It’s Not About Compromise: Aligning With USAU Is In Pro Leagues’ Best Interest

A new way of thinking about semi-pro league and USA Ultimate compromise.

Leila Tunnell gets a layout block.
Leila Tunnell gets a layout block. Photo: Scott Houghtaling —

In Tiina Booth’s recent column, she reignited the debate over the impasse between USA Ultimate (USAU) and the semi-pro leagues. Her article urges USAU to compromise and provide at least tacit support to the semi-pro leagues in order to market USAU’s playing opportunities to the leagues’ spectators.  

In my mind, there is no doubt that what is happening in the sport right now is not ideal. On one hand, it’s incredibly exciting to have not one but two groups pursuing a sustainable, professional playing model and to see the exposure that these leagues as well as USAU and World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) are garnering for the sport through various high level events and media channels. On the other, I can’t recall any time in the last twenty years where the community felt so divided in terms of where it was going and how it was going to get there.  

Most of the discussion is framed around who should compromise. The assumption is that the sport’s long held core values of gender equity and player responsibility for fair play are in conflict with a for-profit, spectator sport. I believe that this assumption is wrong. It is based on the misguided idea that our only chance to gain “legitimacy” is to follow the lead of other sports. It ignores the fact that the sport has been leading, growing, and gaining legitimacy for years by finding its own way. The way forward is for one or both semi-pro leagues to recognize the opportunities to advance their own best interests by leading with gender equity and player responsibility.

While aligning with USAU on these values would open doors to working with USAU on a number of issues, the choice to adopt and model these values is a pragmatic one that stands on its own merits. Adopting the value of gender equity (in the form of either 4:3 offense decides or 6 v 6 mixed play) and player responsibility (in the form of a streamlined observer system) would help drive the semi-pro leagues to short-term stability and long-term profitability for a number of reasons.

1. More Marketable Stars, Coaches and Leaders

Mixed play will allow for the semi-pro leagues to develop a much deeper bench of marketable stars.  Because of the gameplay of ultimate and the way single-gender ultimate is marketed, it’s almost impossible to develop stars beyond the top three or four players on a team. In mixed play, both the leading men and the leading women can have prominent, defining roles. The top women on each team and in the league will become role models in a way that the men deeper on the bench simply cannot. Having these top women on the rosters will mean that the league has more stars as well as more diversity of stars to allow for targeted marketing toward specific demographics that the league can attract as fans.

In reading Tiina’s article, what struck me most was her lead-in anecdote about campers at her National Ultimate Training Camp (NUTC) not being impressed by counselor Leila Tunnell. That was, until Leila “schooled” them on the ultimate field. Once campers witnessed Leila’s play, they knew she was the real deal.  

Sarah "Surge" Griffith
Sarah “Surge” Griffith leading Fryz tryouts. Photo: Scott Dunhan.

Leila’s ability to command respect and attention for her play and leadership is not an exception to the rule. The weekend following Tiina’s article, the Seattle Fryz youth club ran their tryouts. The Fryz support a men’s, women’s, and mixed team and are the highest level of youth play in Seattle. A whopping 275 high school aged youth of both genders attended the event led by Riot’s Sarah “Surge” Griffith.

Leila and Surge are just two of many accomplished and fun-to-watch women’s ultimate athletes. They are leaders in their community and talented coaches. When they are off the field they teach and inspire and when they are on the field and eyes are on them, they impress. But, in the semi-pro leagues’ current format, the leagues are leaving Leila, Surge, and dozens of others of talented players and leaders on the sidelines. 

Meanwhile, the Girls’ Ultimate Movement (GUM) and other organizations are actively working to grow youth girls’ participation. The expansion of clinics, workshops, and teams around the country also means a quickly expanding fan demographic. The semi-pro leagues are limiting their reach into an untapped demographic of fans while filling the ends of their rosters with players whom fans will never know or feel invested in.

2. A Strong, United, Passionate Community

Ultimate players are a passionate bunch. We have competed in an under-the-radar sport for years. Many of us have invested huge amounts of time and money to grow the sport. The gender and officiating issues with the semi-pro leagues have divided the community, alienating many of us who have been the most involved in developing ultimate. Ben Van Heuvelen and Lou Burruss are just two of the many examples of well-respected leaders in the in the game who have been either neutral or against the semi-pro leagues.

The discussion on semi-pro league articles often reflects this divide. I recently spoke with George Stubbs, and one of his primary reasons for not participating in the semi-pro leagues is his concern that they move the sport away from what makes ultimate and the community around it so great. Even many of the leagues’ current players have expressed similar sentiments.

Mario O’Brien, who has played for two seasons in the MLU, believes that the introduction of referees and reduction of player responsibility for fair play is risking one of the best parts of ultimate. His extensive experience working with groups internationally to develop the sport has given him a first hand look at the positive impact of self-officiation on individual development. Many top tier players, both currently playing in the semi-pro leagues and not, are being held back from being full participants and true ambassadors of the leagues due to the current divide.  

