A State Of Disunion: The Future Of Women’s Professional Ultimate

Noel Holmes launches a backhand for the Nashville NightShade in their game against the Dallas All-Stars in June 2018. Photo: Daniel Thai–Ultiphotos.com

The state of women’s semi-professional ultimate is like that of the airplane at the turn of the 20th century. Everyone involved wants to achieve the same goal, but no one quite knows how best to get it done. Regarding women’s semi-professional ultimate, there are a plethora of interested parties who actively offer time and money to advancing that cause. Many deviate on specifics, but all agree on the most important goal.

This article will delve into both the past and future of women’s pro and semi-pro ultimate. To understand the multiplicity of visions for the future of women’s pro, it’s important to assess and understand what took place this past year. What did semi-professional women’s ultimate look like? Who participated?

One expression of semi-professional women’s ultimate in 2018 consisted of six teams that played against each other. Other women’s players joined rosters that bore the same name as men’s teams, played on temporary teams, or occasionally played mixed. Many of the teams were directly owned and operated by AUDL owners, but several weren’t. Loosely united efforts took place across the United States, laying foundations for whatever happens in 2019 and beyond. One origin of women’s semi-pro in the South and Southwest can be traced to the Nashville community, and David Trett specifically.

***

David Trett bought the Nashville NightWatch in the winter of 2017, and he believed in the gender equity movement blossoming around the edges of the AUDL. He met with local leaders of the ultimate community, including Colleen and Jake Wright, Ryan Balch, Andy Barnhart, and Tobey Balzer, and decided that there would be enough support for a women’s team. As a new owner, he found himself unconstrained by past decisions or preconceptions in the AUDL about the financials behind women’s ultimate. He decided to take the first step into the void, establishing a women’s team drawn from the entire surrounding region. And so the NightShade were born–without any opponents against which to play.

The initial plan was modest, with Trett thinking the team would compete in a few tournaments, perhaps a few exhibition games against all-star rosters from other cities.

“What we wanted to do was to form a team and pay for their expenses to play in a couple of club tournaments through the year, and provide a little more exposure, and provide video content, and just give it the feel that we’re doing something for our women,” said Trett. “From there, it just kind of grew like wildfire. It spread.”

The NightShade played in an exhibition tournament in Kansas City, and they came home victorious. It wasn’t enough for the team; they wanted more games. While Trett was establishing the NightShade, prominent female ultimate players in several communities were busy hosting their own discussions and building their own foundations for pro women’s, in areas as varied as Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Raleigh. Trett wanted other teams against which to play, and he wanted other cities to be able to enjoy the experience. Even he couldn’t predict how quickly other cities would match his step forward and form semi-professional teams of their own.

Trett chatted with the AUDL’s Atlanta Hustle about putting together a women’s team, and the Hustle asked Maddy Frey and Angela Lin to put it together. Though Atlanta couldn’t promise adequate resources for Frey and Lin, Trett stepped in and chatted with Frey directly.

“[David Trett] called me up and said we will give you a thousand dollars just to put together a team to play against NightShade,” said Maddy Frey, one of the founders and captains of the Atlanta Soul.

Maddy happened to be having coffee with a friend of hers the next day, Dan Konisky, the owner of Spin Ultimate. He quickly became the team’s main sponsor.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” admitted Konisky about the decision to support the Soul. “As soon as I heard her whole pitch, and what was going on, and how exciting things were, and I could see the glimmer in her eye, how important it was, and how exciting things were going to be, I was sold. I was in. I didn’t even think about it really.”

The decision to support women’s ultimate financially was not a difficult one for Konisky, who admitted to several inspirations.

“I know most of the players, so there’s a personal connection there. When you have a personal relationship with people, you want to support them. But also, I have a nine-year-old daughter, and so I’m keenly aware of the role that sports can play in the development of girls, and where ultimate is going with gender equity; we work with tons of women’s teams and players, and I’m keenly aware of what’s going on in the movement. It’s all those things. It’s wanting to support women’s ultimate. It’s wanting to support my friends. It’s wanting to help foster a professional women’s league so that when my daughter looks at ultimate, she sees role models who are women who are being paid to play ultimate, just like there are guys who are being paid to play ultimate.”

Konisky’s leap to join the burgeoning women’s semi-professional game was similar to Trett’s own.

“I have no desire to have a monetary compensation for any of that [money given to Atlanta],” said Trett. “That was a hundred percent just to help out and get teams going. I know Atlanta didn’t have the means to do that, and if I was able to start and get the ball rolling for them, and other people, then it allowed other people in the Atlanta area to start supporting them monetarily.”

Beyond money, the work involved in creating the Soul was enormous. Maddy Frey and co-owner Angela Lin dedicated countless hours to building the Soul from the ground up.

