Monday Mailbag: Tournaments v. One-Offs, World Games Roster, Disc Golf v. Ultimate

Seriously 26 practice players?!

Catrina Allen, one of the top disc golf professionals. Photo: Stu Mullenberg —

Alright, folks, it’s time for another edition of the Monday Mailbag. I’m burning up some questions that I’ve had saved for months, or even years, so start asking me some new stuff that I can answer here. I’ll randomly select people whose questions I answer here to win cool stuff like a Twitter shoutout or one of the way too many Spikeball kits I have cluttering my apartment.

Submit Mailbag questions by email ([email protected]) or Twitter.

Q: Will Sunday play and the pool-tournament weekend play style keep college ultimate from being legitimized by universities and breaking into the college sports scene in a major way (TV coverage on major networks, jersey sales, scholarships, etc…)?

– Bryant B.

First of all, shout out to Bryant B., who is a proud BYU alumnus and a strong supporter of the team on Twitter.

Second of all, although it may be somewhat of a loaded question with the BYU affiliation and all, I think it’s an excellent one to ask. The fact is that most major NCAA college sports do not feature a tournament format outside of the playoffs. Teams play one-off games against one opponent on a Friday night, for example, and that’s that. Back on the bus, head back home. Heck, that’s how it’s generally done in high school athletics too.

And consider this wild first weekend of March Madness we went through. Obviously it’s a tournament format, but games are very carefully managed to be on during primetime hours and feature staggered starts for maximum spectator awesomeness. None of this ultimate business where every single quarterfinal happens at the same time. (Oh, and if BYU is in the tournament, they avoid putting them in a Sunday game.)

But back to the actual question here: yes, the tournament format is bad. It’s bad because it asks competitors to play their most important games at their most fatigued. It’s bad because, unless you spread it out over multiple weeks like March Madness, too many games happen at the same time and go unseen. It’s hard to follow a Cinderella story if you never see her dance.

It’s not clear, though, that anything can really be done about it. USA Ultimate has already cut the number of games at Nationals and gives a lot more rest to teams that make the semifinals and finals. It’s just not financially feasible to play one-off games (I suppose the AUDL would beg to differ but the MLU certainly wouldn’t).

Even if it were to be magically made possible, NCAA acceptance wouldn’t suddenly follow. It turns out that getting ultimate approved at the NCAA level would be incredibly complex and difficult.

But even without the NCAA, so much more could be done to pump up the college season. Unlike the club season, the college regular season is actually really compelling and fun to follow, and it culminates with what I believe is USAU’s gold-standard event: the College Championships. Sure, the level of play isn’t what it is at Club Nationals, but the drama and the upsets and the vibe can’t be matched.

USAU should be promoting it more! They should make college the focal point of the organization’s marketing with substantially more coverage of the build up to Nationals.

Q: I was listening to the Upshot podcast (following the Aussie Open) and started thinking about (as I often do) the comparison between ultimate and disc golf, and how making money is viewed in each sport. Y’all went over several times that numerous players elected not to travel to Perth to play, citing among other things the difficulty of travel and the cost vs. return.

Now, I made a conscious decision not to go to Australia because I’m an adult human with an adult job, even though I really really really like throwing frisbees. But, Charlie, I’m sure it’s been on your tickler list to know that the 2018 WFDF U-24 Ultimate Championships are also in… Perth, Australia! Which means that 35+ teams and 700+ players, including mixed, women’s, and open from the US (plus coaches and support staff), will be traveling to the same place as the Aussie Open was this year. Those players almost certainly aren’t breaking even on the trip; most will be paying their own way there, or getting some support from their local organizations plus maybe some USAU stipend. No idea what the pay structure is for other countries, but I suspect that USAU is a lot better off than most, simply because of its size.

Not sure there’s really a right answer to this, but do y’all have any thoughts on the difference in values in disc golf vs. ultimate, especially with respect to cashing vs. getting the experience? It seems like the general flavor right now from the governing bodies is:

PDGA: Use existing structure and new developing tours to promote high-level disc golf and grow the base; help provide means for top-tier players to make a living.

USAU: Keep SOTG a high priority, don’t let AUDL become too visible without appealing to USAU’s values, provide playing opportunities to as many players as possible (but not trying to necessarily pay for those players).