The majority of people who play organized ultimate in North America participate in mixed format leagues at the recreational level. Many players begin play in high school mixed leagues and middle school mixed play is increasingly becoming the entry point for youth ultimate in the largest ultimate communities. Mixed is also the largest USAU club division. These players of all ages have played in and understand mixed play and are the base of the potential early adopting fans. Moving the leagues more in line with the traditional values of the sport will ignite a huge number of passionate supporters who can be critical in pushing the leagues to a sustainable future. Count me at the front of that line.

3. New, More Elite Team Identities

With each semi-pro league team boasting a smaller number of players per gender on its roster, the teams become more elite. No longer are the semi-pro teams taking players who can’t make the top local USAU club team. The semi-pro leagues can establish developmental and promotional relationships with the top women’s, mixed, and men’s club teams. And the semi-pro leagues become more attractive to the best players striving to play in the most challenging setting.  

Introducing mixed play also creates new, exciting team identities that, while related to the single-gender teams in each city, are distinct and fresh. Those already following USAU competition frequently express that the MLU and AUDL teams are often watered down versions of their USAU city counterparts. Revolver is split between three semi-pro teams while Sockeye only has a handful of players participating in the semi-pro leagues. In cities where most or all of a USAU team plays, it’s easy to compare those teams’ composition and performances and see that USAU has a higher level of play. With mixed play in the semi-pro leagues, there would be no more comparison of the Toronto Rush (AUDL) to GOAT, with the Rush ending up on the losing end.

4. A Better Pitch to Sponsors

This could be its own article in itself. Deep, meaningful sponsorship relationships aren’t just about getting eyeballs on a brand. Successful brands are cognizant of the values they are trying to project and work to use their partnerships to align their brands with those values. As it is, the semi-pro leagues offer an exciting, fresh, and young game. A mixed format with a greater emphasis on player responsibility and integrity enhances this pitch tremendously.

In the technology industry there is an ongoing issue with gender inequity. A lack of gender equity damages an organization’s ability to achieve success by negatively impacting its ability to draw and develop talent while limiting the perspectives of key decision makers to a narrower demographic. The exclusion of women can also hurt consumers’ perception of a company.

There’s also a strong affinity for ultimate in technology. Firms in this industry that want to advertise the value they place on a gender equitable workplace and society could be heavily drawn to a mixed format semi-pro league and the opportunities those leagues present to market women alongside men. Tech companies’ interest in sponsorship would be particularly strong if it was clear that the league represented the best of the best players in the area.

Our financial and other industries have seen a deep decline in trust over the past several years. This has been mirrored in the most high-profile male professional sports that have been tainted by PED, concussion, and domestic violence issues. The strong emphasis that we place on player responsibility and fair play presents a huge opportunity to create a better pitch. Financial service, health insurance, media and other companies in industries beleaguered with low levels of trust could be eager to align their brand with our sport which boasts a fast, competitive, and rooted-deeply-in-integrity brand.  

Semi-professional ultimate where players have primary accountability for fair play and are recognized for their success in meeting that duty may be especially attractive to companies interested in drawing attention to how they value individual responsibility and integrity.

There are also many companies leading the way into a future that is performance driven while being sustainable and socially conscious. Companies like Tesla, SolarCity, Tom’s, and Beyond Meat are growing quickly while still competing for market share and awareness. A sport that has values that align with where companies are going and is the exact market that they want to reach will be a very attractive pitch for them.

5. USA Ultimate

USAU has been clear about its position on the current state of the semi-pro leagues. While many may disagree with USAU, there are plenty who support the stance, and USAU is not due for another strategic plan that may change its position until 2018. A mixed format with a larger nod to self-officiation/observers would bring a league closely in line with USAU’s values and goals for the sport. It would push a critical mass of players and USAU members into supporting the semi-pro leagues. It would compel USAU to support the league as well. There are numerous potential benefits here to the semi-pro league that partners with USAU, including:

– Season scheduling to avoid conflicts of major events

– Joint sponsorship and cross-marketing opportunities

– Cooperative sport development and outreach efforts

– Access for players to participate on international teams without having to meet the current requirement of playing in the fall club series

One of the biggest challenges that many top players face currently is the time commitment required to play at the top level. USAU’s biggest carrot is their ownership of the national teams.  A partnership with USAU would open the door for that semi-pro league to discuss reducing required USAU structured play for players in that semi-pro league.  This type of cooperation between USAU and a semi-professional league is a necessary step toward a sustainable future for the semi-pro leagues, our top players, and the sport.   

6. The Future

In the early 2000s, Wham-O conducted focus groups around the country and found that parents and young athletes who had never played ultimate before were drawn to the sport due in large part to the values the sport embodied.  This led to Wham-O making a significant investment in the UPA’s youth programs during the 2000s. The sentiments identified in those focus groups are apparent in the growth that the sport has experienced over the past several years.

