Less than three weeks after announcing a partnership, Alleycats and Red broke ties
March 13, 2018 by Zakk Mabrey in News with 0 comments
With the turn of a new year came a new era in ultimate. Semi-professional1 women’s teams popped up throughout the Midwest, led by Detroit and Nashville. In Indianapolis, the road to pro women’s ultimate has been filled with twists and turns. As pioneers for women’s ultimate in the local community, Jackie Lai and Lauren Piontek embarked on a mission to create a women’s team of their own. Quickly, they forged a partnership with the Indianapolis Alleycats, only to see it dissolve before it ever began.
Part I: The Startup
Indy Red, Indianapolis’ professional women’s team, began as the brainchild of co-founder and captain Lauren Piontek. Just hours after the Detroit Mechanix announced the promotion of their women’s team, Piontek, along with co-founder Jackie Lai, planted the seedlings of a plan that would bring a professional women’s ultimate team to Indianapolis.
“[Lauren] messaged me a couple hours after the Detroit Mechanix released their public statement. I was immediately on board,” said Lai.
They met the next day and never looked back.
“We sent out an interest survey, and proceeded to get over fifty responses from all over Indiana, St. Louis, and Cincinnati in about a day,” said Lai. “There was a huge desire for a women’s professional ultimate team to happen from all members of our community, and we knew that the Indianapolis ultimate community would band behind us to make this happen.”
Within just a couple of days, Lai and Piontek had set up plans to host the first round of tryouts for the inaugural Indianapolis women’s professional ultimate team. With the assistance of some local community members along with Indiana Wesleyan Ultimate, Indy Red had found discounted field space to run an initial tryout. Indianapolis Alleycats head coach Eric Leonard and general manager Tyler Stapleton agreed to attend the first round of tryouts and help as a talent scout.
“Tyler Stapleton, the General Manager for the AlleyCats, was consistently involved in helping us find contacts for tryout space and attending our tryouts as another set of eyes/videoing parts of tryouts,” said Lai. “And Eric Leonard, the Head Coach for the AlleyCats, was vital in the planning for both of our tryouts and being another set of eyes for our first tryout.”
With backing from the community, a strong response for tryouts, and support and sponsorship from the Indiana Ultimate Foundation, the Indy Red organization was well under way.
Part II: The Partnership
Just days before the initial Indy Red tryout on February 5, the Indianapolis Alleycats announced a partnership with, at the time, Alleycats Red as an affiliate women’s team. This announcement took the Indianapolis ultimate community by storm.
“Personally, I loved the idea,” said Stapleton. “This presented an opportunity for these women to show how talented they were to their friends, family, and the rest of the country tuning in to watch them play through the AUDL’s streaming outlets.”
With plans in place, it seemed as though the Indianapolis Alleycats were fully on-board to help with the creation of the team. In fact, the Alleycats had already worked to schedule a showcase game between Indianapolis Red and Nashville Nightshade, the women’s affiliate of the Nightwatch, and were in the process of finalizing details to bring at least one women’s game to Indianapolis as a showcase. With Lai and Piontek creating the basic structure of a separate organization for the team on their own, there were also plans for additional games against the Detroit women’s team. Going forward, any partnership between the Indianapolis Alleycats and Indy Red would be a joint effort between two separate entities.
“The initial agreement between Indy Red and the Indianapolis Alleycats was more about the mutual benefits that the two organizations could reap by being affiliates,” Stapleton said.
Amongst the perks offered by the Indianapolis Alleycats:
- Alleycats would provide the fields for the home games
- Widespread, established social media reach
- Live broadcast of home games, with an announcer
In return, it was expected that the Indy Red organization would:
- Uphold the values and player conduct expected of Indianapolis Alleycats members
- Provide mutual support in promoting positive social media posts on gender equity
- Bring in additional ticket sales by promoting home games
With this agreement, though, Red would still be responsible for providing their own gear for the season, providing merchandise for sales, and even providing referees for their home games. Even with the partnership in place, the Indianapolis Alleycats knew that they would not be able to afford to cover the costs of travel for Indy Red.
Negotiations began when Indy Red they decided they would need financial help in this endeavor. In order to recoup costs for travel, jerseys, and field space, Piontek and Lai negotiated for the women’s team to receive 50 percent of the ticket sales for the (originally) unplanned home game against the Detroit women’s team.
With all of these basic tenets agreed upon, Lai and Piontek sought to get official confirmation of this deal in writing. Alleycats owner Tim Held, however, said that he didn’t want to get lawyers or contracts involved in the dealings. Willing to meet in the middle, Piontek and Lai decided they wanted to write up a simple memorandum of understanding (MOU) to have a written commitment for what the season would look like.