“There was so much interest that it kind of blew up, and it became this thing,” said Frey. “Now we have a paid employee, for example. We have a website, and social media. We are an incorporated LLC. We have a bank account. That stuff took time, but it was also really awesome to be creating a business that is mission-driven, and that is something that is wanted by our community.”

“Just adding the semi-professional, or professional word, it changes things. It changes how my mother and my wife’s mother and father perceive ultimate,” said Lin.

“Angela and I basically had this conversation, where we said we’re going to take back that word,” said Frey. “All it is is a matter of doing it, and saying we’re professional. And paying people.”

More women’s semi-professional ultimate teams were established in Detroit, Indianapolis, Raleigh, and Austin. Those four teams, combined with the squads in Nashville and Atlanta, formed the core of the women’s semi-professional circuit. It wasn’t quite a league, as there was no overarching structure; however, those six teams played a series of games against each other and occasionally against other, further-flung competition.

Meanwhile, other community leaders in other parts of the United States were experimenting with their own approaches to taking flight. The Seattle Cascades competed against the San Francisco FlameThrowers in mixed play in 2017 and 2018, and both teams played an all-women’s game this year on July 27, which Seattle won.

“We [knew we] would have a faster track to getting women on an official AUDL field by using the Cascade brand,” said Seattle Cascades co-owner Rohre Titcomb. “ Probably mixed is the fastest way to getting women on the field in the AUDL context. I’m proud to say our mixed game at home was very well attended, and people loved [it].”

A high-profile international team took the cockpit on May 12 when the Medellín Revolution visited Austin to play the Torch. It was a huge success, both in terms of gameplay–Revolution won 14-5, in a world-class display of skill–and financials. A huge crowd attended the game, and even more watched on Ultiworld’s livestream.

Maddy Frey played with Revolution at the showcase and she was thrilled with the event.

“Totally amazing,” she raved. “They had 1200 people in attendance. They put on a great show. They hosted the entire weekend. It was, I think, the closest I’ve come to feeling like a professional athlete.”

***

Whoever won the games being played was far less important than the simple fact that they were played at all.

“Obviously we want to win our games,” said Trett, “and we want to be able to be very competitive, but at the end of the day, what I’ve stressed over and over, the most important thing is that the games are played, and that we’re giving everybody this stage to play on.”

Trett established the NightShade in part as a financial laboratory, a place to draw up a blueprint and model for potential investors in and owners of women’s semi-professional teams. A variety of AUDL owners wanted to establish women’s teams, but they didn’t know how to fit it inside of already-stretched budgets. Trett set out to prove that founding a women’s team would help the bottom line.

“[Women’s semi-professional is] not a huge added expense, because we made it all double-headers,” said Trett, referring to his scheduling that set up both road and home games as consecutive events for Nashville’s women’s and men’s teams. “Any game that was not a double-header was not as attended. All the metrics that we had for the livestream were all [much] higher for the double-header when we had the women’s team and then the AUDL game afterwards. We would average 2000 more views per livestream when we had the double-header.”

Trett is comfortable that adding a women’s semi-professional team alongside an existing men’s team will increase revenue and add to the fanbase. However, there is far more work to be done establishing the context surrounding the future of women’s semi-professional ultimate.

Because the span of time was so short between the establishment of those six women’s semi-professional teams and the inception of their games, they didn’t have a chance to agree on any organizing structures. Virtually every semi-professional women’s game was played with a different ruleset. Some were played with full AUDL rules, including allowable double-teams, gigantic field sizes, use of referees, and more. Some were played with USAU rules. Most were played with some hybrid combination.

There are a variety of visions for women’s semi-pro that are tightly interwoven with the AUDL, or at least local efforts at establishing women’s semi-pro games have taken place within the framework of the AUDL. Mike DeNardis owns both the Raleigh Flyers and the Raleigh Radiance. Trett owns both Nashville organizations, as does Brent Steepe in Detroit. Both Austin teams are tightly connected, though they have different ownership groups. The AUDL’s Seattle Cascades and San Francisco FlameThrowers boast mixed rosters that competed in a semi-professional mixed game, the Cascades Cup. Both also offer full women’s Cascades and FlameThrowers rosters. The Pittsburgh Thunderbirds, and other AUDL teams, fielded mixed rosters for single exhibition games.

Seattle and San Francisco’s mixed and women’s rosters are different rosters of the same team. The men’s, women’s, and mixed rosters who all play for Seattle in the AUDL are all the Cascades. That is a different approach than that which was been followed in Atlanta, or even in Raleigh or Nashville. The Seattle women’s community, according to team owners Qxhna and Rohre Titcomb, has benefited from its association with the AUDL. To both Cascades owners, discussing gender equity is only a small part of the broader conversation of equity in general, which includes financial and racial equity. Women from financially underprivileged backgrounds in Seattle have been given opportunities not available in club play.

