USA Ultimate Board Candidates Answer Our Questions

The logo of USA Ultimate, the sport's national governing body.With the current USA Ultimate Board of Directors vote finishing later this week, we were eager to hear more from the candidates about their views on a variety of important topics and issues facing the governing body and the growth of the sport.

While the candidate statements and interviews on USA Ultimate’s website gave voters a glimpse of the candidates’ stances, they were underwhelming in scope. While we certainly won’t be able to cover every important topic facing a governing body that has ever-increasing responsibilities, we asked each of the at-large candidates a set of questions that we hoped would elicit some more detail about their backgrounds, beliefs, and goals for the organization.

Note: Brian Garcia, the candidate for the elite athlete representative, is running unopposed and was not interviewed for this article.

Ultiworld: The number one focus of the current Board appears to be increasing Ultimate’s visibility.  Do you agree with that prioritization?  Are there specific decisions they’ve made in pursuing that aim that you think you may have done differently?

Lou Abramowski: I generally agree because it aligns well with the mission of the organization: “To advance the sport of Ultimate in the United States by enhancing and promoting Character, Community, and Competition.” I’m not sure it directly or specifically addresses promoting character, but it’s easy to see how community and competition benefit though this visibility.

DeAnna Ball: I do agree that increasing the visibility of Ultimate should be high on a list of priorities. I’ve always believed that our sport deserves recognition. It requires amazing athletes to play this sport, and I’ve never found anyone who felt that the Ultimate experience—for players and spectators alike—is anything but exciting. The US and international stage is set and ready for Ultimate. It would be a disservice to everyone who has played a role in the growth of this sport to not pursue the bigger stage. That stage could be the Olympics, and I think that as an organization, USA Ultimate has to proceed as if that is going to happen. I also understand that setting priorities comes at a price. And one of my goals as a board member will be to keep other important parts of what USA Ultimate does in focus. If that focus is lost, we risk losing the attention of a large part of our membership and that would be detrimental.

There is always an opportunity to rethink the charted course with ambitious goals. With the pace at which the organization is moving, it’s easy to look back and wonder. But the pace cannot be ignored – when opportunities arise, decisions have to be made. I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate decisions in the absence of being part of those decisions. But what I will say is that any decision has to be thought out, with an end goal of balance. Who does the decision affect? Who does the decision benefit? What are the costs and benefits of a change in the short- and long-term? For an example: the impact of changes made to the national championships schedule to accommodate EPSN coverage. These sorts of changes/decisions happen quickly and without the luxury of time for thoughtful implementation. The communication and timing of these types of changes have an impact. And not just on the actual competition, but on the perception of what the organization is trying to do. It is imperative that going forward, USA Ultimate finds a way to get out in front of the necessary changes. And that implementation and communication needs to be timely and clear.

Kyle Christoph: My number one goal is growth. Increasing the number of juniors players would be my method.

I believe the media focus on visibility should come at the college level first. Maybe my thoughts on this come half formed from only semi researching the growth of football in America, but I think focusing on college play would bring the easiest inroads into growth. Following a set of players that represent a larger academic institution instead of a geographical area would be easier to grasp for the new fan. Also, There are definitely a greater number of established college teams than there are club teams. Pushing college seems to be an easier method that would yield greater returns in teh end. Perhaps the only reason this is not the current path is that there is a very real possibility that ultimate could become a varsity sport, and then fall under a different legislating body other than USAU.

John Terry: Based off of membership surveys and market research, the USA Ultimate Board adopted improved visibility as a priority in its strategic plan, and I agree. The Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association said that almost five million people play ultimate in the United States, but the reality is that very few of them know about USA Ultimate and the many playing opportunities that exist. The more visible the sport and the organization can become, the more players it will be able to reach and support through its many membership programs.

There are other goals which share equal importance, however. For example, communication between USAU and its members can be improved. While having almost 40,000 members spread across the country does create some difficulties, USAU has gotten much better in communicating with members over the last five years. Keeping members in the loop should continue to be of great importance.

UW: Are you worried that the Triple Crown Tour or other visibility-driven decisions alienate middle or lower tier club teams?

Abramowski: I’m concerned because I know it is already making many players feel alienated and they are resisting. I used to be equally resistant to nearly all the big structural changes USAU made, often citing “They’re ruining the game! This is too soon!”

But what I’ve found as I reflect on many of these changes is that they most often accelerated inevitable changes, much to the benefit of the sport.