Part III: The Break Up
Perhaps it was an omen that the initial announcement of Alleycats Red by the Indianapolis Alleycats organization came before any official agreement was in place. In many ways, a true partnership was never set. Rather, it was a very loose verbal agreement.
“This initial post was sent out a little prematurely and therefore was not a very accurate representation of the actual agreement that had been made,” said Stapleton. “At the time of the initial post on February 5th, Indy Red had not secured funding to be capable of financing their season.”
With tryouts over and season planning deeply underway, Piontek, Lai, and John Rempel, President of the Indiana Ultimate Foundation, sought to make official the agreement with the Indianapolis Alleycats. It was during a conference call at an Indiana Ultimate Foundation meeting that the decision was made for IUF to fully fund Indy Red and to separate from the Alleycats. Two major obstacles stood in the way of creating a partnership.
“The first red flag that popped up was notification from JR and some members of the IUF Board that Tim expected a 15% licensing fee be paid to the AlleyCats for any AlleyCats Red merchandise that we sold,” Lai said.
What started as a disagreement about jersey sales helped solidify that the two parties were far from an agreement. Held was requesting a licensing fee on all Indy Red merchandise sold. The licensing fee would give the Alleycats organization 15 percent of the retail price on every jersey sold, both online and at Alleycats home games. With that fee in place, on top of a more expensive base price of gear, fan jerseys purchased would have cost in excess of $75 per jersey to make margins that made it possible to repay sponsors.
In addition to the dispute on jersey sales, there was also a conflict around ticket sales. With the initial verbal agreement, it seemed as though Indy Red would receive an even split in ticket sales at the Indy Red home game against Detroit.
“We learned that Tim stated that there had been a miscommunication through Tyler on the 50-50 split of gross revenue for all ticket sales,” said Lai. “And he offered to give us 50% of any tickets sold with a special ‘Red’ code.”
This new offer meant that Indy Red would only be able to receive revenue from online sales that Indy Red players directly sold, and that no money would be generated for Indy Red from sales at the gate. Such a stipulation would drastically reduce the opportunity for the Indianapolis women’s team to fundraise and repay their primary sponsors.
“The true 50-50 split we sought against Detroit was about us being fifty percent of the product,” Lai said.
Piontek, Lai, and the IUF delivered a proposed MOU to the Alleycats with the hopes of reaching an agreement with the Alleycats. This proved to be the breaking point between the organizations. After some back and forth between the leaders, it became clear there would be no agreement. Held was not willing to move toward a 50-50 split on ticket sales, nor was he willing to relinquish the licensing fee he sought to charge on Red merchandise.
“Equity is equity,” said Rempel. “[For the IUF] this was a principle decision. The counter memorandum of understanding and Tyler [Stapleton]’s attempts to discuss the issues with Tim had no effect.”
Held said that he offered generous terms for a split of ticket sales generated by the Red organization, structured similarly to a previous arrangement the Alleycats had with the Indy Eleven, a local North American Soccer League team, but with more upside for Red. “I agreed to share our platform, resources and knowledge to host two friendly games and have never wavered on our commitment,” he said.
Joey Cari, a member of both the Alleycats and the IUF board, has been uniquely involved in the discussions between the two organizations. He feels that an unbiased viewpoint has been lacking. On the IUF board, there is one Alleycats player; one coach of Indianapolis Women’s club team, Rogue; and three members of Indy Red. Of those, Joey has been the sole member to abstain from voting.
“As an IUF Board Member [I] am required to be impartial,” Cari said. “My affiliation with the Alleycats makes any vote I make affecting business between IUF and the Alleycats a conflict of interest. I have abstained from the two most recent votes regarding this partnership. I cannot say the same for three of my other Board members who are also rostered Indy Red players.”
With a number of things sitting in the way, Indy Red made the decision to pull away from the Indianapolis Alleycats, in effect becoming fully their own organization sponsored by the IUF.
“IUF will be covering the expenses of the Indy Red Team including uniforms, rental fees for games and practices, and travel expenses for away games,” said Rempel. “The expenses will hopefully be offset by the revenue from ticket sales of home games, merchandise sales at home games, and the team merchandise store by Breakmark.”
Part IV: Repercussions
As a result of the breakup between Red and the Alleycats, the IUF has withdrawn some of its support of the Alleycats organization. Although IUF has never given direct financial support to the Alleycats, the organization has chosen to advertise and support the broadcasts of the team.
