Tom Crawford’s Letter To Members: Two Different Worlds

The logo of USA Ultimate, the sport's national governing body.This letter from USA Ultimate CEO Tom Crawford to members originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the USA Ultimate magazine. 

Recently, I had two very interesting and very different experiences that I believe capture both the amazing opportunities and tough challenges our sport is facing. The first was an east coast experience in New York City, and the second was a Pacific Northwest experience in Seattle, both great cities with great cultures!

I’ll start with New York City. In early March, I was invited to attend a Sports Leadership Conference attended mostly by CEOs, CMOs, and CFOs of major sports organizations, major media companies, and some of the biggest brands in sports. The list of attendees included executives from the NBA, NFL, NHL, U.S. Olympic Committee, MLS, PGA and more, as well as major brands such as NIKE, PUMA, adidas, Under Armour, Rolex, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Apple, etc. It also included many of my peers from other national governing bodies of sport.

There were some very interesting presentations, including a futurist from Intel and a show-stealing talk by Jean Claude Biver, the chairman of Hublot – a luxury watch brand I had honestly never heard of, but one that is a major sports sponsor in other parts of the world, with athletes such Usain Bolt, Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant, and many more on its list of clients. There were some very interesting takeaways on building our brand in the competitive world of sports with a big emphasis on “be unique…be different.”

The conference was well organized, with general sessions – often interactive panels – followed by networking sessions for discussion of the content and interacting with fellow attendees. What did I experience at this event? We are still an almost completely anonymous sport in this world. I had to explain ultimate to 90 percent of the folks I met and networked with over the course of two days. It’s interesting to step outside of the ultimate community and into the world of big-time sports and entertainment and realize we have a long, long way to go to achieve our vision of being a well-known and respected sport.

When you live within our community and eat, sleep and breathe our sport every week, it’s easy to lose sight of how we are perceived and where we sit relative to other sports. Excepting the other national governing bodies’ CEOs present, I had to explain myself and our sport to virtually everyone I met. It was somewhat disconcerting that, on several occasions, the small groups I was interacting with, gathered around small networking tables initially thought I was joking…and then apologized and listened with some interest about our growth and trajectory. Most asked if I really believed we could compete in the crowded world of sports; my answer was, of course, an emphatic yes! But it’s going to take some time and the strategic build-out of a national infrastructure to truly scale our sport. That became very clear, especially when talking with representatives of lacrosse and soccer.

A week later, I attended the SHAPE conference in Seattle with USA Ultimate youth and education department staff members Mike Lovinguth and Sarah Powers where we had a booth set up alongside several hundred other organizations. The SHAPE conference is the annual industry gathering of thousands of physical educators, coaches, and health teachers, as well as major university programs focusing in these areas. It is at this annual conference that we develop long-term relationships with teachers and coaches from all over the U.S.

Talk about a completely different experience from my time in NYC. At the SHAPE conference, everyone knows ultimate and loves coming by our booth. We share free curriculums and updates to old curriculums as well as introduce new products like our organizational membership and new Learn to Play Kits, while rebuilding and adding to our large database of teachers and coaches.

The general reaction when teachers pass our booth is a big smile and the words, “Oh, I love ultimate!” Those words are heard again and again. And why do they love it? Because their kids love it! 

Our takeaway messages from attendees at the SHAPE conference were:

– We love introducing your sport.

– Our kids love playing it once they learn to throw and catch.

– There is a real boom coming of kids who want to play ultimate instead of other sports.

We have to compete with many traditional sports and new, emerging sports for the children’s and families’ attention.

I left feeling a great sense of excitement about our future, while also feeling wary about being very underprepared for this coming boom of interested youth.  Why? Because of the number of times we struggled to help a teacher connect interested kids to a real youth ultimate program (not a clinic) in their area. This is not a problem in Seattle, but with a few exceptions, in almost all other locations around the U.S., real learning, training, and playing opportunities for young kids are just not a reality yet. We can’t afford to miss this window of exposure and growth.

All this demonstrates why we are very focused right now on building out a national infrastructure of Chapters and Affiliates that will have the capacity to offer real quality youth programming. Stay tuned, as we will soon be reaching out to recruit entrepreneurial partners to work with USA Ultimate to capitalize on this opportunity. Our goal will be to build an entire national framework of programs and playing opportunities with lots of significant small business opportunities for our partners. If you are an entrepreneur or just someone who’d love to work in the sport of ultimate, please email Josh Murphy (josh@hq.usaultimate.org) to be added to a list of potential partners for us in the delivery of quality youth programs in the next few years.

So after two very different experiences, I came away with two pretty definitive conclusions. We still have a long way to go to build our reputation and brand in the world of sports, but we have succeeded in getting ultimate on the minds of many young players. Now they are going to start searching for ways to play, and we have to be ready to help them.

In order to compete successfully in the crowded world of sports, we have to continue to build our brand and image. And we have to move quickly to build out a national infrastructure that is focused largely on youth programming that can handle the growing interest young players are developing. We have a challenging and exciting future!

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    Ultiworld is the premier news media site dedicated to the sport of ultimate. This article includes the work of a number of our staff or contributors that have been identified within the piece.

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