The Best Of USA Ultimate CEO Tom Crawford’s AMA On Reddit

The head of USA Ultimate opened up to questions from ultimate players online.

Tom Crawford AMA

USA Ultimate CEO Tom Crawford, who came on Deep Look last week to discuss a number of the topics below, hosted an Ask-Me-Anything Q&A session on Reddit. Here is a selection of some of the best questions and responses; see the original thread on Reddit for more questions and further discussion.

User questions are in bold; Crawford’s responses follow.

As just someone who enjoys playing ultimate with my friends, why should I care about the visibility of ultimate? How does visibility affect my on-field experience?

Ultimate’s visibility isn’t intended to affect your on-field playing experience, nor should it be. If you share our desire for ultimate to grow (and I get that some actually don’t), I hope you’ll embrace the importance of visibility because it enhances the awareness and legitimacy of our sport. This leads to more opportunities to learn about, play, or participate in ultimate in other ways, such as being a coach, an organizer, an observer, etc. Additional legitimacy for our sport could also lead to easier access to fields for you and your friends and having athletic directors and other administrators being more open to starting and supporting teams. We have quite a few stories of this happening.

Visibility does also have a significant connection to our vision at USA Ultimate, which is that ultimate will be “widely known, played, and respected in the United States as a sport that inspires athletic excellence and integrity among participants and fans.” We’re working hard to achieve that vision, and we’re making progress all the time.

For example, one result of ultimate’s increased visibility is our recent membership in the United States Olympic Committee. Other members include organizations like the National Recreation and Parks Association, the American Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) and many youth-serving organizations like the YMCA/YWCA, Boy Scouts of America, Catholic Youth Organization, and Jewish Community Centers. Relationships with groups like these have had a positive impact on things like field access and the introduction and accessibility of ultimate to students and kids.

So I guess it’s a personal choice as to whether or not you should care about that aspect of our sport. Some don’t, but many do.

Can we please have more information published about what locations bid to host major USAU events (College/Club Nationals, TCT Events, YCC)? We are only ever told where the event is going, and never know if there were any other options. Some of the decision makers will likely say this encourages people to complain about the option not picked, but it is a small thing that helps with transparency.

This is tricky as we try and be as transparent as possible, but we also have to respect the integrity of the bid process and the other communities that submit bids to host our events. While it’s true that there will be complaints regardless of which location we select, that’s not a primary reason for this decision. Revealing the specific cities/locations – or even just the number of bids being considered – can compromise the competitive nature of the bidding process. The ability to generate alternative sources of revenue such as rights fees from CVBs and Sports Commissions, rebates from hotels, or other local business partnerships, is very important in order to keep the costs of participation for our athletes as low as possible. Disclosing the competition – or unfortunately…and way too often, the lack thereof – can negatively affect the value of a bid. Additionally, publicizing a losing bid can discourage markets from bidding in the future. Losing bidders (CVBs, sports commissions, etc) often thank us for not publicizing their loss.

But let me finish with this…we don’t get nearly as many bids for our events as we’d like, and we have a staff person who is out there constantly trying to generate bids. In a nutshell, we need more bids!

Is there a plan to start requiring a basic and advanced rules test for youth/college/club players? If we are totally committed to SOTG and self officiating, it seems like the most logical thing we can do to encourage rules knowledge.

We do some basic testing for teams attending some of our major events, and we have optional tests that we’ve made available in the past for other events, but we could (and should) do more. WFDF has an interesting model for required rules testing that we have been paying close attention to. It’s a fairly comprehensive process, and therefore requires a huge organizational effort on the part of WFDF and team leaders. Also, even the biggest WFDF events are tiny in comparison to the overall participation in USA Ultimate events and programs. So, scaling and administering such a test is the biggest hurdle, especially in terms of compliance and oversight. And man…we’ve gotta figure out how to make this sport less complicated, IMO!

We’ll be issuing the 12th edition of our rulebook in 2017, which makes for a good time to revisit the testing and education question and see how we can improve the training of our athlete/officials (which by definition is every player) on both the rules and Spirit of the Game.

