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A Unified Season: Making The Case For An AUDL/USAU Partnership

Building a path forward, together.

San Francisco FlameThrowers at the 2017 AUDL Championship Weekend. Photo: FT Facebook.

It’s never been a better time to be an ultimate fan and I’m ready to quit. All this conflict is toxic for our sport and our community. Instead of supporting each other to grow and share ultimate, USA Ultimate and the American Ultimate Disc League are locked in an ideological battle that is hurting rather than enriching the sport.

Since USAU stinks at entertainment, the AUDL keeps finding the word “I” in spirit, and athletes are stuck somewhere in between, I’m going to lay out a unified vision for how we might start getting along.

Let’s break it all down and then come up with a plan.

Strengths and Weaknesses

AUDL

Strengths – Resources
Weaknesses – Gender Equity, Referees, On-Field Product

Twenty-four individuals and/or ownership groups have decided they have money to burn and they want to spend it on ultimate. This is a good thing.

Unfortunately, they’ve chosen to spurn the broader interests of the ultimate community by eliminating self-officiation and not taking seriously conversations around gender equity. Consequently, USAU refuses to endorse them and athletes are now calling for a boycott of the league.

Combine this with the AUDL’s decision to change the size of the playing field so fans wouldn’t be “confused” by an extra line, and their on-field product is suffering. In a competitive sports entertainment marketplace, people aren’t going to stick around long for cut-rate entertainment, even if it’s at cut rate prices.

USA Ultimate

Strengths – Organization, Governance, Corporate Connections, Principles
Weakness – Boring, Slow-moving

Credit to USAU where credit is due. USAU serves an essential function for the sport, and, given the complexity of organizing and balancing the needs of tens of thousands of people around the country and across borders, they do a darn good job. We need them and we all benefit from the services they provide.

But let’s face it. From its unnavigable website to its mystifying 40+ team tournaments to its Triple Crown Tour and abysmal branding, USAU has never demonstrated it is even remotely capable of providing entertainment to the masses. (They once provided a free beer tent at Club Nationals which I heard was a huge hit and a great time.)

USAU has regularly cited principle as its reason for not working with the AUDL. The real question: if the AUDL addresses these concerns, is USAU willing to accept it might not be the only shepherd of our sport?

Elite Athletes

Strengths – Frisbee Skills, Principles, Storylines
Weaknesses – Organization, Resources

Without elite athletes, none of this would really matter as the world does not wish to watch the rest of us play ultimate. Collectively, they hold the cards. Individually, they don’t have much.

Recently, they’ve done some solid, if informally organized, collective work to begin advocating for their principles and have moved the dial on gender equity. They’ve pushed the male-dominated USAU to do better on its media policy, and now they’re going to push the AUDL.

Why Do We Fight?

Three main groups, all with varying strengths and weaknesses and very little overlap, still can’t seem to get along. So why is this happening?

My intuition here is that our little community of ultimate is suffering from the same affliction as the broader global community: becoming overly focused on accumulating for ourselves and doggedly defending what little we feel we have.

Each actor in this drama feels they are the star of their own play. They each cater to their own segmented audiences and when their followers applaud them, they believe their work is done. But this isn’t a one-person show performed in an echo chamber. This is an ensemble cast built around a communal audience. If we continue shouting over each other, we will eventually erode away at this community we once knew to be special.

The Right Things First

  • Solution #1 – AUDL requires that all franchises have both a men’s and women’s team.
  • The Details – The AUDL regular season lasts 20 weeks from May – September. Each franchise has 20 games total with two bye weekends and games split evenly between the men’s and women’s teams. AUDL implements a league-wide moratorium on paying players in order to offset the increased costs of supporting two teams.

The athletes supporting an AUDL boycott have it right. Gender equity is not optional, and everyone participating in the boycott will have history on their side, but a boycott is not the only answer to the men’s-only league problem.

Having two teams is more expensive than one, but economies of scale make this less expensive than operating two separate franchises. Additional financial burden comes mainly in the form of an additional three home games and three away games that is accompanied by an estimated $7,000 savings in player salaries.1

This could be a problem for teams that fly, but, given that long-distance AUDL trips are often double-headers, this generally works out to an additional travel weekend per franchise.

The moratorium on player salaries makes adding the three additional home games considerably less expensive, and franchises that need to costs cut even further can utilize a portion of its inactive team as staff. This has the added bonus of turning every game into a meet and greet opportunity for fans.

Economically, this new structure adds more home games but makes each individual experience more scarce. Fans have three additional opportunities to watch ultimate in general, but two less opportunities to see any specific team. Additionally, fans now only have a single opportunity to see any given away team. This makes every home game unique: because sports fandom is so much about connection to a specific team or narrative, this should incentivize attendance as opportunities to replace a missed experience are now harder to come by.

Furthermore, while it is true the AUDL cannot grow into a bonafide professional league with existing ultimate fans alone, it is still a nascent league, and its five years of conflict with wide swaths of the existing community has left a sizable chunk of low hanging fruit sitting on the branches. If average attendance around the league currently sits at 200-300 people per game, then even if incorporating gender equity into your league adds only an additional 50 people per game, franchises are still looking at a 17-25% increase in revenue.

Incorporating gender equity into the AUDL is part one of two in turning motivated AUDL critics into AUDL evangelists. In a country quickly being overcome by division, it does something sorely needed and bridges a gap, taking the AUDL from another seen-it-before story of an all but destined to fail men’s sports league and turning it into something newsworthy. This makes gender equity not only a morally courageous business decision but also a sound financial one.

