Why USA Ultimate Should Showcase College, Not Club

Iowa State Woman Scorned at the 2012 College Championships.
Courtesy of Ultiphotos’ Kevin Leclaire.

In the next five years, ultimate is going to go through dramatic changes. The AUDL, MLU, and NexGen are placing enormous pressure on USA Ultimate to adapt. The coming years promise innovations in how the game is played, officiated, and even watched. Indeed, the primary objective of USA Ultimate’s 2013-2018 Strategic Plan is to attract a wider viewership for ultimate, with the implied goal of regular national broadcasting.

This goal has already led to significant — although ultimately scaled back — changes in the Club season. Whether or not the Triple Crown Tour leads to increased exposure or a media partnership, no one can deny that USAU has focused on altering the Club structure for the long term. Meanwhile, the College Season remains relatively untouched.

If USAU is serious about achieving national visibility, it will have to court new fans — viewers who have never played ultimate. The USAU is misallocating resources restructuring the Club Season. To attract new fans, USAU should focus on increasing the visibility of the College season. Non-players have no reason to care about Club. They have no emotional attachment to the teams and will not find Club play as exciting. Instead, USAU should undertake a fairly dramatic restructuring of the College Regular Season, possibly even greater in scale than the initial vision of the TCT.

Not only do I believe that this is what they should do to increase Ultimate’s visibility, I believe it is something that they will do. If the TCT proves successful, USAU will try and emulate its success in the College season. If the TCT fails, any success of NexGen, the MLU, or the AUDL will force USAU to make growing the audience for college their top priority. This week, I will argue that the College Season needs to be altered if USAU wants to increase viewership. Next week, I will point out some worries I have about this prospect and point out how USAU can make the restructuring work for them and their players.

In creating the TCT, USAU hopes to showcase Ultimate at its highest level. Club players, especially those in the Pro Flight, are some of the best athletes and most skilled players to ever play the game. However, USAU should not be promoting the game at its best when it could be promoting the game at its most exciting. Club play can be dull. The throwers are so efficient that it can sometimes seem like points are decided before the pull goes off. While there is a lot for a viewer to appreciate about Club, the difficulty of an inside break (for example) isn’t going to be obvious to someone who isn’t particularly familiar with Ultimate.

In contrast, college ultimate often feature stunning reversals and long, hard-fought points. While a lot of turnovers result from the relative inexperience of college players, the non-player isn’t going to care. More changes of possession make for a more interesting game. To the average sports fan, College is more exciting than Club.

What’s more, College ultimate gives viewers a way to get emotionally involved with the teams. American culture encourages a strong emotional connection to one’s alma mater. We form important memories there and are often part of a culture of sports viewing that extends beyond just a football or basketball team. While a Seahawks fan has no reason to care about a Sockeye-Furious game, an Ohio State student or alumnus can always get excited about playing Michigan. If USAU wants to win an audience of non-players, passionate college sports fans are an important, accessible group. However, there is still no reason for sports fans to begin watching Ultimate if it isn’t consistently exciting.

The college season should be structured in order to ensure that every tournament that will be live-streamed or recorded and is as competitive as possible. Teams at each tournament should play at a relatively similar level. It’s not a whole lot of fun to watch a tournament knowing that one team is going to bulldoze its way to the finals without any resistance. If USAU is going to try to increase the profile of the college game, it needs to find a way to sort teams into loose tiers, ensuring that every single game is hard-fought and competitive.

USA Ultimate should also court viewers by ensuring that the College Regular Season feels like it really matters. Currently, the stakes of the college season aren’t high enough to create excitement on its own. While the rankings are extremely important for a few teams, it’s hard to get amped about the battle over the strength bids. Part of the reason is because the system works at a level that one cannot see from game to game. To attract viewers, USAU needs should organize the season so that the consequences of an upset are apparent, even to the unschooled viewer.

Furthermore, the outcome of the Regular Season has no major effect on the Series. Teams are not given a significantly more difficult road to Nationals based on poor regular season play, nor are they really rewarded for stellar play. While every team should have the opportunity to make Nationals, the regular season should more strongly influence teams’ shot at Nationals. Raising the stakes of Spring play would provide another reason to watch the Regular Season, rather than just watching the Series.

If USAU is serious about reaching a mass audience and gaining national exposure, they should consider reforming the College Regular Season to generate excitement and viewership beyond the CBS Sports Network coverage at the College Championships. They need to focus on cleaning up the organization of the season to make narratives possible, while simultaneously raising the stakes of those stories.

As a player, however, I do have serious concerns about any changes they might make. Next week, I’ll point out some of the potential stumbling blocks for reforming the college season and propose some ways in which they might be avoided. I’ll also discuss how College players could benefit from a restructuring. Hopefully, it will become clear how all these issues are related and how they point the way towards the future of college Ultimate.

  1. Alexander Palmer
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    Alexander Palmer is an Ultiworld opinion columnist. He is the captain of Columbia University's Open team, Uptown Local. He has played in the Club series with Flight NYC. He lives in New York City.

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