There is lots of criticism of USAU. Some of it is baseless. Some of it is spot on. What is the specific criticism that you have found to be most accurate and actionable? What did you (and the rest of the staff) do about it?

Boy, that’s for sure! Here is what I know: No matter what we do, or what decisions we make, some members/players are going to be unhappy. It’s literally impossible to make everyone happy. So even when some criticism is “spot on,” there are people who don’t agree with the critics and vice versa.

But we do listen…all the time. One recent criticism we acted on was players’ unhappiness with holding the U.S. Open over the Fourth of July weekend. We gathered a bunch of feedback via surveys, discussed it quite a bit with our Competition and Club Division Working Groups and talked about it with many players and coaches in person. And then we moved it to August.

I think this new combined event (U.S. Open and YCC) is going to be incredibly exciting and the best annual ultimate event in the world.

What is USAU HQ trying to do from an organizational stand point to get more observers certified? We have a huge need for them across the country, and there doesn’t seem to be any real growth in numbers in the program (at least in our area of the country).

I could not agree more! I am always inspired by the incredible work our observers do. Every year, we set a goal in our operating plan to run more clinics than the previous year, but unfortunately, we end up having to cancel many of them due to lack of interest. It is a real and ongoing challenge, and while we have an active and dedicated core of observers that supports our major events, we need more throughout the country to support other events, as well as our continued growth.

We’ve been working hard to make the educational structure more flexible and accessible – for example, tapping into local disc associations, affiliates and state organizations who can supply local trainers to teach classroom training, followed by the use of local league games for on-field training and certification requirements. We’re still determining what works best for delivering observer programs locally, as well as building the local infrastructure that can help support the scaling of the program.

Tom, do you think that Team USA’s dominance at the latest international event has a potential negative impact on Olympic inclusion? The disparity between countries seems detrimental in selling a competitive pitch to the IOC.

Our teams were so awesome…I am incredibly proud of them. This is a tricky one as the IOC generally does not like to see one (or even a few) countries dominate a sport. They value parity. On the other hand, the USOC would be happy with the inclusion of a sport dominated by Americans! The good news is that if we were to become an Olympic sport, it would most likely be as a mixed gender sport with small rosters – very similar to what you see at the World Games. In that format, with the best of the best from each country together on one smaller team, there is much more parity relative to what we just witnessed in London. But we will always strive to assemble great teams that can win gold!

What are your thoughts on awarding a filming contract to an in sport video company – ultiworld, fulcrum, or someone similar to NexGen – rather than ESPN?

We certainly don’t get the same amount of visibility to prospective fans, but we support our own community and save money. I think if we have a good product and create ultimate video entrepreneurs (Minderhout, Ultiworld, or folks like them), then we will get the fans in the future. What do you think?

I don’t see it as an either/or proposition. We have a long history of working with video providers endemic to our sport, and given the size and scope of our tournaments, there is the need and demand for multiple broadcast partnerships. There is no doubt that ESPNU and ESPN3 (and CBS Sports and CSTV before them) have a much broader reach and higher production value relative to the smaller, ultimate-specific entities with fewer resources.

The visibility provided by a more established and traditional broadcaster (which can always be improved on with regards to ratings and viewership) is still significantly greater. I think we’ve struck a good balance between Ultiworld and ESPN in recent years with the quantity and quality of coverage increasing each year. In 2015, Ultiworld produced 52 games for us, compared to 41 and 30 games in 2014 and 2013, respectively, by NGN.

What do you see when you think about our sport in 5 years? In 20 years? What are the biggest hurdles you see to it getting there?

Building our national infrastructure is our biggest challenge. We are exposing hundreds, even thousands, of kids to the sport, and we have to be sure we have high-quality playing and learning opportunities for them in their local areas, just like lacrosse, soccer, swimming, etc. I am really optimistic about our future.

We’ve got the coolest sport on the planet, the sports community is now learning about it like never before, and I see us on the Olympic program in the future as well as becoming an NCAA emerging sport for the women’s division, then a recognized and supported high school sport. That’s our plan. Those are our goals!

