On The Northwest Challenge: The Newest Elite College Tournament

The Northwest Challenge is unique, challenging, and, soon, changing.

A Victoria player extends for a huge grab at Northwest Challenge 2015
A Victoria player extends for a huge grab at Northwest Challenge 2015 Photo: Nathan Kolakovic — UltiPhotos.com

I’m writing this before the 2nd annual Northwest Challenge, a unique, highly competitive college tournament held here in Seattle. It’s unique in a few ways:

– It’s not a tournament per-se. All teams have a preset schedule, and there is no bracket play.
– Teams can choose to play either two or three days of the event, depending on what schedule works best for them.
– The field of teams is all Nationals caliber. All twelve teams that played in the 2014 NW Challenge qualified for 2014 Nationals. That is, as far as I know, a first for any college tournament.

A bit of controversy also surrounds the NW Challenge. Some have questioned whether the tournament makes it easier for the Northwest to earn bids to Nationals while others have expressed concerns that it adds yet another West Coast elite event to the season, reduces access to top tier teams, and places more travel burden on non-West Coast teams.

How It Started

Before the 2013-14 season, UW Element determined that there were a number of problems and opportunities that could be addressed by hosting a major tournament in the Northwest region.

Women’s College Centex, a Without Limits-sponsored event held in Austin each March, had been the headline late regular season even for a number of years. Unfortunately, it was a logistical challenge for many Northwest teams. Most West Coast schools are on a quarter schedule and Centex is consistently held on the weekend immediately following West Coast school’s winter quarter, which means that final exams conclude the day before Centex.

In addition to the tough timing of the event, the costs of flying to a non-major airport and housing during the popular South by Southwest festival in Austin drive team costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars over the costs of a typical flying tournament. And it was even harder for our regional counterparts who aren’t located close to a major airport or in the States; University of Victoria (UVic) and Whitman, particularly, have considerable travel before even getting on a flight to Texas. Even before the NW Challenge started, most Northwest teams were opting out of Centex.

Another problem/opportunity was the growing strength of the Northwest region. Oregon, Washington, and University of British Columbia (UBC) had long been the big names on the national stage that received invites and opportunities to play top national competition, but Western Washington, Whitman, and UVic were on the upswing and weren’t getting those same invites. This lack of high level national exposure was a problem for them as well as an opportunity for hosting a tournament in the region.

The college restructuring a few years earlier also extended the regular season, opening up an additional weekend of sanctioned play prior to the series. No tournament had yet filled that weekend, a weekend that worked particularly well for teams on a quarter system as there was no travel limitations on the front end of the weekend.

Finally, thanks to the strength of the Seattle girls ultimate scene, many local players had been going off to top college programs, including Carleton, Stanford, Ohio State, and Tufts. These teams, therefore, could rely on built-in support structures in Seattle that would lower the cost of housing and make the tournament experience smoother. The Seattle youth scene is also a draw for colleges looking to recruit the nation’s best high school players. Oregon was also considering hosting an event, but there were advantages to hosting closer to Seattle due to ease of flights and logistics. We got in touch with DiscNW to help coordinate the event.

Oregon pushed for a longer event (three to four days) to more closely simulate Nationals, but in talking to teams, it was clear that the semester schools would struggle with such a setup. In the first year of the event, Carleton requested to play only Friday and Saturday. We wanted to accommodate everyone’s schedules, so we settled on the two or three day schedule to allow teams to attend in accordance with their own schedule restrictions. Due to the variety of schedules, each team having preset games made more sense than trying to make a complicated tournament format.

What Has Worked

I believe that there’s been a huge amount that has worked really well for the NW Challenge in its first year and leading up to its second.

First and foremost, the competition and the format are excellent for team development. I believe that down the road, single game matches are the future of the sport. In the regular season tournament format, it can be difficult to weigh all of the goals that each game presents. Earning bids, developing a team, and winning early-round games in order to have the chance to face the best possible teams all need to be considered in addition to a basic competitive desire to win every game you play. The set matchup format removes the need to win early-round games in order to face the best possible teams. In addition, it removes the “consolation games matter less” attitude that can be easy to adapt. All of this allows for teams to focus on team and player development as well as mental game.

In addition, seven games against Nationals level competition means teams must play deeper in their bench against top teams. For good teams in most tournaments, it’s easier to sub looser in early rounds and then tighter as the pressure and competition rises. But, with every game equally pressured and against excellent competition, teams can’t simply rely on their top twelve to fourteen players in each game. Teams must get their bench in games against elite players on elite teams and see what they can do and allow them to develop. Those reps can be critical down the road at Regionals and Nationals and, I believe, is a large reason why every team from the inaugural NW Challenge qualified for Nationals in 2014 and why those same teams are performing well this year.

Second, the women’s only format means that all of the resources and support of the tournament can go to women’s games. In 2014, Ultiworld was able to provide the first-ever women’s only livestreamed event. While no games were streamed this year, we had two games from every round filmed — they’ll be available on Ultiworld’s college video subscription.

All of our observer resources are dedicated to women’s games. And all of the photographers and media that come out are focused on women. While I’d prefer for both men’s and women’s divisions to be held together and valued equally in terms of resources, visibility, and coverage, until that’s the norm, having an event where elite women’s ultimate is the sole focus of the organizers, fans, and media is a valuable and important experience. Of course, we’re not the only ones providing that, as Women’s Centex has done that for many years.

