Monday Mailbag: Regionals, Tournament Fees, Hypothetical ESPN Deal

Now we set our sights on Nationals.

PoNY’s Markian “Muk” Kuzmowycz throws against Mockingbird in the game-to-go. Photo: Burt Granofsky — UltiPhotos.com

I enjoyed a beautiful weekend up in Devens, MA, for Northeast Regionals for the sixth straight year. It was a little too hot for a late September weekend in the Northeast, but it is always great to catch up with friends old and new at Regionals. Shout out to Lionel for identifying that one of PoNY’s D-lines had a majority of players sporting a prime number on their jersey.

ASK ME QUESTIONS/SEND ME COMMENTS: Email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or Twitter.

Q: Despite some upsets before the games-to-go, Regionals was almost entirely chalk (with Showdown beating Molly Brown standing as maybe the only legitimate upset). Are you surprised? Is it good or bad for the club division that it felt like a formality?

– James D.

A: I don’t think I remember a year where the Nationals qualifier list was completely absent of surprises. I mean, last year, we literally ran an article with the headline, “Who The Heck Are These Teams?” But we won’t be writing that article this year.

It’s not just a gut feeling that it was pretty predictable this year: the numbers back it up. Based on seeding, the only team “expected” to go to Nationals that didn’t actually earn a spot was Oakland Guerrilla (the no. 2 seed), who lost to no. 3 seed SoCal Condors (hardly an upset). Literally every other team that was seeded at or above the number of bids made Nationals. Sure, there were some one seeds that didn’t win the region, but few of those games felt like real upsets.

Am I surprised? Not really. I did pick a couple upsets on Deep Look that didn’t pan out (like Bucket over Toro in SE Mixed), but by and large I stuck with the favorites. The quality drop off between the favorites and the underdogs was pretty stark in most regions this year. The only region that got a full five out of five fire emojis in this year’s set of Regionals previews was SE Mixed, but Toro cleaned up pretty comfortably at the end of the day.

I think the headline results, while not particularly compelling, do belie some of the intrigue that actually happens on the ground at Regionals all over the country. There were a lot of close games: Sub Zero came back from 14-11 down to win 15-14 over Madison Club in the final. Florida United and Chain played a barnburner. XIST shocked Wild Card and then barely lost on double game point to Metro North in a game-to-go before falling apart in the backdoor bracket. It’s kind of a ‘you have to be there’ situation.

But when push comes to shove, the good teams find a way to pull it out. When lines tighten up in games-to-go, the superior depth of the better teams makes the upset that much less likely. The fact that elimination games come at the end of long weekends also makes upsets rare.

When it comes down to it, the club season, for fans and spectators, is all about Nationals. The top teams make it out of their region every year. There is no doubt. Regular season tournaments do not matter. Regionals is a formality. Sure, we learn about teams’ strengths and weaknesses and O-lines and D-lines and potential from June to September. But October is where the action happens.

I, for one, am excited.

Q: What did you think about the controversy over the cost of Southwest Regionals?

– Jessica W.

A: Perfect! Something I’ve already ranted about elsewhere!

Here’s what I said on Deep Look — more discussion in the podcast:

Look, I would probably be a little irritated, too, if I were finding out last minute. But the word on the street is that there were no bids to host Southwest Regionals by the deadline. There were no bids after the extended deadline. So at the last minute, California Ultimate said, ‘Alright, we’ll do it,’ and got fields at the last minute which presumably were very expensive.

And the question that I have is: is it really that bad to pay $50 a person? So just zoom out a second. Take it out of the context of ‘normally it’s only $400 a team and now it’s $1300 a team,’ which sounds like ‘Whoa, crazy amount.’ But we’re talking about $50 a person. $50 a person. To have people lining fields for you, setting up cones, water. They have eight observers at this tournament. There’s going to be all kinds of really nice amenities at this tournament. They’re going to be playing on wonderful fields at this tournament.

Is $50 a person an unreasonable cost? To me, the answer is just straight up — no it’s not.