While some semi-professional women’s teams were and remain tightly bonded to their AUDL counterparts, others are quite distinct. The Indianapolis Red underwent an ugly and public breakup with the AUDL’s AlleyCats. The Atlanta Soul never established a relationship with the Atlanta Hustle, as the Hustle didn’t offer specific financial support to their female semi-professional counterparts.

Maddy Frey is explicit about the Soul being a completely distinct entity from the Hustle and the AUDL.

“I just don’t think about [the AUDL] as much anymore. I want the Hustle to succeed because my friends coach and play for them. But I’m not as interested in the AUDL because the mission that we have formulated in the last couple of months with Soul is a pretty different mission than the AUDL.”

“Angela [Lin] and I very much want to do this outside the AUDL,” Frey continued. “One, because we want the financial profits to go to not the AUDL, basically. Anyone else, honestly, who starts the league. Two, simply because we don’t agree with the AUDL’s model, specifically around the refs and the lack of self-officiation. I think we would certainly welcome the AUDL as an investor, but probably would not participate, I know we would not participate, in a women’s league that was owned by the AUDL.”

***

Discussion has already begun on what the future of women’s pro will look like. Many players and stakeholders were at the World Ultimate Club Championships in Cincinnati in July, and a meeting took place on Saturday evening to discuss the future. All parties involved agree that there needs to be a formalized league, with playoffs, and set rules. There has been little agreement on anything beyond the fact that teams largely remain in an information-gathering stage.

“Everyone’s in agreement, that there’s a need to centralize it in some way,” said Atlanta’s Lin. “There needs to be the same set of rules that all the games are played with. Clearly, people from the different teams want there to be some control, governance, that decides some of these things. What that looks like, and how that’s made up, who participates, and how the teams are represented in that, is the part that’s unclear.”

The rules are a sticking point. Hours of discussion haven’t yet established what the rules will look like. Echoing the divide between the AUDL and USAU, officiating has proven to be a massive point of disagreement, with Indianapolis strongly favoring officials, Raleigh and Nashville agreeing, though perhaps less strongly, and Atlanta firmly in the camp of self-officiation.

However, everyone knows that they have to agree going forward. No team is strident in its beliefs.

“It’s not like we [won’t] be able to come to a resolution,” said Trett, hopeful in agreement in the future. “Every team has given on things that they didn’t want to give on, and every team has gotten some things that they felt strongly about too. Every game has been played by a different set of rules, but we all had a give-and-take. I applaud every team on that. It hasn’t been one team’s way or the highway, at all.”

Though rules are one hurdle that must be cleared before the airplane can take to the skies, there are other, more daunting obstacles. Who will own and run any overarching league is quite controversial.

On one hand, those affiliated with the AUDL want increased cooperation between the AUDL and the burgeoning semi-professional women’s scene. With his financial experiment accomplished and positive, Trett believes several AUDL owners could establish women’s squads alongside their men’s. There is some buzz in the AUDL South Division about teams potentially fielding men’s and women’s rosters, though owners haven’t yet met to discuss the specifics.

“The onus will be on the owners to put that vision together,” said DeNardis. “You already have infrastructure in place, you already have finances in place. You may need additional financial commitment from other backers to make it sustainable long-term, but if you have several owners who are already interested in helping in the onset, then you have a lot of the infrastructure you need, and a lot of the know-how in place.”

“The league doesn’t have to be an AUDL league, but the best route to take, you don’t necessarily need to have association with AUDL teams if you don’t want to, but it’s a very nice resource to have or to use,” he continued. “Even a loose affiliation makes sense. Even if it’s not, and may not ever be, the AUDL on the women’s-only side, it would be good, and I’m sure that all of the owners would be a resource.”

There are those who disagree. Some women simply do not want to be associated with the AUDL. They view the league as insufficiently supportive of women’s ultimate and want a better option.

Enter Laurel Oldershaw and Upwind Ultimate.

On June 26th, Oldershaw published a piece on Skyd Magazine that, in part, announced the early development of a new semi-professional ultimate league, the Upwind Pro League, dedicated to women’s and mixed. Oldershaw went to business school, earning a Master’s in Business Administration looking at the economics of women in sport. She thinks the profit opportunity of women’s pro can be greatly increased if women are offered equity of industry.

Oldershaw wants to monetize brand awareness, offering elite club players on the most identifiable teams–such as Riot, Molly Brown, Ozone, or Brute Squad–the chance to be professional athletes. For example, in Atlanta, she’s far more interested in the professionalization of Ozone than the continued growth of the Soul.

