A Tale Of Three Teams: The Exclusivity Of The Triple Crown Tour

Examining the requirements and sanctions imposed by USAU's club structure.


This article was written by guest author Erin Maloney, player and coach in Eugene, OR.

It’s the game-to-go to the game-to-go of the 2016 Northwest Men’s Regionals. After a game filled with dramatic runs and momentum-shifting comebacks, Portland Rhino and Eugene Darkstar are battling to see who will advance and take on Vancouver’s Furious George for the region’s final bid to Nationals. Darkstar ties the game at 14 with 20 minutes left in the round before pulling to Rhino, whose offense works the disc up the field to score, 15-14. The game is still win by two, and the spectators know Eugene still very much has the opportunity to win.

No one watching expected what was about to happen.

Shenanigans, Mockery, And Some Justification

Receiving the pull down 14-15, Eugene’s Cody Bjorklund intentionally threw the first pass into the ground ten yards outside his own endzone. All seven Darkstar players on the field then face-planted onto the grass as the Eugene sideline erupted in hysterical laughter. Rhino picked up the turnover and easily scored the winning point, with a combination of disbelief, disappointment, and anger on their faces, perhaps feeling cheated of the opportunity to prove they truly earned their place in the game-to-go.

After the incident was called out on Reddit, Eugene’s leadership released this statement to Ultiworld:

We threw the game against Rhino because Darkstar had more than fulfilled its goals for the weekend, and because we felt Rhino had a better shot at both the bid and competing for a national title. A trip across the country (for Nationals or any other tournament) is out of the question for the majority of our roster. We go to Regionals each year for the chance to challenge teams like Sockeye and Rhino because we have no other opportunities to do so.

The statement indicates that Darkstar recognized the work that Rhino put into their season: adhering to Triple Crown Tour requirements, attending national-level tournaments, and placing well enough to earn the Northwest a second bid to the Club Championships. Perhaps not all players on Darkstar agreed with the way their Rhino game ended, but they all gathered on the Rhino sideline to cheer and support them in their game against Furious.

Despite speculation on Reddit about the consequences of actually winning that game, Darkstar’s statement did not address the potential requirements that the team would have had to fulfill next year, should they have advanced to the game-to-go and earned (at minimum) the designation of Top Select tier in the 2017 Triple Crown Tour (TCT). Even so, perhaps at least part of the motivation for Darkstar to stay out of the game-to-go had to do with finances and time — and at least from my vantage point, no one on the team was disappointed in what they had accomplished with their season.

The Difference Between Competitive And Committed

For all of the ways USAU has worked to make the club season more meaningful to teams, there remain important implications about the accessibility and fairness of the TCT based on the main points Darkstar made in their statement:

  1. Most players on Darkstar were unwilling or unable to allocate the time and financial resources needed to fly to tournaments.
  2. The team still desired to play competitive ultimate, but often their only opportunity to compete against elite teams within driving distance is at Regionals.

The essential question, therefore, is whether the TCT provides sufficient opportunities for teams with competitive desires, but without resources, to play good ultimate.

Here, I’d like to define “competitive” very specifically. Just because a team does not want to attend TCT-designated tournaments during the regular season does not mean that it is non-competitive. Many players on Darkstar are top-tier players who play at the highest levels of collegiate and ‘pro’ ultimate. “Competitive” should refer to the highest level of skill that a team is able to play, collectively, in a game. Commitment should be differentiated from competitiveness. Even though the level of commitment (for example, most Darkstar players attended practices three times per week during the season) seems associated with competitiveness (the more you practice, the better you get), I don’t think it is essential.

In this piece, I’d like to define “good ultimate” as a game between teams of relatively similar skill/talent and where each has the same desire and incentive to compete. I’ll explore scenarios that were different, but similar, to Darkstar’s Regionals in what follows. The teams I’ll profile had “competitive” desires and were capable of playing “good ultimate.” They were penalized by the Triple Crown Tour’s regulations; they did well at their respective Regional Championships, but could not or did not want to attend the required tournaments in the following season.

Incentivizing Worse Results

So, what happens if a team does break into the Top Select tier by losing the game-to-go to Nationals, but cannot or chooses not to adhere to Triple Crown Tour Rule II.C.4.c.? Two years ago, a Select mixed team in the Northwest went to the game-to-go, lost, chose not to fulfill the requirements that came along with their status, and suffered the consequences of being disqualified from the Club Series the following year.

In 2014, Robot Twoniraffapus 3030 (formerly Fat Camp Allstars, formerly Giraffapus, now Kermit Roosevelt, Jr.) was a mixed team based out of Seattle, WA, composed mostly of experienced club players. They went to Washington Sectionals and earned a bid to Northwest Regionals—without much, if any, regular season tournament attendance or practice. They competed to the best of their ability (quite successfully), while maintaining a robust quota of dancing and team spirit.