The TCT was probably an inevitable change that was accelerated by the introduction of the AUDL and MLU. And for that, I love what impact AUDL, MLU, NexGen, the previous incarnation of MLU, etc. have had on USAU to make sure they are attentive and innovative when it comes to the mission of the organization.

I will say one glaring mistake that I don’t think has been addressed by many people (if anyone) is that college players are more and more becoming critical members of club rosters and this change eliminated the opportunity for many of them who wish to try out for club teams, but don’t return home from college until after club rosters are required to be set.

I’m withholding my judgment a bit on TCT, but my gut tells me that in a year or two, most players and fans who care about USAU will find themselves appreciative for USAU demanding more competitive games on the schedule for all teams seriously competing for a championship.

Ball: There is that danger, yes. One of the things I say in my candidate statement: “…it is an important time to ensure that all playing levels and divisions are being paid all due attention. My goal as a USA Ultimate Board Member is to inform and affect change that allows the continued growth of our sport. And with that growth, I hope to ensure the proper considerations are paid at all levels, in all divisions, and in all areas of involvement.”

I participated in discussions about the club restructure while I was still the National Women’s Director. Overall it’s never been the intention to under-represent middle-/lower-tier club teams. I do believe there is a perception that is what is happening. Whether it’s just perception or not, there is work to be done. Some of the changes to increase visibility might result in alienation and that needs to be addressed whenever possible. This organization is devoted to all levels, all ages, and all genders. And if the equity pursuits are there and just not being noticed, then the organization needs to ensure that there is clear communication across all levels of play.

Christoph: I think this depends on what you consider middle. The Triple Crown Tour is hardest on the 5-16 teams from Nationals in my opinion. There are some difficult travel issues required for people that are definitely amateur athletes. The ROI can be a little difficult to present to these teams that are playing for the love of the game, but are presented a travel schedule that treats them a little more like a professional entity.

Playing on a national level masters team, and a definitely lower tier club team did not seem to affect my year all that much. We played when and where we wanted, played Sectionals to qualify for Regionals, and declined our bid. I would imagine that our year mirrors the vast majority of teams out there.

Going into the year I thought that the TCT would greatly favor the previous championship qualifiers, and make it near impossible for the new teams to break into the top 16. That fear was unfounded as there has been some shakeup and teams were “promoted” and “demoted” due to strong play. Now I think there needs to be some time spent on the ranking algorithm to see if there is a benefit to playing in the locations with a larger area. It seems that the teams from the outlying regions that had to travel further distances to get assigned games in were the ones that had the hardest qualifying years.

Terry: The Triple Crown Tour was created as a result of many surveys and much feedback from all levels of club players. The majority of elite club players wanted a structure much like the Triple Crown Tour, while a majority of middle and lower club tiers wanted not only the ability to compete against good competition, but also be able to compete against competition at their own level. The TCT does just that.

With that said, I think it’s always a good idea to gather feedback each year. If, after some experience, the TCT isn’t exactly what elite, middle, and lower club tiers want, USAU needs to look at possible changes to respond to those concerns. For example, if a group of lower tier club players have ideas about how TCT could work better for them, USAU should study its feasibility. Just because the club restructure has been done doesn’t mean USAU can stop getting feedback and improving the structure. In fact, this year is probably the most important time. There have been many women’s teams complaining that the TCT is unfair for their division, so USAU certainly needs to look at ideas to address those concerns.

UW: Gender equity is openly discussed more in the Ultimate community than elsewhere; outside media, groups, and professional leagues may be generating more discussion than ever. In general, do you think USAU should be more active, less active, or stay about the same in terms of promoting gender equity? Is there anything additional that you think USAU should be doing?

Abramowski: First off, I think I’m a terrifically qualified candidate for promoting gender-equality as a seven year Mixed division veteran and part-time coach of a high school girls team who cares deeply about their success as players and as humans beings, but I do not feel I’m the best (that’s obviously DeAnna). That said, gender-equality is obviously a critical component of USAU’s mission and it could be doing more, particularly at the youth level and developing competitive parity at the club level. Specifically, I’d like to see more focus from USAU placed on recruiting and encouraging current and former players to become coaches of girl’s youth teams.

Ball: USA Ultimate is committed to gender equity. Having observed board meetings in the past and having been a part of the Competition Committee (both while I was the National Womens Director), I have seen nothing that indicates otherwise. That’s not to say that there haven’t been decisions that seem to favor one gender/division over another. But with the current pace of growth of the organization, and with some of the current goals, there are times that individual decisions are made that truly do favor one division over another.

