What About The Rest Of Us? An International Perspective On The Pro Leagues

Triple Crown Tour. NexGen League. AUDL. MLU. All of the various options available to players in the United States and Canada have been well documented and discussed, but what does it all mean for players outside of North America?

The USA Ultimate Club Championships are arguably the highest annual level of competition in the world; it is not surprising that players from outside the US want to experience playing in them. We have seen more international players being scouted and “picking up” for the series as they aim to get the best competitive experiences possible.

But 2010 proved that the World Club Championships tournament is still the competitive pinnacle the sport can offer. 2014 should further cement this.

In 2006, only 2 USAU Open clubs attended the World Championships in Perth, as the date clashed with USAU championships. The teams, Subzero and Doublewide, still finished 4th and 7th. In Prague in 2010, US teams finished 1st and 2nd and all 5 teams finished within the top 10 in the world.

Since 2013 is a Worlds qualification year, I doubt that many of the top American and Canadian players would step away from USAU, despite the unproven Triple Crown Tour structure. Keeping the world’s top talent in the World Championships competition will aid the growth of Ultimate worldwide. Players outside the US will certainly be hoping that the top clubs and players compete in the structure that is handing out the bids to Worlds.

The rapidly improving coverage of USAU tournaments along with the NexGen showcase games means that the stars in North America are easily the most well known players of the sport worldwide; new up and coming players look to them as the best of the sport. The World Club Championships are the only opportunity many will ever get to match up against them and watch them in person — the disappointment would be staggering if US Club involvement was limited.

Moving to the professional leagues, the current situation does not lend itself to a large number of top players either inside or outside the US uprooting their lives and moving to a AUDL/MLU city to “go pro” this season. So, though the pro leagues will be working exclusively with US players, USAU is actively including international teams as part of their plan of showcasing high quality ultimate at the US Open tournament.

Enticing international teams to the tournament will be the name of the game, and the number of international slots to fill will rise from one in each division to four in 2013. USAU’s aim is to get the best International talent to compete against the top 4 teams from USAU Club Championships to provide a showcase tournament for the world.

I doubt international teams will feel they have a sure shot at the prize money to recoup some of the costs of attending, since the top 4 US teams will be in attendance. The tournament fee will likely be an object of contention. However, 2013 will be a good year to tryout the new format of the US Open, as international teams won’t have to balance funding a trip to Worlds as well (and they know it will be the highest level of international competition for the year). How will the event be marketed to international teams? What kind of video production should international players expect? We’re eager to know.

There’s a chance, though, that the US Open could look very different in the men’s division. With the NexGen League battling for the elite teams, it’s possible the top men’s teams won’t be in attendance. But what other effects would NexGen have? The structure would benefit international players by providing regular coverage of the best teams and best players from a proven supplier of quality video and broadcasting. Founder Kevin Minderhout also emphasizes the increased “storytelling” in his proposal — more player coverage would be a plus as well. We have already seen what a committed media campaign did for Brodie Smith, turning him from a star of the sport to a celebrity of the culture.

However, if NexGen does gain a commitment from the elite clubs and USAU fails to change the bid allocations for Worlds, this could deal a serious blow to international ultimate development. On the other hand, if USAU and NexGen for a partnership and allow bid allocation to be determined through the NexGen League, it could strengthen the competition by providing international teams with a large amount of video coverage that they would have available for strategic analysis. This could just as easily happen if the Triple Crown Tour includes improvements to livestreaming coverage.

It does seem, though, that USAU’s goal is to get national broadcasting coverage for their tournaments. While this could be great at attracting new participants, it will also limit access for those within the ultimate community without access to those networks (i.e. almost all international players). Attracting new audiences should be a priority but I don’t think it should come at the cost of alienating existing consumers.

Lastly, the debate about officiating in Ultimate can now no longer be ignored. The World Flying Disc Federation remains adamant in their opposition to both referees and observers. Yet few international players have played with either. Only one tournament in the UK has been run without self-officiating, the Rylands Cup, which was seen as an experiment. It does not make sense to pass judgement outright without having any experience playing with observers or referees, but I also have never had an experience where I felt they were necessary during a game.

For what it’s worth, USAU tournaments can be seen as a positive case study for observers. And from an outside perspective, the AUDL seems to have had good referees and an officiating system that worked. With these systems showing benefits and having many vocal supporters, the calls for third party officiating outside the USA may continue to grow.

Although I don’t expect to see any professional ultimate leagues being established outside North America any time soon, it is obvious that the effects of all the new developments in the US will be analyzed and discussed worldwide. This season will be very exciting for the entire global Ultimate community.

  1. Matthew Hodgson
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    Matthew Hodgson lives in the UK where he plays ultimate for Ka-Pow! (Open) and Thundering Herd (Mixed). You can check out his personal blog here.

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