They advanced all the way to the Top Select designation, and in 2015 had to attend either a tournament in Ohio or Arkansas if they wished to compete at Sectionals again that fall. As a team representative recounted, “Turns out, flying to either of those two locations isn’t convenient,” meaning there were no direct flights (from Seattle—a major metropolitan airport) and no member of the team could find tickets for less than $600. This cost, in addition to the amount the team would need for accommodations and rental cars, was out of the price range for most players on the team, who were preparing for grad school, in grad school, or in entry-level career-type positions.

The RT3030 representative suggested that had the team known about the consequences for not attending the 2015 TCT Tournaments (that they would not be able to compete together for a year), their 2014 Regionals outcome intentionally “may not have been the same.”

Here we find again, a question of fairness: should the TCT allow teams to continue to compete in the Series if they are unwilling or unable to participate in the regular season? Perhaps by weeding out the teams that are unwilling to devote the time, monetary resources, and therefore, “serious dedication” to the Club season, USAU hopes to encourage better competition. If that’s the case, it certainly hasn’t come to fruition yet; if RT3030 contested games all the way to the game-to-go to Nationals, it seems that they were playing ‘good ultimate.’

Moreover, does the travel-or-else schema of the TCT actually hinder a spirit of good ultimate? We now have two examples—one in hindsight in 2014, and one in 2016—that indicate that teams are potentially willing to throw competitive games in order to avoid even the possibility of having to pay for plane tickets. It has set up a system where only players that have means and are willing to prioritize spending their time and money on ultimate have access to the top tiers of the TCT.

Dissatisfied And Disillusioned

Let’s look at the Darkstar situation from a different angle. While many of the players on that team have played previously or currently for the University of Oregon, there are also a number of them that have or have the potential to play for the Portland Stags of the MLU. They can travel at little or no cost to play other good men’s teams. However, not all ultimate players are afforded this luxury—like, an entire gender.

What women’s players do have, at least after a certain age, is the Masters’ division. In theory, this gives us more opportunities to play “good ultimate,” and is more bang for our membership buck.

However, the TCT regular club season coincides in part with Masters’ Regional and National competitions. In 2016, this forced one team of mixed players from North Carolina to make a nasty choice: for seven of the nine women on Raleighwood’s roster, it was either attend Master’s Regionals and Nationals as planned but then not be able to commit to Raleighwood’s TCT requirements, or attend one of the two TCT-required tournaments for their now-Top Select mixed team, one on the same weekend of Masters’ Regionals, and one the weekend after Nationals.

Raleighwood argues that their case is evidence that the TCT rules can be discriminatory against Masters players, and that in 2016 it “disproportionately put undue hardship on the Masters-playing women of the Southeast region.” Maybe the plight of an ultimate player includes choosing between two divisions, but for a chunk of women players on Raleighwood, the choice was particularly difficult, since their decision to play Masters did not only affect one tournament, but Raleighwood’s club season and eligibility for the following year.

Raleighwood suggested that the sanctioning of Top Select teams for not meeting tournament requirements is too harsh. Theoretically, most teams should be excited to have the chance to play good ultimate, if they are able to—so what is the purpose of the punishment? Many of the Raleighwood players (who are also volunteers, organizers, and coaches), after appealing the sanctioning, felt dissatisfied and disillusioned with USAU. Such a result is surely not in line with the goals of the TCT.

Moreover, is the sanctioning the appropriate stick when the carrot of better playing opportunities isn’t enough? It seems that USAU could allow teams who earn a Top Select designation to refuse it—thus, allowing them to drop back into the Select tier and play fewer big tournaments. Surely, there have been other Select teams happy to have the chance to compete at the Elite-Select Challenge or the Select Flight Invite in lieu of Top Select teams.

Equal Opportunity For Good Ultimate

RT 3030 argued that if teams are required to travel to tournaments by USAU—particularly new Top Select teams—USAU ought to reduce the team bid fee or significantly subsidize housing and transportation to make it more affordable. Darkstar wants teams to have more options for tournaments that “count” toward their TCT travel duty, which would also potentially allow for fewer conflicts with other USAU sanctioned seasons. Surely if teams want to play good ultimate, and they had a bone thrown their way in order to do so, they would be much less likely to ‘accidentally’ turf a disc on game point — there wouldn’t be as many material obstacles to going for gold.

The uncomfortable reality still remains, however, that ultimate is a sport of privilege. To play highly competitive ultimate requires financial resources, time, and experience that most players got through their college programs—which is still, by and large, another socioeconomic benchmark. In her 2016 All-Star Tour blog entry, Bethany Kaylor tackled some of these difficult questions for the ultimate community to face, which of course go beyond TCT Top Select requirements. She wrote:

Becoming an elite ultimate athlete requires both time and disposable income, and so the socioeconomic fabric of our ultimate community becomes somewhat predetermined… So how can we reach a wider and more diverse frisbee community, across socioeconomic and racial bounds?

Excellent question. We can be more inviting, we can be more inclusive, and especially, we can work to ensure there are appropriate opportunities for all competitive club teams to play good ultimate.

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