“[My idea is] essentially trying to support the current system that already exists, so therefore the current branded teams,” Oldershaw said. “That’s the club teams that already exist. Which would mean, kind of, abandoning the Torch or the Soul. I know that’s something that me and Maddy [Frey] have struggled to coincide with, just because she’s done so much work with the Soul that I totally respect. But it’s hard from a branding side, because Ozone is also one of those teams that has 20+ years. That’s such a hard brand to just walk away from.”

“It’s really exciting to see someone and a company taking this initiative, and having such a well-thought-out plan, and basically going to business school just to do this. It seems like it has all the ingredients of success,” said Frey of the Upwind Pro League.

For the record, Frey has applied for the Soul to join the Upwind Pro League. She knows that the Soul may not be accepted, but she and Lin are proud of their contributions to women’s pro whether or not the Soul continue as a team.

“I do think that the Atlanta Soul and the five other pro women’s teams that started this year massively pushed forward this conversation,” said Frey. “I hope that Soul is a team next year, but if it’s not, and it’s because there’s a league in which 24 women’s teams from around the country are participating, that’s a success. I think that we had a lot to do with that.”

Oldershaw wants to work with the USAU, offering payment to the best players. Her ideas share some similarities with Kevin Minderhout’s proposal in 2012, which sought to merge monetization of the sport with existing club models.The Upwind Pro League’s highest-profile addition is the Medellín Revolution, who will spend the summer of 2019 on a US Tour. That, combined with smaller, regional showcase tournaments, constitutes Upwind’s vision for 2019. A more systematized league is planned to be released in 2020.

Oldershaw’s vision for women’s pro does not intersect with the current AUDL system: “I personally think the AUDL is a failing model, and I don’t think they have community support.”

***

The lines are in the sand, with two increasingly clearly delineated visions for the future of women’s semi-pro. “There’s a weird struggle going on with everything. A lot of it goes back to officiating, and viewing the AUDL in a certain light,” said Trett.

On one hand, the Upwind Pro League has a base of support. Trett believes that within Upwind, there is no space for or interest in the six teams that partially launched semi-professional women’s ultimate this year.

However, lines in the sand are erasable; neither side holds irreconcilable animosity towards the other, and both are willing to work towards cooperation.

Even if semi-professional women’s ultimate has two leagues next year, Oldershaw would be willing to support an AUDL that explicitly promoted women’s ultimate: “There’s a cool opportunity to even move forward with AUDL owners. There’s no reason we can’t maybe work together at some point or somehow.”

Trett agrees, emphasizing that the sustainability of women’s pro ultimate is more important than which teams are involved or who owns those teams.

“Everyone can have differences on which league is the right one or which business model is the right one, but most importantly, the games are being played,” Trett said. “Even if there was two versions of it, I would want everybody to support both versions. I would want Upwind to support us. We would support Upwind. I think it would be great to see more games being played, and hopefully at some point, even if there were two divisions, possibly we could play some of those teams as well.”

Titcomb and other organizers in Seattle are similarly willing to work with whomever they believe will best advance the interests of women’s pro, though the Titcombs prefer moving women’s pro forward within the framework of the AUDL.

“I would hope that for any additional playing opportunities, the Cascades might be able to be a part of them, or help facilitate, rather than have more entities that are dividing the energy and attention of the ultimate community,” said Rohre Titcomb. “I’m eager to find ways for the AUDL and USAU to be talking more.”

“My hope is that I want more people to work on how to solve this,” she continued. “I want those people to do their best to work within existing frameworks and bridge gaps of differences, or differences in opinion, because if we don’t do that, I see more fragmentation. More voices is helpful for a solution, but voices and efforts that are not collaborating just take away from each other.”

***

There’s a variety of inventors trying to build the airplane. Owners like David Trett, Maddy Frey, Angela Lin, Mike DeNardis, and others all strove to launch early models off the ground. The Titcombs and others in Seattle built their own versions of the same machine in a different region. Financiers like Dan Konisky believed in the goal and the people working towards it, so he happily invested in early development. Big-picture thinkers like Laurel Oldershaw have other visions for the future of the industry. Everyone wants the plane to fly, but differences between those involved mean that it’s likely there will not be a single coordinated blueprint, at least not for a while.

But semi-professional ultimate is no stranger to schisms.

So what will the future of semi-professional women’s ultimate hold? It’s hard to say. By 2019, there could well be a fledgling Upwind Pro organizing local tournaments and financing a US Tour for the Medellín Revolution, alongside an increasingly more organized women’s pro league in the South loosely affiliated with the AUDL, with teams in Raleigh, Nashville, Austin, Atlanta, potentially Dallas, Tampa Bay, or elsewhere. Women’s pro in Seattle seems to be even more tightly bonded to the AUDL, as men and women play under the same team name. The future is impossible to predict, but there are too many smart people offering too much energy for the future to be without women’s semi-professional ultimate. What’s easy to predict is that, before long, women’s pro will take off, flying as high as any contraption the Wright brothers conceived.

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