“[Throughout negotiations] it became very clear to the IUF Board and the women’s team leadership that [Held] at worse either didn’t have any regard for gender equity or at least simply didn’t understand the issue and its gravity in the general ultimate community,” said John Rempel. “Given the gender equity stance of Alleycats ownership, the IUF Board has decided to withdraw that advertising and shift those resources to advertise and support the broadcasts of the Indy Red women’s team.”
Now, Indy Red finds themselves as a community backed women’s team. They will continue on throughout the remainder of 2018, as they originally hoped, with plans to play both home and away games against the teams from Nashville and Detroit.
“IUF and Indy Red leadership are working to have these games remain as double header games at the same venue as the AlleyCats,” Rempel said. “IUF will now be handling all of the expenses of hosting the two home games. It is hopeful that there may be some type of playoff system developed if enough women’s team are formed. We would support Indy Red if this came to fruition.”
In the time since the partnership dissolved, Held has been relatively quiet within the community, responding little to public questioning. Simply put, Held has seen the fallout between Indy Red and the Alleycats as a disagreement about business, and nothing more. In his mind, the decision never came down to values, but simply money and preparation.
“Indy Red came to Tim asking for certain financial stipulations related to costs, ticket sales, merchandise, etc.,” Cari said. “Not to mention media packages and presence, promotion, and other less tangible aspects of a partnership. Tim was unwilling and unprepared to invest as much as Indy Red was asking for.”
The fact that the season just over six weeks away from beginning only added more pressure to Held and the Alleycats leadership. With just a few weeks to put plans in place, the Alleycats were pressed against a timeline to make a decision on the partnership.
“I would describe this as not only a business stance by Tim, but also his intentional position in relation to this failed partnership’s close proximity to the beginning of the AUDL season,” Cari said. “Simply put, Tim and many other AUDL franchise owners are ready and willing to help promote more gender equity in ultimate. It’s way more than just agreeing to terms of a poorly timed partnership proposal, and will take way more forethought and time to plan than Indy Red afforded Tim.”
Part V: Resignation
Just weeks after the fallout between the Alleycats and Indy Red, GM Tyler Stapleton announced his resignation last week. This ended his four-month stint as GM; he left before the season even started.
“I took the position because I wanted to make an impact at the highest level of the sport, in any way I could,” Stapleton said. “From the time I met Tim, he always had really good charisma. We talked a lot about needing to grow ultimate from the bottom up and invest our resources in our youth and give them the opportunity to play the sport in any facet. In that way, Tim never wavered.”
Throughout the course of Indy Red’s development, Stapleton was a supporter. He helped out at tryouts. In the background, he lobbied to the community for support on his personal social media pages and sought additional ways to help the team. When it came down to negotiations, Stapleton worked to create a fair deal.
“Tyler Stapleton has been our biggest ally throughout the entire process,” Lai said. “He negotiated for us, supported our every move, and even stood out in the cold for three hours to be able to help us as much as possible. Tyler truly believes in true and fair promotion of women in ultimate and fought for us as much as he could.
With the disintegration of the partnership came the end of Stapleton’s time as GM.
“Through initial negotiations everything was still good, and I thought that we were really going to be a part of a revolution,” Stapleton said. “Then something happened and [Held] changed his mind. I tried to make the situation work financially, but it didn’t seem to be about the money. So I brought up the negative possibilities that could come about if he reneged on his initial agreement. He told me he didn’t care about the bad publicity, and that’s pretty much the moment I realized he didn’t care about the big picture.”
Cari painted a different picture. “In Tim’s communication about the situation to me both one on one, and to the entire Alleycats organization, he has always been nothing but respectful and supportive of Indy Red,” he said. “Ultimately, both sides of the partnership are to blame for being unable to reach an agreement, and no one more than another should necessarily be construed as being exclusively at fault. Tim and the Alleycats still hope to support women and gender equity now and in the future. And if Tim and the Alleycats were given more advanced notice of Indy Red’s desires, perhaps a partnership could have been made.”
Part VI: What’s Next
Throughout the course of Indy Red’s first weeks as a program, the team has seen tremendous support from the local community. In addition to huge financial support and backing by IUF promised throughout the season, community members and personal friends have reached out offering support.
“We appreciate all of the support we have gotten from the Indianapolis ultimate community,” Lai said. “People have offered to donate money, their services as refs, and any logistical assistance they can to help us out. We are very grateful to have this community support, and we look forward to moving onward with a strong group of women and men behind us, ready to show everybody how amazing women’s ultimate is.”
As Indy Red moves throughout their first season, the Indianapolis ultimate community will have their eyes on this team. Indy Red is still in the process of confirming the dates of their schedule for their inaugural season.
for reading ease, the team will be referred to as “professional” in this article, even though players are not full-time athletes ↩