March 5, 2013 by Alexander Palmer in Opinion with 26 comments
With the professional ultimate seasons now less than two months away, there is no doubt that the American Ultimate Disc League and Major League Ultimate are thinking hard about how to get fans out to their games.
Something that both leagues would do well to recognize is that there will be no nationally televised Ultimate this year, and probably not for a few years to come. I would love to be wrong about this, but I can’t imagine there is a large enough audience for a network to risk a contract with one of these leagues. What this means is that both leagues will need to grow their audience at games.
The audience for Ultimate can come from three places. Players (especially college and youth players), their friends and families, and other sports fans. Of course, current and former Ultimate players are the mostly likely group to attend professional Ultimate games. They have an immediate interest in what is going on and many have friends, coaches, and teammates who will be playing in the pro leagues.
Last week, Charlie Eisenhood pointed out that community outreach and grassroots campaigning could be more important than that talent gap and big names the MLU has been attracting. I think he’s right, though I believe that he doesn’t give the MLU enough credit for their marketing strategy.
The MLU is clearly trying to put Ultimate players in the stands the first year, especially young, driven college players who want recognition as legitimate athletes. This scheme has taken a multi-pronged approach. First of all, their internet presence has been targeted towards players. From almost the beginning, their motto has been, “This is the showcase the sport deserves.” It seems pretty clear that no one but Ultimate players particularly cares what showcase the sport gets, but I know that a lot of college players are very excited about Ultimate being treated and marketed as a “real” sport.
Second, the MLU has started franchises in the right cities to get players to come out to watch. They are all hotbeds of Ultimate activity. Unlike the AUDL, the MLU has only started teams in cities with elite Open teams and enough players to have healthy Womens, Mixed, and League scenes. The number of players who can be convinced to buy tickets is far greater in MLU cities that AUDL cities; it stands to reason that they’ll be capable of pulling bigger first-year audiences.
Finally, some MLU teams have been paying particular attention to youth and college players while gearing up for the season. The Seattle Rainmakers made an important move to increase interest among younger players by holding a special U23 combine. Though only one of the 16 players invited to try out made the final roster, courting younger players is sure to generate excitement for college players and the friends they talk into attending games.
This is a very smart move by the MLU. While both leagues will be relying on growing an audience through word of mouth, the AUDL is in a strong position. Though their loyalty hasn’t been tested, some AUDL teams have established fans who will bring family and friends to games. With the exception of the Philadelphia Spinners, no MLU team has that sort of a fan-base. This year, they need to create a group of dedicated fans from which to expand. Marketing towards players and getting them excited about MLU’s brand of Ultimate will allow them to grow beyond these bases next season.
The MLU is certainly prepared to grow their audience once the league has an established group of fans. A sports fan who becomes interested in Ultimate will find the MLU websites very familiar, while the AUDL sites look somewhat unprofessional. The decision to market to players could pay off big if college athletes can convince their friends to come out to games. Creating teams on the West Coast allows the MLU to build strong fan loyalty before the AUDL expansion reaches those Ultimate hotbeds, preemptively limiting the growth of the MLU’s competition. While the MLU is trying to appeal to players, they are still making sure to lay the groundwork for aggressive growth.
That includes their decision to sign a deal with Innova to use the Pulsar — not the Discraft — as the official disc of the league, a controversial, risky move. The MLU stands to alienate some of the more traditional, conservative players. However, there’s a lot of upside for the MLU. For starters, Innova discs are sold in Eastern Mountain Sports and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Not only does this ensure that any sports fan who shops at either of these stores will be exposed to the logos of professional Ultimate (and the idea of pro Ultimate), the discs will be more readily available to fans than those of AUDL teams. I expect more people are willing to pick up a disc if they’re in one of these stores than to make a special order for a single disc on a team store. Though the Pulsar won’t unseat the Ultrastar any time soon, the MLU will be able to get teams’ discs in the hands and bags or on the walls and fields of their fans with ease. The choice of the Pulsar gives the MLU a way to easily spread knowledge of their brand.1
The MLU is rightly focusing their efforts on convincing current players watch games. From there, their web presence and choice of the Pulsar will help them grow their audience in the coming years. Their choice of cities in which to base teams allows them to bring in greater numbers of fans while preemptively limiting AUDL competition. If professional ultimate is to succeed, the MLU is in the much stronger position to be the leading league a few years down the road.
I’m indebted to Stefan Dicker and Tim Gilboy for convincing me of the Pulsar’s importance. ↩