Because if you’re compensating people for their time, you’re paying for the fields, you’re going to pay the observers a reasonable amount of money instead of asking them to work for free, like, Subway lunch which seems like it goes on sometimes. You know, it costs money to do these things. And if you put it into the context of the overall amount of money that you spend on ultimate — if you go to a tournament, even Regionals, you’re going to pay gas or flight. At minimum a flight is going to be $200. At minimum. You’ve got hotel — even if you’re four to a room, that’s going to be probably $50 over the course of the weekend if not a little more. You’ve got food. You’ve got all of the associated travel expenses. Look, $50 for the tournament itself isn’t really that much money. It’s just not.

So I say to you if you’re outraged: think about, maybe we need to change the norms around how this works. Are we really going to continue to ask tournament directors to work for free? Are we really going to ask observers to continue to work for free? If you’re saying, ‘Well I don’t want observers because my team isn’t good.’ Well, you know what, then don’t go to Regionals. Like, this is the second most important tournament of the year. I think it’s reasonable to pay a little money for it.

So, I get it. I get that it’s annoying to find at the last minute. I get that it’s frustrating to expect a certain cost and have something different. But when you’re talking about going from paying $20 a player to $50 a player, is it really that bad?

Q: What would attendance/viewership have to be for all teams to be compensated for attending a TCT tournament?

– Matt G. 

So the premise here is how much viewership interest would there need to be for USA Ultimate to be able to compensate teams for attending a major Triple Crown Tour tournament — let’s use US Open as an example. I’m going to operate under the assumption that teams simply get their travel, room, and board covered, not that they make any additional money on top of that.

First we need to think about how much it costs for an average team to attend the US Open. Let’s do some very broad math.

Let’s say there are 24 people that go to the tournament per team (players, coaches, etc.). Each person has a plane ticket that costs $300 on average. The team gets six hotel rooms and goes four to a room. Each room is $300 for the weekend (three nights minimum for US Open). They rent six rental cars at average of $150 each for the weekend. Honestly, I’m probably lowballing costs here a little bit. Every player gets a $30 per diem for food — not a lot, but we’re not the NFL.

So we have 24 * ($300+[$30*3]) + 6 * ($300+$150) = $12,060 per team. That’s for travel, room, and board. Now we have to tack on about $1000 a team for tournament fees. Let’s call it an even $13,000, just to keep the numbers clean.

There were 12 teams per division this year at the US Open — that’s 36 teams * $13,000 = $468,000. I think it’s fair to say that it would cost around $500,000 for a longer tournament like the US Open for USA Ultimate to fund participation for all teams.

Let’s say that USAU agreed to fund the costs for teams to attend US Open, Pro Championships (similar size and length), and the National Championships (four days, twelve more teams, more expensive all around). We’ll call Nationals a $1,000,000 cost for USAU. So that’s $2 million a year to fund the teams to attend those three big tournaments.

Now $2M isn’t really that much money in the grand scheme of sports business. The NBA’s most recent deal with ESPN and Turner (9 years, 2016-2025) is estimated at $2.66 BILLION a year. $2 million is less than 0.1% of 2.6 billion.

But there are a heck of a lot of NBA games on ABC/ESPN and TNT — those games averaged around 1.5 million viewers (3.2 million on ABC) last season. These numbers are just not even remotely attainable for ultimate right now.

Perhaps a more reasonable analog might be the Little League World Series. Yea. I’m serious.

In 2013, ESPN signed a $60 million, 8 year extension to carry the LLWS. That’s around $7.5 million a year for a similar amount of content — tournament-style games over the course of two weeks (hypothetical TCT coverage would be 10 days long — 3 for US Open, 3 for Pro Champs, and 4 for Nationals).

At the time of the deal, LLWS coverage was averaging around 900,000 viewers. This year’s final drew 2.6 million viewers.

Now it’s important to note that ESPN has a long-term relationship with the LLWS, having carried the tournament on its network since 1987. It also falls in the dead of summer (mid-August), when there’s no other major sports on except Major League Baseball. (There’s a reason ESPN was willing to put the US Open final on ESPN2 this August…)

So I think we have a decent answer. Ultimate viewership needs to jump about an order of magnitude, maybe two, in order to be able to command a sports deal that would be able to fund players’ expenses during the season. Right now, online streaming of ultimate typically draws only 2000-4000 live, concurrent viewers and maybe 10,000-15,000 total viewers; the ESPN2 Mixtape-Drag’N Thrust game got 150,000 viewers, but that’s not really more than a “replacement level” broadcast would get on the network.

There’s a long way to go.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

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

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