The AUDL's 2015 Championship Weekend was one of the most ambitious ultimate showcases ever put together.
August 18, 2015 by Steven Wartinbee in Opinion with 6 comments
Ten days ago, I made the road trip from Los Angeles up to Avaya Stadium in San Jose for the AUDL’s Championship Weekend. Having followed the regular season and covered the playoffs leading up to the semifinals, the privilege of watching the final four teams compete for the trophy was an exhilarating prospect.
I arrived in advance of the first semifinal to check out the stadium. Because the home team didn’t play until 7 PM, Avaya had only scattered attendance. There were a good number of recognizable faces, however, at least to avid ultimate fans: club and pro stars Brodie Smith, Mark Lloyd, Jimmy Mickle, Tyler Degirolamo, and the ESPN announcing crew of Evan Lepler, Chuck Kindred, and Megan Tormey.
Brodie crushed the Hyperloop Accuracy Challenge, which was significantly tougher than it first appeared, especially with Avaya’s swirly wind patterns.
As it got closer to 4 PM, more fans started to fill into the stadium. Raleigh and Madison took to the field for warmups, and a crowd began to gather around the zipline.
I was relatively disappointed in the turnout for the first semifinal (many would consider it the more exciting of Saturday’s games), but the crowd increased significantly when San Jose took the field later in the evening. From the stands, the atmosphere was very enjoyable, but left to the imagination what the weekend could have been had the entire stadium been filled.
On my way out of the stadium Saturday night, I experienced one of the more heartwarming moments of the weekend. Halfway to the parking lot, a young voice yelled, “Are you Brodie Smith?!” I turned around to see an incredibly excited child begging Brodie for a picture by Avaya’s gates; he happily complied. I’m not sure whether the child or child’s mother was more upbeat about the photo, but it only served as proof that the sport (at least by way of its biggest representative) is being exposed to more and more youth even before high school.
Sunday found Avaya even busier than the evening prior. By the time the first quarter ended, the number of fans in the stadium had almost doubled from its size at the game’s onset. Of special note was a small, but very vocal, pro-Madison section of the crowd. “MA-DI-SON…RA-DI-CALS!” could frequently be heard leading up to each Radicals pull. Having attended a Radicals game at Breese Stevens Field in Wisconsin earlier this season, I knew that it paled in comparison to the typical fan base for Madison home games. It definitely made me wonder whether the result could have been different had the championship game taken place in Wisconsin (where the Radicals are unbeaten in 22 games).
The rest of the stands responded with “GET THAT BLOCK” whenever the Spiders were defending, and consistently drowned out the Radicals segment after any San Jose score or big play. Simon Higgins’ sky over Jay Froude and Andrew Meshnick had the crowd on their feet and cheering the loudest they had all weekend. Despite a good number of fans scattered around the food and drink venues, Hyperloop Challenge, and zipline, the bleachers segment held upwards of 2000 at its most populated.
In addition to the games, the AUDL Spirit Challenge was a terrific idea, and was executed almost to perfection. While the goal was set at a lofty $1 million, the coordinators were able to put together an event that raised just under $750,000 for charity.
I’m not sure that many other sports (if any) dedicate such a large part of their championship events to such a worthy cause. Rob Lloyd spearheaded the event in honorable fashion, and a number of big names from the final four AUDL teams participated in the pro-am competitions.
– Both the Canadian and American national anthems were sung prior the Spiders/Rush semifinal. Not only were both performed very well, but the anthems seemed to have almost Olympic-like significance to the countries’ respective constituent fans and players.
– AUDL crowds are getting bigger. In addition to Championship Weekend, I attended this season’s Madison home game that set their record for most fans (1,000), and an Aviators home game in heavy rain. Compared to the fan bases from 2014, it’s very promising for the league.
– Championship Weekend was beautifully broadcast for those who couldn’t make it out to Avaya. All games were streamed on ESPN3, and the AUDL’s social media accounts were posting highlight plays as they happened. Slow-motion instant replays on the jumbotron were also helpful when a play happened particularly quickly. The production quality was some of the best we’ve ever seen in ultimate, including ESPN’s proprietary productions of USA Ultimate games. The pregame shows, while not widely watched, were also professionally put together with appearances from Mickle, Degirolamo, Brodie, and players from each of the final four teams.
– If this weekend had been a club tournament, and the players made all of the calls that the referees did, it would have likely been among the chippiest in recent memory. A good number of fans around me were consistently confused when a player would pick up a dead disc, and then be whistled for a receiver travel. Among my favorite heckles from the weekend was this far-too-lengthy one: “The penalty for a traveling violation far outweighs the magnitude of the violation itself!” The referees were definitely calling a number of travels that would normally go unnoticed in competitive club play; the calls were frequently met with outrage and muffled surprise from one or both teams, especially late in games. That being said, the number of game-delaying, unproductive, “just send it back” foul discussions avoided by the presence of referees in every AUDL game is a blessing.
– Raleigh standout defender David Richardson was shocked when he was called for a foul against Madison’s David Shleicher. You can see both the play, and Pat Shriwise encouraging Shleicher to use the integrity rule in the following clip. It was awesome to see this terrific use of spirit in an AUDL semifinal:
– It was also neat to see some “vintage” jerseys around the stadium:
– Overall, this was the one of the best-run, most elaborate ultimate events I’ve ever watched (including college nationals). Terrific attractions for spectators, both those who know the sport and those who were being introduced for the first time. Championship Weekend 2015 was a great success; 2016 should be even better.