Major League Ultimate Faces Questions After Dropping Two Teams

The logo of Major League Ultimate, the new professional Ultimate league.Late Monday night, Major League Ultimate launched their team websites and made a number of announcements pertaining to staff, stadiums, and the upcoming season. However, questions remain about the ability of the nascent league to get off the ground by their scheduled start date, April 20.

MLU President and Commissioner Jeff Snader recorded an interview early this week that announced that the league would be dropping two of its planned 10 teams — New Jersey and San Jose — for at least the 2013 season.

“We picked all the markets that we wanted to run and we listed those out on our website,” said Vice President Nic Darling. “In the end, when we were picking the schedule of our season and the length of the time we wanted the season to run, we wanted to have the strongest schedule we could and that included the 8 teams that will play this season. We felt it was better for the league and the fan experience to have one team in the Bay Area. It was a similar thing in Jersey, with a New York team and a Philly team. We felt it was stronger in the first year to allow teams just to focus on those two teams.”

“While it wasn’t something that we publicized, there was always flexibility in our scheduling,” he added.

Notably, New Jersey has an American Ultimate Disc League team that will begin play this year. They held very early combines and signed players well before the MLU was in a position to really begin recruiting. This may have played a role in the decision to drop New Jersey this season.

“I think the AUDL team that’s running in Jersey will provide a baseline of understanding about that Jersey market,” said Nic Darling. He did not commit to saying that the MLU would have a team there or in San Jose in 2014, but did note, “Those are markets that we think are very, very strong for ultimate and that’s why we have them there in the first place.”

Earlier today, the Connecticut Constitution — owned by Bryan Ricci, the Chief Financial Officer of the MLU — announced that they will not be playing in the MLU this year. “Professional ultimate and professional sports are something that can have a home in Connecticut, but as yet, our tireless efforts to make that a reality in 2013 have been unsuccessful,” Ricci wrote in a statement.

Conversations with Ricci and others involved in the Constitution organization made clear that the team will remain its own entity, and does not have any association with the MLU’s New York Rumble team.

When asked why the MLU won’t be involving the Constitution this year (a widely anticipated move), Darling said, “It’s just based on market choice. We don’t know where the future’s going to take us or whether one day the Constitution will be an MLU team.”

The league also announced its schedule, which runs from April 20 through the second weekend in July. There will be 40 regular season games (down from an originally announced 60). The schedule was designed to avoid significant overlap with the club season.

“The schedule respects the players and it makes the decision to play in the MLU a little bit easier,” said Nic Darling.

MLU executives have been meeting with elite club players (they were in New York talking with PoNY last week) in their home markets to sell them on the idea of playing in their league. The structure of the season is explicitly designed to accommodate those players.

They have also been inquiring in New York — and presumably other markets — about General Managers. John Korber, the Constitution’s GM, was contacted yesterday by Skip Sewell, the MLU’s Creative Director, about becoming the GM for the Rumble. Korber said he would think about it, but that it would depend a lot on the fate of the Constitution.

So far, the league has announced just three GMs — Max Vitali in Seattle, David Kucherlapati in Boston, and Nathan Schorsch in Portland. They’ve also announced they have stadiums confirmed in Vancouver and San Francisco.

Because of the limited amount of information released about teams and, to date, no discussion of investors, rumors have been swirling about the MLU’s ability to even have a season in 2013. Darling disputes any idea that there is trouble.

“I think part of the reason the rumor mill has been going is that we are inclined to be careful with releasing information so we are in a position where we are not overpromising,” he said. “We’re funded for our 2013 season, but we’re still open and interested in talking to investors.”

When pressed about which markets have been sold, Darling declined to comment. I asked him if there was a chance there would not be a 2013 season. “Not a chance,” he said. “Not even the slightest chance. 100% there will be a season in 2013.”

He did encourage investors interested in being involved, whether as individuals or in groups, to contact the league, even if they aren’t interested in managing a particular market. “I want to stress that this is not a matter of having it affect our season in 2013,” he added.

In an interview in November, Darling said, “We have several investors who are interested in providing the pickup funding for a team or two that don’t get picked up in the first year.” These investors could help shore up any shortfall that exists.

Darling declined to speak about the league’s budget, which, considering that two markets have been removed for the upcoming season, is likely down from the originally announced $1.25 million.

Perhaps a bigger concern for the league, however, are the logistical challenges facing them. With just over three months until opening day, it will be a race to get GMs, staff, stadiums, players, and local marketing all set in time.

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