The MLU commits to the long haul.
November 9, 2015 by Charlie Eisenhood in News with 23 comments
Amidst organizational changes and growing uncertainty about the future of the league, Major League Ultimate announced a new round of fundraising last week and affirmed a commitment to a long-term future.
“We just finished the negotiations in locking down another round of the investment, the result of which is that we are on really firm financial footing for 2016 and we have commitments for 2017 and 2018,” said MLU Executive Vice President Nic Darling.
Although Darling would not speak about the specific investors, sources confirm that funding has come in large part from Raju and David Kucherlapati’s investment group, which already holds majority ownership in the league after previous investment rounds. David Kucherlapati became the league’s Vice President of Operations in late 2014 after serving as the General Manager of the Boston Whitecaps. He remains a part of the executive core along with Darling and Chief Financial Officer Lindi Sabloff after the resignation of former CEO Jeff Snader. Raju, a geneticist at Harvard, is David’s father.
The new funding has already allowed for substantial changes. Many part-time staffers and interns are moving into full-time positions. They will be adding a full time salaried position for a social media coordinator. “It’s taken a lot of worrying about tomorrow off the plate, so we can plan for the longer term,” said Darling.
That long term planning is focused especially around growing the sponsorship arm of the company. Deals with companies like Skippy peanut butter and US Coachways yielded “easily” six figures in revenue last season, according to the league. “It’s about quadruple what we did in 2014,” said Darling. “And we expect to have the same exponential growth this year.”
While sponsorship has long been a focus for the MLU, Darling says it will become an even bigger priority in 2016. He downplayed other benchmarks for success like attendance.
“Attendance, particularly for a young and growing niche sport, is a war of attrition,” he said. “It’s a long haul. Unless you’re willing to dump tons of money into it, you’re looking at small percentage growth.”
When pressed on how the league could attract sponsorships without strong attendance at games, Darling explained, “Our ability to deliver a lot of eyeballs [in person] is obviously limited. But, digitally, our opportunities are much better.”
The MLU wants to continue to invest in livestreaming and its strong social media presence. “We hope that by leveraging that and building that, we grow attention to the sport, which increases the number of people playing, which increases our audience,” Darling said.
A challenge for the MLU and a source of much of the speculation about the future of the league is the increasing growth of the American Ultimate Disc League, its chief competitor.
The AUDL has continued to sign a number of former MLU stars like Alan Kolick (DC Current) for its teams in 2016.
Darling acknowledged that the AUDL might be better suited to signing top players, but said that the MLU is “better built for partnership development.” He added that the competition is good for the sport by helping everyone figure out what the best path forward could be. Perhaps that path could include an eventual merger.
“In the long-run, we would all be served best if things started to find their way to some cooperative middle ground,” he said. “And I think pretty much everybody in the space would agree with that. That type of conversation is not public but it happens all the time. In the end, while we may compete about a lot of things, we all care deeply about the sport, we’re all banking on the sport. We want to see it be successful at the youth level, at the club level, at the Olympic level.”