What is USAU doing to better understand player priorities and engage with its membership? Does USAU have a method to incorporate player feedback into its strategic planning?

Yes we do, and it’s pretty extensive. Understanding players’ priorities and engaging our membership base is really important to us. One of the things we do a ton of is surveying our members on a variety of topics. In the last 3 ½ years, we’ve issued 94 surveys to various subsets of our membership base (including 28 already this year). In many cases, the surveys provide us with an enormous amount of data which gets banged around pretty thoroughly and always impacts how we try to make improvements.

Another way we engage with players and members of the ultimate community is through our various committees, working groups and key volunteers. Currently, we have 26 committees and working groups made up of 152 people, plus an additional 352 regular volunteer positions across various levels of our sport. That’s more than 500 roles filled mostly by players in our community who have a voice in the organization of our sport, and we rely on those voices a lot.

Also, we spend a great deal of time engaging with players in-person, on-site at events. We manage 11 championship events across various levels and disciplines of ultimate. Many of our staff members attend those events and spend time interacting with athletes and other members of the ultimate community. This is where I get my favorite feedback and have great discussions…in person, face to face. And while we get pretty beat up online and on message boards, in person, the conversations are very friendly and productive. I’m lucky to get a lot of “don’t worry about the haters…keep going” as well as some great ideas and suggestions. I encourage everyone to chat me up at any of our events. I love meeting everyone and getting their perspectives.

We’ve incorporated player feedback/input into our two most recent strategic planning processes (in different ways) and intend to continue that moving forward. At our recent board meeting, we formed a task force that will conduct a tour of various ultimate communities around the country in order to begin soliciting input for the next strategic plan, which begins in 2019. Here’s a link to a little more insight on that tour, but stay tuned for more.

Please tell us about USAU’s relationship with WFDF. It seems that USAU’s mission is aligned with WFDF’s in many ways but distinct in others, what is that like? Do relations with USOC and IOC influence how USAU and WFDF interact?

Our relationship with WFDF is extremely important, and right now, it is strong and positive. Nob Rauch has done a fabulous job leading that organization, and Volker and Karina are really smart and dedicated professionals. I feel like we’re more aligned with them than we have been in the past. There are still some areas we’re working on, but with WFDF’s permanent IOC recognition as the International Federation for disc sports and our USOC recognition as the NGB in America, there is an expectation that we follow the guidelines of both WFDF and the USOC. To overly simplify it, they’re the boss.

Here’s a Flow Chart of how sport is governed internationally.

On gender equity and viewership numbers. It has been acknowledged that women’s games draw ~50% of the already smaller than desired number of viewers compared to men’s games. Some have also made the point that the impact of streaming/filming women’s games goes beyond the pure viewership numbers.

For the company doing the filming (ultiworld or otherwise) lower viewership hurts their revenue stream and threatens their sustainability.

Is USAU willing to use its cash reserves to subsidize broadcasters to give equitable coverage to men’s and women’s games in order to commit to gender equity without harming the sustainability of the media company?

We have invested significant financial resources to subsidize broadcasters in the past, like with UltiVillage and NGN, but the model has evolved over the years to a point where we feel it’s no longer necessary. We have a great partnership with Ultiworld who has done a phenomenal job creating what we believe is a sustainable business model that is growing and thriving, while producing and distributing more women’s content for us than any other division in the initial year of our agreement. Overall, Ultiworld has done a great job of providing equitable video coverage of our tournaments. We’re really thankful for that and are confident it will continue.

Does the USAU currently have plans to prevent elite level ultimate from becoming even more “pay-to-play”? In other words, can the USAU address the issue that playing at the highest level of the sport requires spending thousands of dollars per season? How can lower/middle income players play at an elite level without bankrupting themselves? Fundraising, while seeming to be an obvious answer, isn’t feasible for many players whose communities may not be able to support them financially. Does the USAU currently have plans to address this equality/opportunity issue?