Third, we try to mimic the Nationals experience in many important ways. Lined fields and observers are just the start. We use long rounds, the Nationals timeout and cap rules, and over ten yards between each field to ensure that each game gets the time and space it deserves. There’s no finishing a game at hard cap, quickly high fiving, and then running off to the next field to start a game five minutes late. The time allows space for spirit circles and appropriately acknowledging the competition and building valuable relationships. The time between rounds also means that teams have time to process each game after it ends and mentally prepare for the next game ahead. This allows each team to maximize the value they get out of each game.

The flexible two or three day schedule for teams allows for teams to participate in a way that works best for their schedule. Seven games over two days is definitely a challenge, so giving teams–that can–the opportunity to play over three days is great. Hopefully, as the sport gains greater resources, we can move to even fewer games/day for the health of our players. But, in the meantime, this format provides a start.

What Is Challenging

The NW Challenge isn’t a perfect tournament. To start with, it’s in Seattle in March. Last year we managed to get a little bit of everything: cold rain, really cold rain, sun, clouds, wind, windy rain. We’re fortunate for two things: one is that the fields here in Seattle are built to handle bad weather so rarely would we need to cancel games, and two is that, while the weather can be uncomfortable, we rarely get the type of wind where a game is decided on a flip.

Financially, the NW Challenge isn’t a very profitable endeavor. Fields in the Seattle area are expensive. Because we are smaller than the Stanford Invite, Pres Day, or Centex, we don’t gain the same economies of scale. We’ve also put a bunch of resources back into event quality, and the decisions to have long rounds and space around fields mean we don’t have as many spaces for teams.

The bid situation is also a major challenge of the event. As Scott Dunham’s analysis indicates, playing teams that are below you in the rankings (up to 500 points) presents you with the best opportunity to improve your ranking. In the past two years, the lowest ranked teams at NW Challenge have been teams right near the threshold to earn a bid for their region. Those are the teams with the most at stake in terms of performance at the NW Challenge. And the teams that would provide the highest expectation of helping them earn a bid are not there. It’s a hard road to earn a bid for your region through the NW Challenge, and I believe it’s a reason why we struggled to fill the event this year. Some of the teams that attended in our first year did not return, in part because of bid concerns.

The bid issue becomes even more complicated when you take into account the number of Northwest region teams at the tournament. Some of those Northwest teams have pretty much secured a bid while others are still fighting for a bid. Games between those two sets of Northwest teams present a complicating factor: for the teams with secured bids, they have an incentive to not perform as well. This is accentuated by the set schedule, meaning that a loss won’t impact their remaining matchups. If this tournament were earlier in the season, this wouldn’t be a big issue since it would be harder to understand how each game impacts the rankings. Teams frequently try new things and work to develop their depth throughout the season; rarely is that seen as a problem.

We do our best to minimize games between Northwest region teams and try to schedule them earlier in the weekend when the bid outcomes are harder to clearly manipulate, but I’m not sure that solves the issue. Moving to a probability-based regional bid system would also solve some of this issue.

I also want to acknowledge that the NW Challenge further shifts the strength of tournaments out to the west. As someone who has played most of my competitive ultimate on the east coast, I empathize with those not on the west coast. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that this is the first time Northwest teams have had a national level event in our region. And, due to the distances out west, we’ve historically had to fly to the southwest tournaments which means, like many teams throughout the country, budgeting for a season is difficult.

The bottom line is that there’s just not a lot of options for event locations from January–March, the whole of the college regular season. The Southwest and Southeast are the only locations that have a high chance of good weather. And the semester vs. quarter schedules present another obstacle. All of this is accentuated by the legacy of strong west coast schools in the Women’s Division.

Overall, I believe that the regional strength imbalance has less to do with college event locations and much more to do with youth development. With the density of top teams in the Northwest, it only made sense that we host an event.

The NW Challenge Is Dead! Long Live the NW Challenge!

Due to the issues of the NW Challenge, this is probably the last year that the NW Challenge will take its current format. The most obvious change for 2016 and beyond is to make the event larger so that we can gain some economies of scale without sacrificing quality for the teams. Over the past two years, we’ve received many requests to attend the event that we haven’t been able to fulfill, or we’ve notified teams too late in their season scheduling process. We want the NW Challenge to be an event any team can attend and plan their season around. A larger event also likely means a different location for 2016.

The bigger issue is that, with more teams, we’ll need to rethink the format. Many teams, particularly those on spring break, enjoy the three day setup, so we’d like to still keep that as a choice for teams that are interested. We’ll be looking at options like a traditional tournament format and tiered divisions as well. We’ve had a lot of moving pieces the last couple of years, which has been doable because of how small the event is, but a larger event means some of our flexibility may have to go away. Either way, while the NW Challenge is evolving, we hope to keep pushing the limit on what regular season events look like.

2015 NW Challenge Post-Script

So the 2015 NW Challenge is over. The weather was remarkably nice while still throwing in some occasional wind and rain. I can confirm that the event will definitely look different next year. We did receive some feedback that the two vs three day format presents some competitive imbalances that are enough to stop teams from participating. We don’t yet have a solution for how to minimize that imbalance while still allowing teams to maximize their experience and time. We are also likely adding a men’s division.

We also filmed 16 games of top level women’s college ultimate. The game footage should all be edited and added to the Ultiworld college video subscription package in the near future. I really encourage women’s teams and coaches to purchase the subscription not only for yourselves but to ensure continued coverage and promotion of the division.

  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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