PUL Championship Weekend was more than just three (great) games of women's ultimate.
July 11, 2019 by Daniel Prentice in Opinion, Review with 0 comments
The inaugural championship weekend of the Premier Ultimate League has come and gone. Medellín Revolution came out as the first ever league champions as expected, but there was for more to the weekend than the three games of ultimate. It was a weekend that will go down as a landmark event for the league and women’s ultimate at large.
Showcasing the Sport
In 2018, several semi-pro women’s teams popped up and played a handful of one-off, unconnected games. In 2019, those teams, plus a couple others, formed a fully-fledged league. The first season of the league culminated two weekends ago in Atlanta, with three games to crown its first-ever champion. The product was a professionally-executed, exciting weekend that should give the league’s leaders and organizers hope for what the PUL can continue to be going forward.
Medellín Revolution, as expected, won the championship, beating Raleigh Radiance in the final. But the event was about much more than that. It was about back-to-back double overtime semifinals on Friday night to show off exactly how exciting and compelling this league can be. It was about the great 400+ person crowd for the Soul-Revolution semifinal, and the more than 17 thousand combined views on the streams of the weekend’s games. It was about the future of women’s ultimate.
To have both games go to double overtime on Friday night, with an amazing crowd for the second semi, was a dream showcase for the league. It was spectacular drama and contained everything that people watch sports for. Beyond anything else, the weekend proved the league’s viability as an entertaining product, and a version of the sport that deserved to be consumed by large audiences.
The players were able to appreciate that in the moment, too. “The end of the [semifinal against Gridlock], with all the adrenaline, so many emotions, it was so cool to be here, so cool to win in that way, the whole game was a rollercoaster. Walking out you’re like, ‘oh my gosh, we’re here, we’re doing it’,” said Raleigh Radiance captain Becky Widmayer.
Radiance was supported by the girls U17 YCC team from the Triangle, many of whom are coached by players on Radiance, and that was a rewarding moment for Widmayer. “One of the coolest parts of the day was seeing the U17 team cheering on their coaches,” she said. “We’re creating this ability for women in professional sports and professional frisbee. We see these young girls that are coming up through this sport and before all they saw was men making it to the top levels. Creating a platform where they can come out and watch their coaches who pour their hearts into teams, and watch all these other women where they know their names…and see them perform on a really big stage, they were so excited.”
Widmayer felt as though the weekend of great games was also a reward for the players that have put so much into their community. “Our team is so full of women that really pour their hearts into our community, and they deserve this spotlight. They’ve been working so hard and they really, truly give back and to give them just a platform to be recognized is really cool.”
The crowds were a big part of the professional-feeling atmosphere of the weekend, especially for that Soul-Revolution semifinal. The weekend started with a smallish, but engaged crowd for the first semifinal between Radiance and Gridlock. Fans brought musical instruments and noisemakers, including the parents of Gridlock player Linda Morse. Apparently her parents had shipped their noisemakers to Atlanta ahead of time in preparation. Throughout the game, the crowd steadily grew and was pretty near peak capacity by the end of regulation.
The thrilling double overtime finish between Raleigh and New York acted as a warmup for the crowd that was full-throated by the time the host team’s semifinal against the favorites started. Throughout the Soul game, the crowd performed chants and cheers and provided an atmosphere that felt on par with mainstream, professional sports.
A personal favorite was when a couple of Soul fans led the crowd in an Icelandic Viking drum style A-T-L cheer. It was fantastic to feel the energy of a true home crowd for ultimate and it felt like they had a real impact on the game. In an ideal world, maybe the home team isn’t guaranteed a playoff spot like Atlanta was this year. But with the involvement of the home crowd for the Soul game, and the atmosphere they created, that decision was absolutely proven to be the correct one, at least for the league’s first season.
“It was awesome. Our fans came out big for us,” said Soul captain Maddy Frey. “It makes a huge difference.” Frey’s co-captain Shanye Crawford said the crowd was a big part of making the experience feel different from other ultimate games. “It felt super professional, right? Oh my gosh. I feel like a pro! Let’s go!”
The only time the crowd really felt lacking was for the final. With the game being played at 12:30 in the afternoon on Saturday, it was in conflict with Atlanta’s mid-season summer league tournament. This had a noticeable impact on the size of the crowd for the final, which was about half the size of Friday night’s primetime semi. The championship match was always likely to have less attendance than the Soul semifinal once they were eliminated, but it did feel like there would have been a larger attendance if there hadn’t been that conflict.
My understanding is that the stadium was already booked for later in the day on Saturday, and unavailable for an evening championship game. But ideally, future finals would take place on a day and time that doesn’t conflict with many of its potential local audience.
From a spectating perspective, Silverbacks Stadium was a great venue for the playoffs. The seating was comfortable and close to the playing field, which helped contribute to the fun atmosphere. Most important, though, was that the stadium had a restaurant and bar. It’s difficult to have a fun, professional feeling stadium experience without real concessions and drinks. That should be a priority for championship weekend decisions going forward.
The player facilities received pretty positive reviews as well. The locker rooms were air conditioned and in decent shape, according to one player. But the turf playing surface didn’t get the same notes of appreciation from the players. With the final being played in the middle of the day, the playing surface was oppressively hot, and players looked fatigued, particularly on the longer points of the game.
The turf also obviously takes a toll on players bodies, and simply isn’t an ideal playing surface for ultimate games, especially during the middle of the day during summer in the South. In a perfect world, ultimate would always be played on grass fields, but finding grass fields with the other necessary accommodations has proven to be a challenge for every level, league, and division in the sport.
The whole weekend felt like a celebration of everything the league accomplished and stood for this season. From the atmosphere and emotion of the weekend to the games themselves, there was a palpable sense of accomplishment for the players, teams, and league organizers.
That feeling was most evident during the awards ceremonies after the final. League commissioner Timothy “Bonesaw” Kepner and Frey, the league’s president, honored the board members in attendance and presented the championship weekend awards. When Radiance star Lindsay Soo, who had been a key figure behind the scenes for the league as a board member, was presented with the championship weekend MVP award, it felt symbolic of the ethos of the entire weekend.
It was equal parts pure, awesome ultimate and celebration and enjoyment of what the league had just accomplished. League board member and Gridlock coach Eileen Murray said after their semifinal loss that she was just happy that the league got through a full season without any teams folding. She seemed to be half-joking, but it does put into perspective exactly what this league did this season.
Going from a handful of scattered, one-off games last year to a full-fledged league and championship weekend this season was a major step for the sport. “Last year, it was about semantics. We needed to own the word ‘professional’, so we just said, ‘We’re pros,’ and we got all the money and we paid our players,” said Frey after the Soul-Revolution semi. “This year? It’s like, ‘Oh, we are pros. We came out today and we had won before we even stepped out on the field because of the significance of the event. But we still were hungry and weren’t just like ‘Oh, it’s great this fun event, it’s an exhibition game,’ we were like ‘We have work to do,’ and we came to win and it felt very professional.”
“That’s the difference for me, we had the mentality this year of a professional athlete,” Frey said. “Last year where we were just like ‘We need to own that word’ because when only men own that word, it hurts women, so we needed to insert ourselves into that space. But this year, it’s like, ‘We own this space. We need to step into it with our full bodies and hearts and minds.'”
With the semantics behind them, and the inaugural season of the first semi-pro women’s ultimate league successfully in the rear view, the league celebrated itself on championship weekend, before getting started on what feels like an exciting future.