I understand where you’re coming from, believe me. I grew up pretty poor (e.g., until I got sponsored at age 16, all my tennis racquets were hand-me-downs from my older brothers who had played with them for years) and the only reason I got to play intercollegiate athletics was because I was on a full scholarship.

Our answer to this issue, in part, was the creation of the Ultimate Foundation so that we could create a pool of scholarship money designed to support youth and financially challenged families. Given the way I grew up, I really want this to be successful!

Having said that, competing in a sport on a national, elite level requires travel. That can be expensive and there is simply no way around that. Our long term goal is to grow the sport enough so that travel is minimized while still creating high quality, competitive opportunities. I can also tell you that relative to other sports, ultimate is by far one of least expensive to compete in.

How do you see Ultimate in the US having changed in 10 years time?

I’ve only known about the sport for 7 years (which is a shame, btw), so I’ll use that as my framework. I’ve been excited and fired up by the changes I’ve seen, which include a heightened sense of legitimacy, increased participation, and more kids playing (which is one of our most important goals and, quite frankly, the one I’m most excited about). More highly respected media outlets contact us on a regular basis to do profiles about the sport. Formal and permanent recognition by the IOC and USOC. Two semi-pro leagues. Most people now wear uniforms…and sometimes they even match.

But seriously, it’s important to keep this going if we want to grow, which we do! It’s a very competitive marketplace, and honestly, we’re getting our butts kicked right now by sports like lacrosse and rugby. And there are still a ton of people who don’t even know ultimate is a sport or an option for their kids. We still have a long way to go.

Would you say pro ultimate has been a net positive, neutral, or negative for the sport? From the respects of: visibility? growth? attracting business partners? gender equality? Do you feel its best to stay completely separate from them instead of influencing their path through a partnership? It would seems that you could partner on youth ultimate.

I think the visibility they’re able to generate at the local level with the match-play model is very powerful. But I have to say, I’m really disappointed that new fans and potential participants are being exposed to ultimate as a male-only sport with referees. YUCK! It makes us look the same as so many other sports. I was attracted to ultimate because it is different and – I honestly feel – better.

I think we have proven you don’t need refs to put an entertaining product on the field, and actually, the observer system with mic’d-up observers is very appealing to ESPN and CBS for it’s entertainment value. It’s a differentiator, and just like Nob at WFDF, I think the leagues have really blown that. In terms of attracting business partners, it’s actually creating a lot of brand confusion in the marketplace which is not helpful.

I also want everyone to know we’ve had ongoing communication with the AUDL dating back to their very early days. We’ve met with Commissioner Gordon to reiterate our position on the AUDL and describe the conflicts and challenges. This communication continues today. Most recently, I reached out to him a couple of weeks ago to describe our plans for the U.S. Open, and Steve and I are going to meet again in person at the National Championships…as long as he doesn’t wear an AUDL shirt. 🙂

As our public statement outlined, we feel that a partnership at this time is inappropriate given the conflict with the values we hold dear.

What is USAU doing to get ultimate recognized by state high school athletics administrations? Integrated into PE curriculum nationally?

Let me answer these in reverse order. So first, we have a great relationship with the physical education community at large, nationwide. One of the things we do every year to appeal to physical educators is attend the Society of Health and Physical Educators conference, as well as other regional PE conferences. At these conferences, we provide our Learn to Play kits and annually updated educational curriculums and establish relationships with educators all over the country. PE teachers and their students love our sport!

To get ultimate recognized by state high school athletics administrations, the first important step was to become a member of the USOC, so we could establish a direct relationship with another important USOC member – the National Federation of State High School Associations and its 50 State High School Association members. The next steps involve state-by-state decisions by those individual members on whether or not to adopt ultimate based on the number of children in their state who are playing the sport. That’s one of the reasons we’re so focused on growing ultimate at the youth level. However, it’s also a competitive marketplace, and a lot of established sports and their coaches are very resistant to ultimate gaining any traction. Ultimate being adopted would take away their field time and will definitely pull away some of their top athletes who, when exposed to ultimate, will choose the coolest sport on the planet!


  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld.You can reach him by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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