Often, it’s the Men’s division being favored over others. I’ve been in the conversations about deciding which games should be streamed online. Sometimes the numbers, in terms of fans, favor one division. With that said, I believe the organization needs to continue to find ways to expose and promote all divisions and build the fan base. It won’t be easy, and it’s going to take a little creativity and some risk-taking. There are so many sports wherein one can see that the fan base for one gender outnumbers the other. We need to seek out new ways of promoting and new sponsors to help us reach a wider audience, across all divisions. And again referring to my candidate statement, my general philosophy is to ensure that all levels, in all divisions, and all areas of involvement get the attention they deserve. Growth in one division should never come at the cost of the other divisions or levels. The staff at USA Ultimate works tirelessly, but inroads need to be made to allow time and attention to be spent on key areas that will continue to ensure the growth and maintenance of the membership.

Christoph: USAU has done a great job of promoting women’s ultimate in the past and in the present. Scheduling at the major tournaments, promotion, and even support for beginning teams has been topnotch. As a previous Regionals coordinator, we worked as equals and had a great relationship. USAU’s revolving finals schedule, attention to mixed, and effort at grassroots team building has been solid, and is not anything I would ever complain about.

Tentative idea would be to look into endorsed versions of ultimate that would involve smaller fields, and smaller numbers of participants at the middle school level. The success of high school eight man football in Texas leads to higher skilled players that I think could transfer to ultimate. In areas where 7+ players are hard to come by at one school, promoting five person ultimate on appropriate fields at the youth level could open up the game to a greater number of kids, especially female ones.

Terry: As the sport continues to grow, gender equity must continue to be stressed by USA Ultimate. Being more responsive to those concerns should be a priority, and it will be a priority of mine if I’m elected. The recruitment of new athletes and showcase events shouldn’t be limited to just the Men’s Division. Supporting, promoting, and emphasizing gender equity is crucial to the future success of the sport. The Board, along with the staff, needs to continue to pump resources into and develop more programs that focus on women’s ultimate.

UW: What is your personal opinion on self officiation, observers, and referees?  Would the policies you promote as a board member on those issues differ from your personal views?

Abramowski: Again, I’ll invoke the mission of USA Ultimate: “To advance the sport of Ultimate in the United States by enhancing and promoting Character, Community, and Competition.”

With that, I feel strongly that as long as the mission remains as it’s written above, self-officiation (and observers) play a critical role in enhancing and promoting character (especially at the youth level) and community.

Tangentially, every officiating system has flaws.

* Do I think people consciously make untruthful calls? Yes.
* Do I think referees will prevent people from breaking the rules? No chance.

Most of the AUDL and MLU players I’ve chatted with were very happy to play with referees, even if it meant their opponent could grab a jersey or foul a little harder and get away with it. And in the games I got to watch as a spectator, I enjoyed them far more than watching a USAU game, in part due to the officiating: it was faster, more physical, and I understood every call made on the field almost immediately.

So for now, it feels like refs do serve a great roll in fostering better competition and a more watchable game, but as the mission is written today, it seems to prioritize character and community above competition, which is why an observer system feels more aligned with what my role would be on the USA Ultimate Board of Directors.

Ball: I favor observers. I think as the level of competition grows, the ability for any sport to rely solely on self-officiation is diminished. I believe our sport is built on the idea of Spirit of the Game. And to keep that in the forefront, I believe that the players need to maintain initial control of calls made during play. With the increased visibility of our sport (live streaming, ESPN), continuing the effort to help make what the observers do more apparent and understandable will only help to justify staying on this path.

I do not intend to be shy about my views versus what decisions the board needs to make. It is understandable that at times, what I think may be trumped by necessity. I experienced this as the National Womens Director working with the Competition Committee. I believe that is how it should work. Board members shouldn’t go in with everyone holding the same opinions. Being able to actively listen and have a discourse about issues allows for the creativity necessary to keep this organization adapting to current needs.

Christoph: I am currently a USAU observer and play the majority of my games self officiated, but I also work as a referee for the Portland Stags, so my opinion comes from all sides on this one. I do think the observer system is fantastic, and works amazingly well for the majority of USAU situations. Refereeing a single game in a time clock situation provides a different situation that is equally as viable. But it probably only worked as well as it did because every player in the MLU grew up with the SOTG system.

After coming to ultimate from a tennis and hockey background and getting used to those officiation policies, I am a huge proponent of the observer system and don’t see any reason why I would not fully endorse USAU officiation policies in this regard.

