Reflections On The Youth Club Championships

How should YCC evolve?

Photo: Christina Schmidt -- UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Christina Schmidt — UltiPhotos.com

My summer has been filled with youth ultimate. From attending Spring Reign for the first time, to directing the inaugural year of VC Ultimate Leadership Training Camp, to returning to the Youth Club Championships, to coaching a team of high school players at the Washington Conference Championships, I was around more kids playing ultimate than I have been in a long time.

All this youth ultimate in my life means a lot of things to write about youth ultimate, so this is the first of a few youth ultimate related articles.

The Youth Club Championships have come a long way since I first proposed the structure at a board meeting in Boulder, Colorado, in January 2003. It’s grown in size, divisions, and prestige. This year, for the first time, it was a three day event. Also for the first time this year, there was a live video stream courtesy of Ultiworld. Attending the event, I felt very much like a proud parent, admiring how much the event has succeeded and stands on its own.

Also, like a parent, I realized that the influence I had when the tournament was young and I was working for the UPA has waned. I no longer have any decision-making authority and with so many people involved and invested, my voice is just one of hundreds that care about the event. With that realization, here are some thoughts on where YCC is, where it came from, and where I think it should go.

Size and Format

With the growth of the Youth Club Championship, the format for the event has strayed away from the typical robust USA Ultimate formats. This change is particularly evident in the largest division, the U-19 Boys division, which featured a 25-team, 4-pool format where the winner of each pool advanced to semifinals. I heard a lot of people criticize the format for putting so much weight on the seeding and suggest that the event be smaller.

The original vision of the Youth Club Championships was for the event to grow up to 64 teams per division and extend to three, four, or five days. With an event of that size, there would be no format that could guarantee that the best four teams made it to semis (or eight to quarters, sixteen to pre-quarters, etc). But, the event, when grown to that size, was intended to become a celebration of youth ultimate. And, while we would still crown a champion (and that champion would still be a deserving team who had beaten out all other teams), we knew that at some point the robustness of the format would be sacrificed to allow so many teams and players to participate.

While we are now beginning to deal with that conflict between a robust format and an inclusive event focused on participation, I still believe in the original vision. I believe a focus on inclusivity and participation best serves the long-term goals of the sport and its players. And, an event with six divisions (or more?) of 64 teams each will be a sight to behold. Blaine can host a tournament of that size. The big challenge, I believe, is ensuring that the volunteer base for the event can continue to grow to accommodate such an event.

Qualifiers?

Related to the question of size, I heard a handful of players and coaches wondering why there weren’t Regional qualifiers for YCC, similar to what exists for the adult Club Championships. I imagine that this will be a reoccuring idea over the next several years as YCC grows to the size where regional qualifiers could happen and then we could see the model of the adult Club Championships as a potential path.

The Youth Club Championship model was intended to be fundamentally different from the adult club championships. Instead of the team → Sectionals → Regionals → Nationals model, the youth club model was set up to be player → league → Nationals. The latter model addresses a few of the basic problems that have held the adult division back in terms of growth:

1. Bang for your buck

At the adult level, as divisions grow in size, the majority of teams do not qualify past the first tournament. For those teams, players pay not only their team tournament entry fee but also pay for their USAU membership for only one weekend tournament. This is not terribly cost effective and is one of the reasons why adult leagues continue to grow at a significantly faster rate than USAU adult membership.

Youth Club Championships was designed so that the entry way to the competitive structure was to be those leagues themselves. Players get considerably more value out of their USAU membership if it’s for an 8-12 week league that ends in a tournament.

2. Accessibility

At the entry level for the adult club division, in order for a new player to participate, they must find a whole team of players to participate with. If the team has no space or the player isn’t good enough to make the team, there is a huge barrier to entry: the player must start their own team.

Tying the Youth Club Championships to sanctioned leagues solves this issue. Now, instead of finding a team to sign up with, a new player could simply sign up for a league and be put on a team. This model is far more accessible and scalable than the team-based qualification model.

3. Parity of play at the entry level

Let’s say a newer adult player successfully finds a team to play with at sectionals. Chances are, this player will find the team is not terribly competitive because for most new players, their teams are made up of developing players. The top players in their communities formed their own teams long ago and some communities have a couple of other tiers in the middle. This tiering is a natural part of the club division (particularly in men’s and women’s) because every team is trying to get as far as they can in the series. What that means is that at Sectionals there is often a lack of parity. Many teams sign up knowing it will be their one and only event (or don’t sign up for the same reason).

With leagues as the entry level for the youth club model, the league can structure itself to ensure (or at least attempt) parity of play. Parity makes it more fun for beginners and high level players alike and keeps players coming back year after year.

Of course, the structure could expand to include player → league → regionals → championships but, again, I don’t think that’s necessary until the championships get much bigger.

