How To Best Showcase College Ultimate

Pittsburgh takes on Wisconsin in the finals of the 2012 College Championships.
Photo courtesy of Ultiphotos’ Kevin Leclaire.

Last week, I discussed why USA Ultimate should reform the College Season to increase viewership of Ultimate. I argued that they have to find a way to raise the stakes of the season while ensuring that every tournament that is live-streamed or recorded features an even field of top-level teams. I believe that the best way to do this is to create a series of showcase tournaments, much like those of the Triple Crown Tour, USAU’s new Club season format.

Unlike in the TCT, however, the teams that attend these showcase tournaments should be determined by a series of qualifier tournaments. Doing so would ensure consistently high-level streaming content while raising the stakes of the rest of the season. It also has the added advantage of being a relatively flexible system that would allow the future of College Ultimate to be shaped by viewers, players, and the governing body.

It is worth noting that the USAU season already has a loose series of “elite” tournaments. These tournaments (Stanford Invite, Centex, and Easterns) are covered extensively by the Ultimate media and have been live-streamed by NexGen in the past (NexGen will be at Stanford and Easterns this year). It would be easy enough to use these tournaments as high level showcase tournaments, perhaps incorporating others like New England Open into this series. These tournaments would ideally be streamed, reported, and analyzed live, bringing elite college action to viewers at home.

However, college teams cannot be split into Flights based on the previous year’s Nationals results. Player turnover (due to graduation or USAU’s eligibility limits) happens too quickly in College. One year’s Nationals contender might struggle to make it out of next year’s Regionals after its stars graduate. It would be against USAU’s best interests to allow these teams into the elite tournaments based on performance the year before. Conversely, a few big graduate student pickups might give another team a one or two year window to make a run at Nationals. It would be unfortunate if they missed their opportunity because the system never gave them a chance.

I would suggest that the spring season’s tiers are set each spring. That is, each of these elite tournaments should have a set of qualifier tournaments. Only the top 16-20 finishers at the qualifying tournament or tournaments would play at the corresponding elite tournament. If it was too much work to create a new series of tournaments, it would be easy enough to turn pre-existing tournaments into qualifiers. For example, the top finishers from QCTU, Presidents Day Invite, and Stanford Open (and/or other participating tournaments) could earn bids to the Elite Stanford Invite. Easterns and Centex could just as easily incorporate tournaments as qualifiers (Easterns already has a qualifier tournament). Even though this is not meant to be represent the ideal College Season, it is a loose characterization of how USAU could easily and effectively create tiers during the spring season.

A series of qualifier tournaments also provides USAU an easy way to give the College Season higher stakes. I pointed out last week that most pre-series tournaments feel like they don’t really matter; if these tournaments serve as qualifiers for elite showcase tournaments, teams are already playing for more than just a tournament win.

As a viewer and as a player, I would want the stakes to be even higher. The winners of these tournaments should at least be able to skip Conference Championships. Personally, I don’t see a big problem with giving the winners of these elite tournaments a bid to Nationals; it’s extremely rare that a team wins one of these three tournaments and doesn’t go to the College Championship. It would be very easy to raise the stakes of these tournaments and, in doing so, raise the stakes of the entire season.

One thing we should always remember when looking at proposed changes is that no system is perfect. Whether we’re arguing about referees, the Pro leagues, or the format of a season, there will always be problems, especially as we adjust to the new landscape. I’m sure that reformatting the College Season into a series of qualifier and elite tournaments is no different. Some of these disadvantages, however, are outweighed by the flexibility of the proposal I am making.

As the fate of the TCT shows, USAU has to proceed in small steps while listening to its players. Players rebelled against the strict regulation of the TCT, forcing USAU to roll it back extensively. Creating a loose system of qualifying tournaments would be different. Once over the first hump of creating a qualifying system and a series of showcase tournaments, USAU could respond to feedback in so many ways. While the TCT was too rigid to adapt to the negative player reaction, the proposed college season is highly mutable.

If the system is overwhelmingly popular, USAU could stop sanctioning tournaments, and start giving them Qualifier status. If the same elite teams are playing too many tournaments while qualifying for the showcases they will get into anyway, USAU can offer the top six teams of one elite tournament automatic bids to the next. If the showcases demand too much travel, teams would already be able to decline their bids, but USAU could also create a new showcase (New England Open?) or two in areas of high demand. The possibilities are endless, and most are improvements over what we have now.

Turning the Regular Season into a series of qualifiers would certainly be a dramatic step, but it would make College Ultimate much more viewer-friendly. The stakes would be high, with something on the line at every qualifier tournament. The Series itself would be more exciting, instead of watching one team dominate the weekend, more evenly matched teams would scramble for the last bids. Such a system would also be good for the players. Teams that might not be selected by a Tournament Director would have the opportunity to play into showcase tournaments — and they could be confident that season could change in response to their concerns. For players and viewers, a series of qualifying tournaments is a very good start 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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