Requiring that teams attend certain tournaments is hurting competition and driving down participation.
March 4, 2016 by Guest Author in Opinion with 48 comments
This article was written by Evan Klein, a player for 2015 Mixed Division national finalist, Seattle Mixtape.
On the eve of team commitment deadlines for the 2016 season, it’s time again to take a look back at our club system. The Triple Crown Tour through its ‘Flight’ system breaks teams up into tiers based on their respective Series finish from the prior year and creates events to showcase the top teams within each flight and to require specific inter-flight competition. The system is intended to provide continuity to club from season-to-season, further visibility to the nation’s top teams, and add a meaningful regular season for assigning rankings and bids.
To be clear, the TCT has likely helped push the sport towards these goals. However, for all its benefits, the TCT certainly has its issues too: it forces teams into unwanted travel, handcuffs teams by requiring specific tournament participation, and raises the overall cost of playing.
As a 3rd year player for the Seattle mixed club, Mixtape, I am entering my 2nd year in the top flight of the TCT structure. When we qualified for Nationals in 2014, I got excited about the prospect of playing in the elite tiers of the TCT the following year. Looking back at our run to finals and qualification for the Pro Flight, I was further pumped about the prospect of competing at the US Open. I saw the stage as huge; the opportunity to play on ESPN and compete against other top teams so early in the season seemed promising.
The novelty of attending the US Open last year made for a fun experience. My teammates and I relished the opportunity to play and largely made-do with the expense and complications of attending. Spending four days with some of my best friends was a ton of fun. But, we still had our problems… teammates were forced to fly red-eyes in on Wednesday night, arriving straight to the fields; rental car and housing costs were exponentially higher than other tournaments based on both location and length of the tournament; some of my younger teammates couldn’t attend because the tournament was unaffordable, even with help from family, friends, and team fundraising; and others chose to stay home or lamented the trip because it overlapped with Potlatch and other July 4th festivities.
Looking back on the US Open last year, and now looking forward towards life in the TCT for another season I have realized the fatal flaw in this system. I wanted to attend the US Open last season. I looked forward to our first opportunity to be considered an elite team and certainly cherished an opportunity for a quick reprisal of our blowout loss in the 2014 finals. However, what was lost on me and my team at the time, was that we had no choice in whether to attend.
This year, the novelty is lacking and the costs of attendance are all the more real. A tournament over the July 4th weekend in Rhode Island is likely difficult for many teams, but largely more burdensome for a team from Seattle. I am sure our Minnesota and San Francisco rivals in the mixed division face many of the same travel issues too.
The Open, as the only four-day non-Nationals tournament, doubles the cost of rental cars and housing, and requires the team to take at least two days off of work for travel (even with the July 4th holiday). The fact that the tournament has traditionally been held in smaller-market locations compounds the issue of finding and paying for flights. Worse, even though the top 4 qualifiers from Nationals are set in October the year before, and henceforth required to attend the following years Open, these teams have limited input in the location and no say on the date.
Attending the US Open, and truly any travel tournament, takes significant will and money. But what sets this tournament apart from other travel tournaments for us, is that if we don’t attend we cannot compete in the series. We would be forced to disband. No more than 7 of us could play on the same team this year.
Like the 2014 and ’15 iterations of Mixtape, I don’t doubt that many teams would still look at the US Open as an opportunity to compete at the highest level of our sport, and would willingly eat the cost of attendance if they were given a bid. Certainly for local teams, it is a wonderful opportunity to get high-level games in, in their own backyard. There is no doubt that if the tournament were in a more convenient location this year that I may think differently about attending again. Sure, the Pro Flight Finale is being held in Vancouver, WA, which is great for our team this season, but I don’t buy into the idea that Boston teams should have to fly out here, just because the Open is in their backyard.
The basic premise that teams have no choice of which tournaments they attend is highly troublesome to me. We aren’t given options, there is no alternate tournament location or date, and these requirements are set in a way that always create inequities for certain teams. Even if we attend another one or two TCT events and get our 10 sanctioned games in elsewhere, regardless of the date or location of any of those tournaments, we would still have to attend the Open. This is a problem.
This issue is not limited to the Pro Flight or to the US Open, either. In 2014, I saw my friends on Robot Twoniraffapus 3030 (ridiculous name aside), make a run at Northwest Mixed Regionals. The team finished 4th in the region, just missing a bid to Nationals and qualifying for the 2015 Select Flight. As a result, they had to attend either the Elite-Select Challenge in Columbus, Ohio or the Select Flight Finale in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2015. They were unable to garner enough interest — for reasons they should not have to justify — in either tournament to meet the minimum rostering requirements. While they wished to remain in contention for the 2015 series, they were ultimately disqualified from competition. The team who had largely competed as friends in the mixed division for a few years, which had coalesced in 2014 to put together a good showing in the Series, was suddenly disbanded because of their failure to meet USAU’s requirement.
Tournament choice allows teams to pick weekends that work with their schedules, allows them to mitigate costs as much as possible, allows them to choose where and when to travel, and allows them to structure their season to their liking. Choice played a large part in the Club Series before the creation of the TCT, and still plays a large role in the College Series.
I have no problem with USAU placing teams in tiers, inviting the top teams to the top tournaments first, and setting up tournaments that enhance competition and increase the reliability of the bid-system — and still largely increase the visibility of the sport. Surely, certain tournaments will always work better for some, and some teams will always be more or less willing to travel for competition. However, this should not be a barrier to entry. This should not be a barrier to continued participation.
The impetus behind the TCT was largely good spirited… but the results are negatively affecting those with no option but to participate. It’s time to look for a change.
The recent decision by USAU to table moving the Club Series to earlier in the summer shows that they are responsive to membership. I hope they will review the TCT disqualification policy as well.