December 19, 2012 by Charlie Eisenhood in News with 12 comments
Back in May, American Ultimate Disc League President Josh Moore announced to the first year team owners that he had sold new franchises around the country, including in New York City and Boston. That fateful announcement ultimately led to the league’s lawsuit against the Connecticut Constitution and Rhode Island Rampage, who challenged the ability of the league to establish teams in those cities.
Although that lawsuit — which was settled last week — has been widely dissected, one of the interested parties has been rarely discussed: the New York Empire franchise. Empire owners Jesse Stein and Cullen Shaw were optimistic and moving forward with operations back in August, but everything ground to a halt as the lawsuit continued to wind through the court system.
We now know that they were days away from leaving the AUDL late last month.
“We told Josh [Moore] and eventually the board that we wanted to have a “no-go” date, and it was right around Thanksgiving,” said Shaw, a long-time ultimate organizer in New York. “There was enough in motion to kind of keep us on the line for a little bit longer until it was resolved. We were just weighing our options – would we ask for a refund? Would we ask for some amount above just a straight refund to pay for the expenses that we incurred, like incorporation and logo design? Or if we were just going to jump ship to another organization?”
The settlement came just in time. Shaw was also considering pulling out of the venture on his own. “I had talked to [Major League Ultimate] and wanted to see what was going on with them,” he said. “Really, if professional ultimate was going to happen in New York City, I wanted to be a part of it.”
The MLU contacted Shaw about being involved in an ownership group, and also asked if he would be interested in being considered for a General Manager position. He thought about it. But now that the ink is dry on the AUDL settlement, Shaw and Stein are diving into building the Empire.
“What’s kept me around the AUDL is I wanted a certain level of control that I didn’t feel I was going to get with the MLU,” explained Shaw. “I really enjoy their passion and, as a fan of ultimate, I’m really curious to see what they’re gonna be able to do…But it’s widely documented that it’s less money to get a franchise in the AUDL than in the MLU.
“My situation was I was going to either get a smaller portion of a MLU team, or I’d have a larger portion of an AUDL team. But I’d have a lot more say over the team’s name, over how we market ourselves, and the makeup of the team. I think the AUDL lends itself to a lot more team identity, rather than league-wide identity.”
Shaw sees that team control as very important to the future of professional ultimate. “The successful teams are the people that survive in the world of sports start-ups,” he said, noting the frequency of mergers and consolidations in professional sports. “In the long-term, or at least in the mid-term, having more freedom over a team gives me a better shot of having a successful professional ultimate team.”
But Shaw and Stein face a challenge since they are months behind other teams in getting prepared for the upcoming season. “There’s a big uphill battle to get everything in line,” said Shaw. “And I’m not sure everything will happen. But come the end of April, I think we’ll have a really great venue, I think that we’re gonna have a great team.”
Getting a suitable stadium in New York is difficult — and expensive. It remains one of the big question marks for the Empire franchise. The owners are less concerned about getting players and building a fan base, despite facing competition from the MLU, which — currently — has a New York team announced for its league. (It is possible that the team will become the Connecticut Constitution.) Regardless, the two leagues will be pulling players from the same talent pool in the tri-state area.
“I’m not a coach of a club team, but I do provide practice space to every major club team in New York City,” explained Shaw. “I’m used to working with these captains to helping them achieve their goals…I have a lot of reach in the ultimate community.” He feels confident about his ability to gather players from different parts of the New York ultimate scene, one he calls very “cliquey.”
Shaw has also worked for years as the owner of Ultimate Rec, a sports league organization. “I run a for-profit ultimate league in New York City and I compete against two not-for-profit ultimate leagues,” said Shaw. “I typically charge the same amount or less than them. So, in a lot of ways, I’ve been involved in professional ultimate for the last five years now.”
Shaw has his hand in many different business ventures. He believes the AUDL can be successful, and even thinks he can turn a profit in year one.
“I think the core of this is going to come down to how many ultimate players you can get to come out and support you,” he said. “I think a lot of AUDL modeling and MLU modeling – they’re so focused on bringing new people to the sport, but the real core here is the people that play ultimate and enjoy it.”
He says they will focus on very conservative budgeting and keeping travel costs low. The cost of the stadium is likely to determine their ability to make money or not. But he still feels more comfortable in the AUDL than he would in the MLU, in terms of his financial risk.
“I personally believe in grassroots type work in terms of budgets,” he said. “I think businesses like this should be lean and mean…I think that committing $125,000 up front to a team does tell everybody that you are serious. But I really worry about what [the MLU is] planning on doing when that runs out.”
For now, he and Stein will start planning their tryout process and outreach to players, as they develop marketing plans and continue working towards finding a stadium within New York City.