Against All Odds

Would another year of dominance from Dallas hurt the AUDL?

Cassidy Rasmussen (left) with Dallas Roughnecks owner Jim Gerencser (center) and Beau Kittredge (right).
What will become of Dallas’ star-studded lineup in 2017?

The Dallas Roughnecks are the 2016 AUDL champions. Despite a well produced and at times very exciting AUDL Championship Weekend, a collective yawn would be an appropriate response to learning that Dallas won the title. Yep, the team that featured Beau Kittredge, Jimmy Mickle, Kurt Gibson, Cassidy Rasmussen, Dylan Freechild, and so many other stars managed to walk away undefeated at the end of the playoffs. Against all odds, indeed.

So what did an overpowering team like this mean for the league? Well, in the short run, it undoubtedly generated interest. Not every team saw an attendance spike when the Roughnecks visited, but both Atlanta and Raleigh reported more fans in the stands for those games. If the Roughnecks put butts in the seats, what’s the harm? Perhaps Atlanta Hustle General Manager John Boezi put it best:

“In sports, uncertainty is intriguing. Games are less compelling when fans feel like they know the outcome of a game before it starts… That false certainty can influence their decision to attend a game, when in truth any game could end up being exciting and dramatic.”

What Boezi is essentially saying is that even if the Roughnecks can lose, if they come back in a similar form next year, the belief that they can’t possibly lose could hurt attendance. That wasn’t likely to happen this year, since Dallas was an expansion franchise that offered a unique new storyline. Though the Roughnecks were the unqualified favorites from the start, it wasn’t clear if they would perform up to those expectations over the course of a season.

After this weekend though, there’s no doubt about that anymore. If the Roughnecks bring everybody back for 2017 — or even just a majority of their star-studded core — they would be the unquestionable favorite to win another championship. And bringing everybody back is exactly what Dallas owner Jim Gerencser has in mind. When asked if he was going to try to re-sign everyone on the 2016 team, he was straight and to the point, “Yeah, it’s a fun team.”

It’s fair to question whether or not Dallas running it back for 2017 would be good for the league. On the one hand, if you look at the professional comparisons over the last 20 years, the MLB had its best tv ratings for the World Series in 1996 when the Yankees won 116 games. The next highest was 1999, when the Yankees were in the middle of their three championships and swept the competition.

It goes beyond just baseball. The NBA Finals had its best ratings when Michael Jordan and the Bulls were winning championships in the 90s, and its second best ratings came when Shaq and Kobe won their championships with the Lakers. Fans like dynasties. They like superstar teams. The Dallas Roughnecks are potentially set up to become the AUDL equivalent to the late 90s Yankees, Jordan Bulls, or Shaq-Kobe Lakers.

But the AUDL is not the MLB or NBA. This is a burgeoning league with perhaps more tenuous relationships with hometown fans. There are no national TV contracts. Players aren’t making a lot of money, and owners aren’t on stable financial ground. If interest wanes because one team is so dominant it’s seen as an inevitable champion, it could hurt interest in the league. And though the AUDL may be improving, it still needs all the help it can get.

“I think [the Roughnecks dominance] is a good thing for the league right now — it needed something like that. I don’t know if it’s the best thing for the league for the rest of its entirety,” said Gerencser.

But where some might see a need for some of the Dallas superstars to go their separate ways to bring more competitive balance, Gerencser sees the responsibility being on the rest of the league to level up their talent, not to bring down his. “Everybody else needs to step up their game a little bit. There are still a lot of good players out there that aren’t playing.”

Generally speaking, that’s the type of behavior the AUDL should look for in its owners. The AUDL needs owners like Gerencser, Don Grage of the DC Breeze, Tim DeByl of the Madison Radicals, Rob Lloyd of the Toronto Rush, and others that are willing to invest in the team and take winning seriously.

But not all owners have the kind of resources or relationships that Gerencser has. Year one of the Dallas super team was entertaining, even if it wasn’t suspenseful. Year two would look and feel a lot different.

Raleigh Flyers head coach Mike DeNardis is in the camp that thinks the Dallas experiment has been good in the short run, but has long-term concerns. “I certainly don’t think it would be great for the league to have one team dominate for multiple years, as most fans enjoy parity.”

That line of thinking is the prevailing one for many involved across the league. “I don’t think it hurts the league as a one-time experiment,” said Austin Sol owner and general manager Patrick Christmas. “It would not be good for the league for it to repeat with the same results.”

Of course it could be that, despite Gerencser’s intentions, this same team does not return for 2017. Any team that pulls from so many different areas of the country is going to have a tenuous shot at continuity at best. And with players like Dylan Freechild, Jimmy Mickle, Cassidy Rasmussen, and Beau Kittredge all moving out of Dallas to return to their respective homes and club teams, it’s not as if the balance of power in ultimate has perpetually shifted to Dallas.

There is no doubt that the players on the Roughnecks know they created something of a juggernaut in the league. Even on the official AUDL podcast on August 5 in an interview with Evan Lepler, Beau Kittredge said, “I don’t know if I can play with [Jimmy Mickle] next year because of how good he is.” After winning the championship on Sunday, Mickle posted a photo on twitter with a few Dallas teammates and the tongue-in-cheek tag line “Against all odds.”

Kittredge noted that though Dallas was the heavy favorite this year, of all his many national and international titles, this one came under much greater pressure. “This championship was the most pressure I’ve felt in a while because this team was my baby and Jim really wanted to win this, and the amount of money. This was a lot of pressure because of what went into creating this team.”

But that pressure is only entertaining for the fans if Dallas stumbles, or is at least more seriously tested than they were this year. The Roughnecks won every game they played, regular season or playoffs by at least four points. They won each of their playoff games by at least six. Roughnecks games have been about as dramatic as watching the USA Olympic women’s basketball team crush its competition.

It’s impossible to know what the Roughnecks will look like when the season opens in April 2017. What is clear is that the AUDL has very little power over what happens next. Any talk of a salary cap in such a new league is far too premature. Gerencser is looking to repeat and wants to bring the team back, so this decision will be made by the players.

Year one was fun and entertaining for almost everyone involved. But it’s difficult to envision Championship Weekend having the same great atmosphere in 2017 if this same Dallas team is riding a 32-game win streak. And given how 2016 went, if the same team shows up next year that’s probably what will happen.

  1. Nathan Jesson
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    Nathan Jesson is Ultiworld's lead AUDL reporter. He has been covering the league since 2013. You can reach him on Twitter @semiproultimate.

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