Terry: Self-officiating is what drives this sport. In fact, it’s what drew me to start playing it ten years ago. It’s an extremely valuable teaching tool for younger players in conflict resolution, not only in sports but also in other aspects of life. However, having the sport exclusively self-officiated may not be the best idea for the sport as a blanket policy.

Just because elite players have made it clear they want observers doesn’t mean the high school divisions can’t still rely on self-officiation. Ultimate is not alone in that kind of approach. Another example of a sport which has successfully used different levels of self-officiating depending on the level is tennis. At professional tennis tournaments, there are multiple officials on every court. In college tennis, some non-conference matches will have roaming officials — maybe three of them for six courts. Rarely are officials used in high school tennis. Players make their own calls. The point is that different levels of a sport can have different rules – USAU needs to do what the players want and makes the most sense for the sport.

I do think it’s important that players will always have the ability to make a call, even if observers are used. The mission of USA Ultimate is to advance the sport of ultimate in the United States by enhancing and promoting Character, Community and Competition. I was in the room when the board developed that mission statement, and it is not by chance that we put Character and Community before Competition. We can’t run away from what built this sport, but at the same time, we need to continue to listen to what players want.

UW: What is USA Ultimate’s biggest weakness currently? Biggest strength?

Abramowski: Weakness: Communication. This opportunity is what has inspired me to run for the Board.

If at any point during your USAU membership, you’ve felt frustrated by

1. Not knowing the full details of an event (like live scoring)
2. How to get information (like roster requirements)
3. Or how to get something done (like how to renew)

Then I might be a candidate you support.

Strength: Competition. Particularly inspired by the presence and pressure from AUDL, MLU, NetGen, etc., USAU has done a terrific job fostering a landscape for outstanding competition at all levels (Club, College, and Youth).

Ball: With so many pieces in play, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay out in front of it all. This isn’t uncommon in a nonprofit organization. And I think there are times that we see different areas suffer: everything from communication to making sure the follow-through happens. In my time as the NWD, there were often goals and tasks that we needed to amend or cut short. It could be frustrating at times—leaving some things on the backburner.

The effects of that weren’t largely felt, but it’s hard to know that there was more that could be done to improve things. In a lot of cases, I worried about the support our volunteer coordinators were getting. With a growing sport and a busy staff, it’s incredibly hard to juggle all of the plates that are potentially in the air. As a board member I will lobby for finding ways to increase efficiency so that there are either fewer plates in the air, or more hands to juggle them.

I think USA Ultimate’s biggest strength is the staff AND the volunteer base that exists. That’s why I’m concerned as described above. I don’t want to see the people that really hold up this organization become overworked. There is a lot of information and great work held by a few number of people and we need to be sure to support them.

Over the last 10 years that I have been more intricately involved with USA Ultimate (most of that as NWD), I have seen those staff efforts in action – everything from the in-person meetings to watching/helping the staff put together the greatest events. I don’t know if it’s always well-oiled, but the staff/volunteers are a machine that gets it done. And if you are taking the time to read this, the next time you see one of the staff or a volunteer at a USA Ultimate event, thank them. They work incredibly hard, and it’s not always easy. I believe we have a generation of players that may not really understand how much change there has been — and the majority of that change has been positive. When I refer to this being an important time for our sport, this is largely what I mean—our sport is growing and we have to ensure that we keep the base solid to support this growth in the best way possible.

Christoph: USAU as an organization needs to find out what kind of organizing body we are going to be for the future. Is the future going to be more like USA Soccer, where the main efforts are growing the sport at the youth level and solely organizing the national teams at a competitive level, or more like the US Tennis Association which promotes the sport for youth, organizes the international Davis Cup team, but also has a hand in the professional scene. It’s a fine line, and will greatly affect the sport over the next few decades.

The greatest strength has been staying earnestly focused on what the competition model should look like.

Terry: Even though it’s improved quite a bit in the last five years, USA Ultimate struggles with communicating with its members – whether it be communicating a change or asking for feedback. I think there are always a small number of members who are vocal, but USA Ultimate needs to find ways reach out to different types of members – youth, college, club, masters, men, women, mixed, coaches, etc. Each group has specific needs and wants that USA Ultimate should know about. Along the same lines, USA Ultimate needs to continue to educate the membership about the many programs and resources that the organization has to offer.

The organizations biggest strength is its potential. When I was on the board, we constantly heard from other sport and television executives how attractive ultimate was. That’s a great position to be in. The fact that almost 5 million play ultimate in the United States, and the organization has just 40,000 members is an incredible position to be in. There aren’t many other sport organizations that have the potential for growth that USA Ultimate does.