Obviously those are super-general and there are lots of other goals, but it really strikes me as odd that disc golf has developed a culture of wanting to make money (or accumulate plastic) whereas elite ultimate players will throw out $2500/season, just because they like playing it so much. How did we arrive at this point, and where do we go from here? Does professional and monetized ultimate result in convergence to ultimate players insisting on breaking even? 

– Andrew F.

A: OK for the uninitiated: disc golfers are often interested in playing tournaments where they can “cash.” That is, where they can earn back their entry fees and maybe even win some money on top of that. Really big tournaments can award up to $10,000 to the winner in some cases. If you’re really good, you can make some real money!

Andrew’s over-arching assessment here is spot-on: elite ultimate players shell out the big bucks to play, whereas elite disc golfers are interested in actually making money from their sport.

I think the first and most obvious reason for this difference is that ultimate is a team sport that requires significant space to play and disc golf is an individual sport that just needs a golf course that hundreds can play in a day. Disc golf tournaments are generally paying the top 30%, say, of players with the money collected from the bottom 70%. That means that you can win real cash.

If you did that at an ultimate tournament, sure, you could give the winning team a couple thousand bucks as sometimes happens during the club season at USA Ultimate events, but when there are 25 people on your roster and the cost of getting to the tournament massively outweighs any prize money, who even cares?

It’s also extremely difficult — or even impossible — for ultimate to hold the kinds of events that are large enough to subsidize substantial prize money for the top-performing teams, since field space is a huge limiting factor.

Still, the emergence of semi-pro ultimate is going to push ever more players away from dropping $2500 a season and towards just playing semi-pro, even if the financial “earnings” are paltry. Not paying to play, playing in front of a crowd on a regular basis — these things are major draws.

USAU club play remains the Platonic ideal of the sport in the minds of many current players. Club Nationals is still the Super Bowl of ultimate. I don’t see that changing now, or even in the next five years. But what about the next cycle of top players, the players who are in high school right now? Will they opt to spend the big bucks on club play? If the ‘play for free’ option exists indefinitely, it’s hard to see how that doesn’t evolve to become the predominant version of the sport.

Q: Why does the Philadelphia Phoenix have 26 players on its practice squad plus seven alternates along with the 28-man roster?

– Dan B.

A: You know, Dan, I wish I had an answer for you. This is insane.

Did they just decide to invite anyone from the Philly spring league to be a practice player? Are they going to turn around and make the practice players buy tickets to go to the games so this turns out to be just some wacky guerrilla marketing gimmick?

Most importantly, are they really going to have 50+ person practices?? Some journalist should really look into this.

Q: What do you think of the Team USA roster for the World Games?

– Abby S.

A: Item one: The team is insanely talented. Good luck everyone else.

Item two: just how different would this roster be if you just sat down before tryouts and hand-picked twenty players to make the roster? I think there are some marginally surprising names — Carolyn Finney, maybe; Chris Kocher, possibly — but for the most part this is chalk.

Item three: Now which six players do you cut before the tournament?? I was all prepared to pick my six and then I looked at the team again and now I’m extremely indecisive. I hope six players just get hurt so they don’t have to choose. No, wait, I don’t actually wish that.

If I’m forced to pick, here are my cuts: Joel Schlachet, Chris Kocher, Nick Stuart, Lien Hoffmann, Carolyn Finney, and Sandy Jorgensen. If you’re outraged try to pick your own list — it’s impossible.

Here’s my take: you have to cut one of the Revolver guys or its just silly season. Sorry Joel. Chris Kocher had a sweet tryout but they are going to let legacy guys like Beau and George stick around for one more cycle before Kocher rules the sport in four years. Same story for Nick Stuart.

Lien Hoffmann is a beast but Kami Groom fits the roster better for the Brute Squad spot. Carolyn Finney just can’t quite match what Nazarov and Chastain bring to the table at her position. Jorgensen was one of the last four cut four years ago and I think she ends up in the same spot this time; her offensive abilities are outmatched by some other players and her deep defense is less valuable in mixed play.

That was a horrendous exercise and don’t remind me of this ever again.

Next week: AUDL picks!

  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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