Ultimate 2030: Optimizing The Sport’s Future

The first part in a series about ultimate's future.

USA and Great Britain in the Spirit Circle at the 2015 U23 Championships. Photo: Jolie Lang -- UltiPhotos.com
USA and Great Britain in the Spirit Circle at the 2015 U23 Championships. Photo: Jolie Lang — UltiPhotos.com

Ultimate 2030 is a new article series exploring the idea of what ultimate could look like over the next 15+ years. The series will summarize research and navigate reasoning to describe the multifaceted challenge of bringing the sport into the mainstream. Providing this analysis can help our community create an optimized future for the people that participate in ultimate.

Since witnessing the Ultimate Players Association rebrand in 2010, I have been researching sports industry history, ultimate history, philosophy of sport, systems theory, who’s-who in ultimate, and olympic inclusion processes, then compiling that information into a vision. While I’m fascinated by the unique game mechanics of ultimate, I’m even more intrigued by the systematic differences like self-officiation, tournament formats, and grassroots leadership.

Yet much is changing.

We’ve seen a trick-shot celebrity inspire thousands of kids, two college-star teams tour the country to play a city’s best, video coverage keep pace with technology development, two semi-pro leagues try their hand at a spectator version, over a dozen new ultimate apparel companies open up shop, and the International Olympic Committee officially recognize the sport. We could expect even more commotion this next decade as our leaders make an attempt at 2024 Olympics inclusion. While I might not know every detail and intention out there, I can’t help but ask: What do we, collectively, stand for?

I’ve known many players who want the sport to go mainstream, but don’t do their part by explaining the game to strangers who are curious. I’ve heard many claim that ultimate is an open and inviting community, yet I’ve seen elite players give outsiders the cold shoulder. We claim to be more spirited, disciplined, or intelligent than other sport communities, yet i’ve seen plenty of college teams leave their decency at the door. We pick on a non-profit that we feel isn’t reaching its robust gender-equity goals, but we barely challenge for-profit leagues when they have no policies or authentic campaigns. We obviously all have our own passions and ideals, but do we have common ground?

Things are starting to feel segregated within the sport as we have different, sometimes competing, priorities: competition, camaraderie, character development, legitimacy, or anything else that personally resonates with us. But if we continue to splinter our voice by narrowly pursuing our own personal agendas, we will never achieve the lofty goals so many of us dream of for the sport. Asking “How can we help other people?” may be a good way to think about our decisions within the sport. Many people have different ideas on how to do that because we have many different types of people playing this sport, and many more to come. This is an optimization problem, so let’s make sure we treat it like one. Challenges like these can be tough to tackle, especially with the variety of views, methods, and values. From the information I have gathered that will be presented in future articles, there are three things ~90% of us can realistically and rationally agree on:

1. Embrace Change

The first fork in the road comes with the idea of progress vs. tradition. Some are resistant to change, but there is really no great method for making something stand still or return to a previous state. The best way to cope may be this: Decisions we make now are very important and matter in the long run, no matter how big or small they seem. The goal would be to make things different in a clearly positive way with minimal compromises. Ultimate is different than it was even 10 years ago, and it will continue to evolve. We can continue to take the high road with our good-willed effort at every level.

2. Learn From Experienced Perspectives

Unfortunately, each of us can only have a limited point of view, especially if we have been playing ultimate for just a few years. One way we broaden our point of view is by learning from those who have more experience than us — especially those who remain actively involved in the continuing evolution of the sport. They’re not just talking a talk, they’re walking a certain walk, having taken the time to thoughtfully consider how they might pass along their experience. Would a college player ever say they know more than a Tiina Booth, Ben Wiggins, or Kyle Weisbrod? Probably not, so that’s why we should be able to agree that wiser people’s views are something we can learn from. I myself am not a part of this legendary group, but I’ve collected their thoughts in quotes shared throughout this series.

3. Create A Foundation On Universal Values

We know the golden rule: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. There are plenty of selfish people out there getting their way, but they aren’t the ones we memorialize. Even underneath daunting decisions, the best people we strive to learn from have lived selflessly in big ways. Luckily, with what ultimate has become so far with Spirit of the Game, self-officiation, and tournament culture, we are already on a strong path, yet I believe there are some short-sighted ideas that are beginning to stand in the way.

Throughout this series we will explore research that can identify ideas that lead to an optimized sport for all players. These ideas may not be clear answers of what we ought to do, yet it will bring up important information that can at least point out potential dead-ends. So, let’s start to make a case for what we collectively stand for and try to find common ground.

Up next, we will dig through the history books, see what we can learn from the development of other mainstream sports, and find out what might be causing pro sports issues, concussion research coverups, and decreasing youth participation.

Thoughts From The Expert Panel

Some Ultimate 2030 articles will have quotes from experienced players, coaches, organizers with their take on the topic or adjacent ideas to consider.

“Whenever I face the ‘big questions’ in ultimate and sport more generally, I think to myself ‘what is the ‘purpose’ of sport?’ Or, if that feels too abstract: ‘what is the best possible role sport could play in our society?’ When I see statistics indicating that 70% of athletes drop out of organized sport by the age of 13, or the data showing sharp increase in obesity over the past few decades, or significant public funds being used by professional sporting facilities while public fields and parks are chronically underfunded, or read about the NFL burying concussion science, or college soccer recruiting players as young as 14, or widespread academic fraud to ensure that college athletes are eligible to play, I can’t help but feel that there is a much higher purpose that sport can serve our society and communities.

“We’ve got such an incredible opportunity with ultimate to make decisions on what we value and how we develop the sport and the culture to support and spread those values so that it can serve its best purpose. I think every decision, from the small, individual decisions (‘should I spike this disc?’ ‘should I foul to stop this player from throwing a goal?’) to the larger, organizational decisions (‘should observers call travels?’, ‘how do we support gender equity?’) should be reflection of what we want the sport’s purpose to be.” – Kyle Weisbrod

  1. Ken Kaminski
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    Founder of Aero Ultimate with previous experiences at USA Ultimate and the AUDL, Ken is best known for his expertise in college team startups and the meaning behind ultimate's culture, systems, and future. He began his journey starting Kettering University's Ultimate Team, obtaining annual funding of $18,000, and now continues to mentor many other teams towards the same goal. Ken is a natural problem solver and is dedicating his abilities to young leaders, teams and the future of ultimate.

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