Should I Stay Or Should I Go: Analyzing Roster Churn

Johnny Bravo's Sean Keegan gets fired up during Bravo's semifinals win at 2014 Nationals.
Sean Keegan was one of a number of transfer players for Johnny Bravo in 2014. Photo by Christina Schmidt —

Johnny Bravo’s rise to Nationals victory has earned a lot of attention throughout the ultimate community. An intriguing subplot to their victory is the role of the team’s new acquisitions for this season, including key contributors Kurt Gibson, Sean Keegan, Brett Matzuka, and Brodie Smith. While Bravo was projected as a wild card heading into Frisco, the influx of talent to Denver’s team helped vault them to glory.

But you don’t have to be in the hunt for a National title to understand the driving forces that compel players to seek a change of scenery. The longer you play, the more the landscape changes, and sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side.

I wanted to learn what others thought about the transitory nature of the club scene, so I broadcasted a survey asking players to share their opinions on some of the big questions: What factors do (or do not) play into players moving teams? What factors play the biggest part in players remaining with their current teams? Is player movement a problem, or a natural part of ultimate as a club sport?

The survey’s response was robust and enthusiastic, including over 100 players representing almost thirty states and at least six other countries. Finding some answers to these questions hopefully will help captains and coaches increase continuity in the ultimate community, and build better longstanding teams not just at the top level, but in the middle as well.

The Background

Is player movement actually common?

Eighty-seven percent of survey respondents agreed that it is. This figure seems validated by players’ individual histories: 48% reported playing for three or more teams, and a majority of respondents played for teams in two states or more.

Changes in Geography

The geographic diversity alluded to above may contain clues for the top reason players reported leaving a team: 56% of surveyed players said moving away was a key factor that led them to leave a team.

Since ultimate draws players in their twenties and thirties, they tend to have less rigid roots that would limit geographical mobility. While some players did note that they kept the ultimate scene in their mind when they sought a new location, loyalty to a given team is, unsurprisingly, generally not enough to prevent someone from accepting what they perceive to be the best job placement or graduate school acceptance.

There’s Always Someone Else…

After geographical moves, the other primary motivator for player departure was to seek a more competitive team (47%). A Pittsburgh area mixed player boiled down this phenomenon well: “Very competitive players want the glory of winning and will pursue it with other teams, even at expense of leaving a system they know well.”

With the steps USAU has taken to build prestige at the upper levels, and slowly increasing media attention for the top tier teams, those roster spots have become even more coveted; conversely, players may get wanderlust when they sense their team going south. Consider the departure of three Madison Club players for the Pro Flight pastures of Chicago Machine.

Several players noted that roster turnover is especially high in areas with high population density. For example, players reported that movement in the Northeast or Washington D.C./Baltimore are was more common because a high concentration of different teams renders travel distance far less of an issue.


Good or bad, there were seven main points taken from the survey.

1. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they left a team because of the formation of a new one.

As more players try out for a top- or mid-tier team, those who don’t make it often start their own team. A bad season or two could lead to a gradual shift in the balance of power.

2. Eighty-five percent of surveyed players said that they don’t view player movement as a problem.

Considering that many players change teams themselves, this figure is not surprising.

3. Survey respondents pointed to social elements that actually make roster churn beneficial; they cited how changing teams establishes new connections.

One player living abroad said, “If anything [players changing teams] really helps boost a sense of community. We are all friends; we may play to beat each other but it helps spirit having these bonds that spread throughout the whole community.”

4. The reasons why players stay with their current team are nearly universal.

The top reason was that they generally enjoyed being on the team (78%); other options that overlap with that admittedly vague designation included enjoying socializing with the team (71%) and loyalty to teammates (75%). Oddly enough, only 47% selected competitive success as a factor that motivated them to stay if they had an opportunity to leave.

5. A crucial criterion for building a successful team is a fun social environment.

A player for New York City’s top-level open team reported that “PoNY has been the best ultimate in every category for me competitively and socially.” Conversely, a less content player felt that her previous team, and many others, tend to be “insular,” and do not always welcome friends of team members in social situations, even if those “outsiders” are the partner or spouse of a player.

6. The two options selected fewest for why players left a team were other teammates leaving the team (7%), or a change in captain or coach (6%).

A coaching change at Raleigh Ring of Fire did not keep Brett Matzuka from leaving to play for Denver. This data suggests individual player departures or additions, or changes in team leadership, do not have a profound effect on other players’ decisions.

7. Only 22% responded that personality conflicts were a primary factor for leaving a team.

While these examples are often the most contentious and salacious, they appear to be some of the least likely.

Final Thoughts

While a Nationals win is not an immediate goal for many players, others are left wondering what went wrong or where to go from here. Johnny Bravo’s win may demonstrate the best case scenario for assembling a roster. But I’d encourage captains across varied levels and players considering a move to consider the research here; the best times strike a true balance between on field success and a spirited team culture.

  1. Joseph Friedman

    Joseph Friedman is a long-time ultimate player across many levels of the sport from college to semi-professional. He is a high school english teacher.

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