Forget The Regular Season: How Super Regionals Can Revive Club Ultimate

Following the conclusion of the tempestuous Pro Flight Finale last week in Minnesota, we are now closing in on the finish of year three of the Triple Crown Tour, USA Ultimate’s attempt to improve the club regular season. It has been a bumpy ride so far, with mixed results in terms of both player feedback and the quality of the regular season tournaments themselves.

The college division’s abundance of competitive teams, variance in programs from year to year, and exciting new faces imbue the regular season with meaning and excitement virtually every year. Elite club teams, on the other hand, have proven difficult to spur into excellence before the series. Even with the stamp of legitimacy that the Triple Crown Tour supposedly brings to bear, many of the “TCT” branded regular season events have been noticeably lackluster compared to what we all know is on the horizon at the National Championships.

USA Club Nationals is unquestionably the pinnacle of the sport. There is intensity, drama, and sheer ability displayed on a level unmatched by any tournament anywhere else in the world. But despite the best efforts of USA Ultimate, there has thus far been no effective way to bottle that magic and portion it out over the course of a regular season.

So what if USAU decided to go in a different direction? What if, instead of trying to drag the regular season into relevancy, they doubled down on the postseason?

As we covered on Ultiworld last summer, before implementing the Triple Crown Tour, the idea for an extra round of the series in between Regionals and Nationals was kicked around by the top brass in Boulder. The idea of “Super Regionals” was primarily established as a better way to hand out bids to Nationals without relying on an algorithm, which, as we saw in 2013, can be swayed by the most capricious whims of fate or a score reporter.

There is certainly something to be said about fixing the bid allocation system, but I believe that with the concept of Super Regionals, USAU had a solution to an entirely different issue: how to get elite teams playing more meaningful games earlier in the year.

Establishing an additional level to the club series gives players and fans another weekend of intense, consequential games in which that the best players in the world will need to play at the top of their game if they hope to reach their goals. The one surefire thing that we know will motivate any ultimate player is stepping on the field with a trip to Nationals on the line, and the TCT’s incentives just can’t match that.

The following is a hypothetical new format to the club series, one that includes Super Regionals. It would take the emphasis off of the regular season, which has shown itself to be a lackluster investment for players and fans, and put it squarely on the postseason.

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In this new hypothetical system, Sectionals would operates as it currently does, producing the same eight regional tournaments comprised of 12-16 teams each.

The big changes begin at Regionals, as each region would now only be allocated one of the 16 total bids to Nationals, meaning that only the Regional champions would get a bye straight through to the main event. The second, third, and fourth place finishers at Regionals would then advance to one of the four Super Regionals and duke it out for the remaining eight spots at Nationals, with two teams per Super Region advancing.

Using results from the 2014 Men’s Division club series, let’s take a look at how this could have played out if the Super Regional format had been installed last season.

super regionals format

 

So what are the specific advantages of installing this new system? For Regionals alone there are some significant pluses.

  • The new format confers a HUGE advantage to the teams that win their region, as getting a bye straight to Nationals not only protects teams from the risk of losing at Super Regionals, but also saves them from the hassles of traveling to another tournament before Nationals. Teams will be strongly incentivized to go all out in virtually every game, which is simply not the case under the current system in bid-heavy regions. Getting more elite teams playing important games earlier in the year is what USA Ultimate is trying to accomplish, and this does just that.
  • With only one team advancing from each region, the tournament format becomes much simpler and the stakes of each round become more apparent. Quarterfinal matchups become games-to-go, as advancing to the semifinals locks up a spot in Super Regionals. Semis contests give teams a shot at playing to win the region as well as an advantage in seeding at Super Regionals. A spot in the championship game gives teams the chance to earn the uber-important bye to Nationals.
  • No more confusing back door bracket scenarios or 2/3 placement games at regionals. Win and you move on. Lose and your weekend, or potentially your season, is over. This should remove any incentive for teams to save legs for backdoor bracket game, and produce contests showcasing the best each team has to offer.

Of course, the change to Regionals only gets at the surface of what makes this new format so compelling. The actual Super Regionals tournaments will be riveting, creating undeniably exciting ultimate as teams go tooth and nail for those two bids to Nationals.

This is an idea of what Super Regionals could look like, using the hypothetical East Coast Super Region from 2014. (Spoiler alert, it’s awesome)

The tournament is seeded so that the higher ranked team of the two Regional runners up gets the #1 seed and the other runner up gets the #2 seed. Both get byes to semis. You then stagger the other seeds as follows:

1: Higher seeded of the two regional runners up (becomes region A)
2: Lower seeded of the two regional runners up (becomes region B)
3: 3rd place from region A
4: 3rd place from region B
5: 4th place from region A
6: 4th place from region B

This produces the following hypothetical tournament:

Super Regionals Format

Just look at some of those matchups, with the highest stakes in the sport riding on the outcome.

Super Regionals would be insanely entertaining. The short tournament format makes every game exciting, and with this system we get games-to-go to Nationals that are PoNY v. Temper and Florida United v. High Five instead of a tired PoNY team wiping the floor with a team several tiers below them in a three bid Northeast or Machine bulldozing whichever other Great Lakes team makes it to the game-to-go. Every team that makes Nationals will have to beat a real contender to do so; there will be no more easy roads through a bid heavy region.

Undoubtedly, there are some drawbacks to this new approach; the logistics in particular look somewhat daunting. Teams that make unexpected runs to the semis at Regionals will have to scramble to coordinate travel for a tournament that is only a couple weeks away, and even teams that feel confident they will likely end up at Super Regionals may be reticent to reserve plane tickets and hotel rooms for a tournament they won’t definitely be attending.

These problems are not insurmountable, however, particularly when you look at Super Regionals as a substitution for a regular season tournament. If USAU were to adopt this format and abandon or relax the requirements of the regular season for top teams, then Super Regionals would operate largely as a 1:1 replacement in terms of travel. With the series getting pushed farther and farther into the summer, we could see a situation in which Sectionals kicks off in late July with the rest of series playing out in August and September.

Take a team like Temper that has traveled to Cincinnati, Boulder, and Madison for regular season tournaments this year. Substituting one of those treks for Super Regionals is a pretty even swap in terms of overall mileage. If teams are willing to fly all over the country for regular season experience, it seems reasonable that they would also be willing to do so for a shot at Nationals.

The biggest problem is the timing, because teams would only have two or maybe three weeks’ notice to make all their reservations. This would be somewhat of a pain, but again this is for a chance to go to Nationals, something teams have always shown a willingness to sacrifice for. Perhaps USAU could even alleviate some of the burden by booking hotel rooms in advance at a group rate and then letting the qualifying teams claim them after Regionals. Solutions like that are well worth the hassle for USAU if they are able to put a better and more entertaining product out on the field.

It may be too early in the process to judge the Triple Crown Tour. On paper, the idea of the best teams in the country traveling around and playing important, meaningful games all regular season long sounds great. Perhaps at some point in the future it will become a reality. But for now, the club regular season pales in comparison to the spectacle of the series.

Abandoning the idea of a relevant regular season may seem radical, but if teams can’t be properly incentivized to play their best before Nationals, Super Regionals might just do the trick.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller
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    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld, co-host of the Sin The Fields podcast, and also a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.

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