Ceding The Crown

  • Solution #2 – The AUDL adopts USAU observer system, field size, and gender equity policies, and USAU recognizes AUDL as the official series for professional men’s and women’s play.
  • The Details – Both parties give up something they really want, but the return is a huge payoff in the form of a united vision. USAU and AUDL combine strengths to introduce youth around the country to the sport with AUDL providing a place for kids to find role models and USAU developing organizational opportunities for them to play and learn the values of our community.

Five years into the Triple Crown Tour and fans have not turned up for USAU’s formalized version of the club season. In a media vacuum, the TCT might not look so bad, but the rise of the AUDL and its popularity with youth over club ultimate did not happen in a vacuum. Like the MLU, Cultimate, and the NexGen League before it, the AUDL exists because USAU is unable to fulfill a community need for fandom.

No fault here. USAU is a complicated organization with many stakeholders and is poorly suited to invest the time and resources necessary to develop a professional league. Veteran USAU board member Henry Thorne once told me they modeled the TCT off the US Tennis Association and its success as both a national governing body and professional organization.

The problem is that tennis is an individual sport. A single player is responsible for his or her own transportation, training, and management. An introductory $10,000 top prize at a tennis tournament makes the risk of travel and opportunity cost a tenable professional decision. A $10,000 prize for winning an ultimate tournament for a 25 person roster might not even cover the team’s airfare.

Building a professional future for ultimate requires lots of money, lots of losses, and lots of time. Since USAU only possesses time and there appear to be enough people in the world ready to put in the money and take the losses, it only make sense that USAU make room to work with an AUDL that is willing to align with its decades of established community values.

Bring ‘Em All Together Now

  • Solution #3 – Form a players’ association to work with AUDL and USA to ensure athletes have formal representation in new structure.
  • The Details – Players’ Association initial membership includes all men’s and women’s division participants in the 2017 USAU National Championships and all 2017 rostered AUDL players. Players elect an eight-person representative board (four women, four men) and hire a part-time paid administrator. All members pay $25 yearly membership dues. Players’ Association membership updates in conjunction with a new season’s roster announcements. Membership becomes open only to and is a requirement of all rostered AUDL athletes.

All other factors aside, if the essence of competition is to put oneself up against the best in order to discover what is best in oneself, then a division of talent necessarily works against athletes. For a time, this was not a bad thing, as the arrival of the pro leagues offered something new but untested. Non-commitment gave men the chance to dip their toe in the new offering to see if they liked the temperature of the water.

This experiment, while a valuable one to have had, hurt competition in both the AUDL and USAU. It resulted in inconsistent focus by men’s players, with some top athletes showing up almost for the first time at the AUDL championships and others missing vital time with their club teams to travel to AUDL games. Players and whole teams leaned club, leaned pro, and every way in between — and sometimes different ways in different years.

But just as the AUDL and USAU must mature for our sport to grow best, so too must the athletes. In a male privileged world, our male and female athletes must come together with a unified voice and put an end to this experiment. The cards have been dealt and the hands are on the table. Pick one, the other, or force the USAU and AUDL to confront their hubris and then get back to doing what they do best — playing the best ultimate they can. It’s the perfect game of chess where athletes can either be pawns or kings.

The play is simple. A thousand athletes vote to make financial concessions and play exclusively in the AUDL, if the AUDL equally support women’s teams, observers, and field size. AUDL must concede to long-standing values of the ultimate community or almost certainly fail. If AUDL agrees, USAU can no longer hide behind its values and must concede its position of authority over elite ultimate.

There is practical value in this solution beyond setting up the checkmate play. AUDL and USAU both need buy-in for success, and buy-in does not come by decree. Having a thousand conversations with a thousand athletes is impractical and inefficient. A Players’ Association makes solutions like placing a moratorium on salaries until the league sees profit possible.

Keep It Ultimate

  • Solution #4 – Add excitement and cross-divisional play to the AUDL season with a mid-season tournament.
  • The Details – Co-hosted by USAU, the mid-season tournament rotates between AUDL cities and acts as the AUDL equivalent of an All-Star break that actually counts. Results affect regular season standing.

The AUDL introduced cross-divisional regular season games last season, but even with that addition, teams maxed out at six total opponents. Conversely, the TCT offers considerable opportunity in opponent variation and scheduling, but at the cost of regularity with only three major tournaments per regular season.

The addition of a mid-season tournament to the AUDL hits the sweet spot between regular scheduling, excitement, opponent diversity, and community. Co-hosting the tournament gives the AUDL and USAU an opportunity to institutionalize their cooperative relationship as USAU brings their tournament organizing expertise and the AUDL utilizes its promotional networks to bring in fans and viewership.

AUDL and USAU could promote the tournament as an All-Star like destination event for fans and sponsors: all-you-can-watch ultimate with side trips and other fun activities for families and all of it culminating in the “biggest tournament party of the year” on Sunday night with the entire cast of AUDL men’s and women’s athletes in attendance. A truly unique sports event.

If the cost of getting athletes to this tournament is an issue, the AUDL and the Players’ Association could work out an arrangement whereby teams require athlete’s each season to sell some set value of tickets equal to the additional financial burden of the event for the league divided by all athletes. Thus allowing the AUDL to make decisions that independently they might not make, but with support from players adds value for everyone.

***

There you have it. Four solutions that make working together more fun than working apart. A repudiation of the growing ‘me’dom of the world and a refreshing reminder of what can be accomplished with a little bit of shared vision and cooperation. And since editorials are easy and action is somewhat harder, I offer up my services to any or all of these groups that need a helping hand to make this happen.


  1. Typical AUDL pay is $25 per player for the 20-man roster over 14 games 

  1. Kevin Minderhout
    Kevin Minderhout

    Kevin Minderhout is a lifelong ultimate devotee, athlete and entrepreneur. He played at the University of Oregon and with Portland’s Rhino. He founded the NexGen Ultimate Tour and the NexGen Network and has held a position on USAU Board of Directors.

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