly what it means. That’s ultimately a decision that rests on the players themselves. I think that there is opportunity for USA Ultimate – and this is all conjecture because none of it really matters until all these other parties are involved. There’s ways I could imagine opportunities where the US Open doesn’t need to stop happening, which I know is something that USA Ultimate is very serious about and wants to develop. That doesn’t need to stop happening because this league forms. Our season doesn’t even start until after the US Open.

I could also envision a system where the teams that don’t qualify for the postseason in the league get worked into the Series, so they’re going to the National Championship. So those fringe teams are still getting those opportunities to play against higher competition.

Outside of this group, you only see one or two other teams maximum qualify for Nationals. And the always finish, with the exception of Bodhi, between 14th and 16th at Nationals. These 16-18 teams have taken all of the bids to Nationals for the last decade.

By doing that, we’re gonna still keep the competition level really high in the USAU series, and we’re also going to enable the club teams that are playing at that level to have something really meaningful to play for.

Basically if you go to sectionals and you’re not just a college pickup team, you’re pretty much guaranteed to go to Regionals. And then at Regionals, you’re playing to get to the game-to-go. Or they’re playing to get a bottom finish – to go to Nationals and pretty much lose all their games.

But we can really create some meaningful playing experiences there that those other teams can start qualifying for. Essentially you open up at least half the spaces at Nationals with real opportunities for them to succeed.

If people want to do this, we’re going to reach out to USA Ultimate. And I really do say ‘we,’ because it is gonna be us reaching out as we go forward. Talking about the worlds bids, maybe a good way to structure it would to have three of those bids go to the league and one staying with USA Ultimate.

It’s a conversation that we’re gonna have with the teams about the worlds bids. It’s gonna be a team decision, it’s not gonna be a decision that I make.

  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).

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