The world is moving toward a greater valuation of direct communication and self-regulation through advances in technology like the internet, mobile devices, and social media. Our ability to travel and communicate across borders gives more power to people to interact, develop relationships, and initiate and resolve conflicts.  These trends and how they impact our values and our actions are mirrored in ultimate without referees. Ultimate provides an attractive showcase for who we want to be and who we can be. And at times, it reflects the challenges that we all face in our daily lives of meeting our personal responsibility.  As these trends continue, people will be naturally drawn to a sport that values and instills personal responsibility and conflict resolution as they see it mirror their experiences in the every day world.    

The developed world is also moving inexorably toward greater gender equity. As awareness of inequity grows, tolerance for inequity decreases, agitation for change increases, and policies that allow for equitable opportunities for women are made. Over time more women continue to move into positions of political and financial power.

A mixed format semi-professional league is well positioned to take advantage of these long-term societal trends. There is a growing number of people in our society who love sport and competition but aren’t activated by traditional spectator sports because of differences in values. Ultimate and our semi-pro leagues have an opportunity to fill a different, large, and ever expanding niche that wins the future of professional sport.  

Challenges, Risks and Fears

I understand that moving toward a mixed league that also allows for self-officiation is not a no-risk, no-challenge tactic. Currently, USAU’s observer system is not completely ready for this type of spectator event. Decreasing stoppages to help speed up game play will require work.

Many of us witnessed the 20+ minute game point between Ironside and Ring in the semifinals of 2014 USAU Nationals and felt that an incredibly compelling game was diminished by the stilted pace of game play at the end. The most obvious ways to keep the game moving are to introduce 3rd party-called stalls and travels, decrease the time available to players for resolution before an observer makes a ruling, and make more proactive use of Team and Personal Misconduct fouls for player behavior that unnecessarily stops or slows play: egregious fouls, egregious misuse of foul calls, and egregious misuse of contests.  All of these things are in line with USAU’s current policies regarding observers.

There is also the risk that some current top male players will view mixed and/or non-refereed play as less desirable. While I know some players who have expressed this view, I know many others who have expressed the opposite view. Those players enjoy self-officiating and what it brings to the players and the game and/or don’t want to see women put on a second tier. Almost all top players want the opportunity to compete on the stage with the other top players in the game. And players who are interested in being a part of a spectated league are most likely interested in being in front of the biggest crowds possible.

Most of our best male and female players tried out for the 2013 US World Games team knowing that the competition was mixed.  Creating a structure that facilitates the best players playing and draws the biggest crowds will result in the best players playing in that structure.

While the changes suggested in this piece would be big adjustments for either league, there are many innovations that the semi-pro leagues have brought to ultimate that they wouldn’t have to give-up. Timed games, player movement on stopped discs, larger fields, and rule tweaks like allowing double-teams are all value-neutral decisions.  

Finally, there is the fear that bringing this proposed version of the game to non-“initiated” audiences and sponsors will get us laughed out of the room. While there is no doubt that some people will be turned off by mixed play because of their traditional male-dominated view of sports or by self-officiation because it feels complicated or overly idealistic, there are more who will find it compelling and meaningful.

youth sportsMixed, completely self-officiated ultimate has been driving huge crowds at the World Games. Leaders in the sports industry like IOC and ESPN have expressed time and again their interest in a model of play that includes gender equity and high levels of personal responsibility. Other sports  have been showing increasing interest in observers as they see parents and athletes being turned off by the traditional model. And we’ve seen explosive growth in the sport, which many attribute to our core values.

And, at their heart, semi-pro and professional sports leagues are a huge risk. Most sports leagues are money losers; even many of the successful ones (like the NBA) have numerous teams with operating costs that exceed their revenue. We know that the leaders of the Ultimate semi-professional leagues aren’t afraid of taking risks. While there is some risk to a mixed, more self-officiated format, the potential benefits far outweigh those risks.

Some in our community will say “but there’s no precedent!” as a way to make the point about how difficult this will be. Yes, there is no specific roadmap for a sport like this. But, as a sport, we’ve been blazing our own trail for years now and we’re only growing.  

We’re leading and we’ve come further than any team field sport has before us in both gender equity and on-field player responsibility.  It’s a winning strategy for the semi-pro leagues, the players, and the sport.   

  1. Kyle Weisbrod

    Kyle Weisbrod has coached several teams including U of Washington women’s team, Monarch HS, Paideia Girls Varsity, and the US U19 Girls national team. He began playing in 1993 at The Paideia School and has played for Brown University, Johnny Bravo, Chain Lightning, and Bucket. He was the UPA’s first Director of Youth Development and served on the Board of Directors. He currently resides in Seattle, WA. You can reach him by e-mail ([email protected]) or twitter (@kdubsultimate).

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