It’s Time For A Players’ Union In Elite Ultimate

Ultimate Players' Association.Bob Cousy established the NBA players’ union in 1954. At the time, there were legitimate concerns the league and team owners were chasing their own motives with little or no regard to the players interests. For example, back then when a player got traded he was expected to pay for his move out of his own pocket. Cousy was motivated by a simple issue: left unchecked, the league was moving in directions that increasingly began exploiting its players as means to further “popularize” and “monetize” professional basketball.

60 years later, we see player’s unions playing huge roles in virtually every professional sport. They serve a basic purpose: to protect the interests and well being of the participants who actually compete on the playing surface. We also see why this is necessary: those with marketing and/or financial interests in a sport are, by definition, less interested in the players’ concerns.

In 2013, I am beginning to see some parallels in ultimate. I believe we as a community of players need our own union. As it stands now, we the competitors are forced to compete within a framework designed more to “grow the sport” and less to protect the players.

USA Ultimate wants more opportunities for exposure of top-level ultimate, control of the events that top teams attend, and control of the revenue streams from marketing and broadcasting to ticket sales. USAU’s initial concept for the Triple Crown Tour received resounding disapproval from the players, and after discussions the USAU backed down. That should serve as notice of where USAU sees ultimate going, and there is no doubt that they intend to get it there, or beyond.

It seems that USAU envisions a limited number of high-profile events, which can be packaged up and marketed to sponsors and networks. They stand to make the profits from any incoming revenue, but it seems that by charging large entry fees and establishing some existing sponsorship for premier events, they haven’t necessarily put themselves out to absorb much of the risk.

When thinking about the demands on the players, I think it is necessary to consider two classes of teams, those that have consistently been in the top 10 over the last five years, and those that haven’t. Also, for now i will assume we are talking just about Men’s Division teams, as it is the men who have alternative playing options in the two “pro” leagues.

I think the top USAU teams are happy to make their own schedules and decide which events they want to attend. DIfferent teams will have different formulas for how many events, how much travel, and the timing of those events to suit their personnel and metrics for success. From the player’s perspective, if USAU is going to mandate that they attend certain events, the players want to be compensated for that.

Consider two different teams.

Pro Flight Team A that is composed of many college students who played the grueling college season and have limited budgets may be happy to play local tournaments all summer, and attend one premier tourney they can drive to.

Pro Flight Team B, on the other hand, has many young professionals with more money than responsibility, and are all to happy to pay to fly to multiple events and want to test themselves against quality opponents all summer long.

These teams may have different objectives, with Team A only focused on success at Nationals while Team B wants to win a number of tournaments, win their region, and perform well at Nationals. The training schedule and formula for success for these teams will be different, but under the USAU structure they will have the same demands. And, unless one of these teams wins a premier event, they will receive the same amount of compensation from USAU…nothing.

I think, in general, that these teams want some expenses covered if they are traveling to mandated tourneys. Nationals has always been an optional event, and we can look back to the Northwest around the turn of the century to find an Oregon-based team that qualified for Nationals, but didn’t have players who were willing to make the trip to Sarasota. This option is eliminated under the Triple Crown format for Pro teams, as their option is to participate or disband. This is the proverbial “gun to the head” of these teams.

Now, for the teams on the cusp of Nationals or the general ultimate dues-paying members who don’t participate at Nationals or in the Triple Crown Tour, they would not want to see their dues going to support a limited number of elite events. USAU, for the time being, seems to recognize that by upping the tourney fees on the Triple Crown events to help cover expenses, further taxing the participating players, and again offering nothing in return.

Outside of financials, the new USAU format limits the exposure the average player has to the top teams, as those teams now have decreased participation in regional-level tournaments, and most don’t play at Sectionals. From a competition standpoint, this limits the “bubble teams’” ability to improve because their chances to play top-level competition has been diminished.

For the players on teams below the bubble level, the limited access may prevent young players from seeing what the best players in the game are capable of, but there is probably minimal impact for players on those teams. Those teams can still participate in their summer schedule, they are covered by insurance, and the “fun” events will still be available to them.

Backing up 60 years to the questions Bob Cousy faced, do players on elite teams need protection from a potentially unchecked USAU? If so, who is it and how is it provided? A conservative back of the envelope calculation tells me that Revolver spent roughly $15,000 (not counting missed work) to attend the US Open. What was their payoff for winning? Two thousand dollars and a little time on ESPN3. Now imagine USAU wants Revolver, and the other top teams, to attend three of these types of events per year prior to the Nationals series. Players continue to operate at a deficit, a potentially expanding one, while USAU continues to grow.

I think there is a strong case to be made that USAU does plan to require more from players on teams in the top tier, and that in return they are offering little. To date, sponsorship revenue to teams has been limited, and while i’m sure most top teams pay little-to-nothing for their uniforms, they are not getting money to use at their discretion for things like plane tickets, field space, proper training, rental cars, housing at tournaments, or meals while on the road. This means that players are still covering their own expenses. With that, in my mind at least, comes the right to determine their own team objectives, including the events they attend as a part of achieving the team’s goals.

This isn’t the way the USAU currently sees it, and unless the players unite to work with the USAU in determining what is a fair expectation of the players, the USAU will continue to demand more. At some point those teams may look back and wonder how they got to that point, but I believe the time is now for the top teams to agree to what they expect from USAU. After all, elite players are dues-paying members, and they represent the product that USAU is marketing; they should be setting the expectations, not becoming the victims of USAU’s agenda.

  1. Greg Husak

    Greg Husak is a 15 year veteran of high level Ultimate. Greg was a leader during the UCSB Black Tide's three-peat, and then again with the Santa Barbara Condors, winning two titles and a World Championship in 2002. He played two seasons and won a title with San Francisco Jam. He is now playing again with the Condors, who are headed back to the Club Championships this year.

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