Eligibility

Of course, for the player → league → championships model to work, there needs to be actual, functioning leagues that the players participate in and new players can join. There needs to be clear eligibility rules for participating in those leagues and enforcement to ensure players are following the rules. Right now, from the outside, that does not appear to be happening. Some of the leagues are qualifying through HS sanctioning, while many teams seem to form a “league” just for their YCC team. Some teams come from multiple communities, defeating the concept of local leagues feeding YCC teams. For example, in the past few years, Atlanta has had players from Alabama and Nashville.

The leagues should be non-school-based leagues. In the early years of the YCC, we allowed school-based leagues (and at-large teams) as we were trying to grow the event. But, at this point, for the growth of the sport and the long-term health of USAU, the YCC structure should exist independently of school-based leagues. Long-term, school-based leagues will not need the support of USAU. In addition, school-based leagues do not lower the barrier to play as not every kid will have a school-based team to easily participate on. Part of the goal of promoting non-school-based leagues is to give access to kids to play who may then go on to form school-based teams.

The leagues should require some minimum number of games for the league as well as an attendance minimum for the league for each YCC eligible player. The player attendance rules will be the toughest aspect to enforce but are critical to maximize the fairness and growth impact of YCC. If the top Nashville players can play with Atlanta and do better than if they had their own team, what incentive is there to set up a league in Nashville? And if there is no league in Nashville, what happens to all of the potential players there that have no way to participate in the sport?

Of course, ultimate is still very much developing in many areas in the country, so USAU should maintain a temporary waiver for teams from developing communities that do not yet have the numbers to set up a league. During this probationary period, USAU should help the community implement a league that can meet USAU requirements.

USAU is currently doing this for many communities and it is right in line with the vision for the YCC and a big part of what makes the YCC so great for growth.

Multiple City Representatives

One strange aspect of the Youth Club Championships is that there are some cities with multiple teams in a division. Minnesota had two U-19 Boys teams while the Delaware Valley had two U-16 Boys teams.

When we first began the Youth Club Championships, leagues were limited to one team per division and were supposed to be awarded bids based on the number of participants in their league (this was to ensure that the leagues also did outreach to grow their league). If the number of players wanting to travel to participate at YCC exceeded the number of teams the league could be awarded, the idea was that the community should form a second sanctioned league. More leagues would mean even more localized play that, again, increase accessibility to the leagues. For example, a community like Seattle could have a North Seattle league, a South Seattle league, and a Bellevue league.

In 2009, the rules were changed to allow two teams from the same league to compete in the Mixed and Open divisions so long as there was at least one Girls team from the league. This rule was intended to harness some of the fast growth in the Open division to help incentivize Girls’ growth.

At this point, there are a growing number of communities that can support two teams in a division and players wanting that opportunity. For me, both accessibility and promotion of girls’ opportunities to play are both worthy values that can be promoted by well-crafted rules for YCC. I think it would be worthwhile for USAU to review the current structure of YCC in terms of multiple teams from one city and align the rules with what the goals should be.

The Livestream

Thanks to Ultiworld, this was the first year that games at YCC were livestreamed. While, for most, it seems that this is an obvious move forward with no downside, I have mixed feelings about the increase in media coverage.

First, I think there are some very clear benefits to livestreaming the event. These benefits include creating an archive of the event that helps us understand the evolution of the sport over time, raising the profile of the event, and, perhaps most importantly, allowing those who can’t attend to get a window into the experience.

My hesitancy on the video coverage for YCC stems from the message that we are sending to the youth players. I heard some players and coaches who were excited by the coverage say that they liked it because it meant that what they were doing was “valued.” What I heard in that was that these YCC participants were excited that other people were valuing them as “spectatable” athletes.

Sports and growing sports is complicated. We keep score and we want to win. We want to celebrate players and teams that are the best. But, for me, the value in sport doesn’t come from winning, it comes from participating and giving your fullest. Seventy percent of youth athletes drop out of organized sport by the time they are 14 years old.

In sport, only a small percentage can rise to the top, be seen as the “best,” and be considered “spectatable.” But for our sport to be successful (and for sport generally to do right by all of us), it’s important that we communicate that athletes are valued for their participation, their effort, and their willingness to challenge themselves over and over—particularly when that effort isn’t recognized by someone else.

My concern with livestreaming YCC is that we are sending the opposite message to these young athletes: sports are something to be watched by those of us not talented enough to be spectatable. Livestreaming takes away the focus of celebrating all of the athletes and contributes to attrition in the sport (or slower growth than we could have otherwise).

I’ll admit, that last paragraph is more black and white than I think. I believe that we can and should move forward with live-streaming for all of the positives that it brings, but we should do so with full awareness about its potential negatives. And we should be intentional about countering the message livestreaming sends that “being spectatable” = having value. A few ways we can do that include being vocal about the value of participation, ensuring quality across the event, and distributing event resources in an equitable way.

  1. Kyle Weisbrod
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    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 (kyle.weisbrod@gmail.com) or twitter (@kdubsultimate).

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