UW: Why are you, specifically, a good choice for representing constituents on the Board? Do you have past governance experience?

Abramowski: I’m a serial entrepreneur and have played a role as founder in businesses in software, real estate, entertainment, and franchising whose annual revenues have varied from hundreds to millions of dollars. I also founded the largest online community of Ultimate enthusiasts at The Ultimate Page on Facebook. I currently serve on the Board of Directors of another non-profit and on the Board of Advisors for several software startups.

Plus, having played in the College, Mixed, Open, and Masters divisions for a combined 15 years, along with 10 years of coaching at the youth level, I have a wide breadth of experience to bring to the Board. I care deeply about communication and tech, two big challenges USAU faces today that only promise to grow more challenging with a growing membership. I am very experienced in the expectations, capabilities, and limitations of serving as a member of a Board of Directors and am thrilled with the opportunity to run for a seat on USAU’s Board.

Ball: While never having served on a Board of Directors before, I have 9 years of experience working alongside the USA Ultimate Board. During much of this time I was an active observer at the yearly board meeting. I was a participant in the development of the previous strategic plan and am excited about the 2013-2018 plan. I have been involved with Ultimate as a player in all divisions and at all levels (league through national championship tournament participant). I have worked with the national governing body for 10+ years, and I am involved locally. I won the 2007 Kathy Pufahl Spirit Award because of my dedication and passion for women’s Ultimate. And I continue to participate as a college coach, in the hopes of creating dozens of passionate Ultimate players that will continue on into the Club and Masters divisions.

And I have concerns. I’m not going into this thinking that I can safely ride a wave of recent success that our sport has seen. As a board member, I plan to listen, and to see what is happening. And I will be disruptive, adaptive, and/or creative to solve problems when they arise and move the sport forward.

My passion is Ultimate; my experience is in women’s Ultimate and coaching. I love seeing our sport on the national and international stage. But I also believe there is more to “us” than that. I want to ensure that the organization is paying attention not to just the elite athletes and teams, but to the many people who participate in this sport that never get to see the big stadium lights. And I believe the fans for all levels and divisions are out there; we need to go get them and put them in seats. Once we are able to do that, this sport will not just be growing, but it will be exploding. There is a lot of work to be done, and I am ready to meet the challenge and work with others that share the same drive.

Christoph: In case you don’t want to listen to my USAU interview, here are my hopes for the next 20 years.

  • Ultimate become a varsity sport at the high school and college level
  • Dedicated field lines permanently painted on new turf field installations.
  • Organization and implementation of a beach series, and a mixed masters division.
  • Enough growth that teams have to qualify to get to Sectionals. In effect having enough teams that city wide play would be the first stage of the USAU championships.
  • Start the conversation about adapting ultimate rules into para-athletics.

As far as actual governance, I was my class president in high school, luckily stepping down before my senior year and avoiding having to plan every reunion. I also am currently the National Masters Director so I have been previously involved in USAU policy experience.

In closing, even if I don’t earn your vote, I hope someone’s thoughts here have made you wish to see them added to the board, and also become more involved in the future of ultimate yourself. This is an exciting time in the sports growth. Thanks for reading.

Terry: I previously served on the USA Ultimate Board of Directors for four years, so I know what it takes to be a committed and effective board member. Being on the board is more than wanting to line fields and create mobile apps. Those things are important, but USAU board members are primarily responsible for the long-term vision and effective governance of a multi-million dollar, 35,000+ member organization. I chaired the nominating committee for three years, leading the charge to add new members to the Board, some from the Ultimate community, but also others who can help bring a new perspective as the sport grows, such as executives from other sports. I also served on the marketing committee and the rebranding committee.

Just as importantly, I’ve advocated for individual members and teams numerous times with issues they were having, whether big or small. I’ve been around the sport for more than ten years. I’ve been a player and a coach, I’ve played both open and mixed ultimate, and I’ve been involved in the youth, college, and club divisions of the sport. I was lucky enough to represent the United States on the 2008 U-20 National team. I’ve coached many teams and have been counselors at youth camps around the country. I started and ran a website called YouthUltimate.com for five years that was dedicated to covering youth ultimate around the world. I’ve studied sport administration for six years, while working in intercollegiate athletics at West Virginia University, and spent a summer at the United States Olympic Committee. I understand the sports industry well, specifically Ultimate, and that knowledge will help me effectively guide and lead Ultimate for the next three years.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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