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We Ran an Ultimate Summer League. Here’s Why — And What We Learned.

Ultimate Play Utah ran one of the only organized summer leagues in the United States this summer.

Footprinter Park in Provo, UT, where the league was held. One field was painted in each outfield to promote social distancing.

This article was written by Bryce Merrill, a league administrator for Ultimate Play Utah and the head coach of both the BYU men’s ultimate team and the WUL’s Utah Wild.

Ultimate Play Utah ran a summer recreational ultimate league for youth and adults between July 9th and August 29th, 2020. I hope some of the successes and challenges of our league experience might help serve as a blueprint for other communities and organizations.

A number of guiding documents are available to help league administrators design a safe, accessible league. Although non-exhaustive, professional resources — prepared by experts in their fields — are available via:

These resources continue to be the best, most accurate, and most thoroughly-researched documents available to professionals, volunteers, and participants. If you have questions, don’t rely on a guest author on an Ultiworld article. Ask a doctor. Use peer-reviewed research. Listen to your state’s next epidemiology press conference. Talk with a mental health specialist.

This article is one version of a practical application of as many of the above principles, policies, and procedures for one league in one state. If you only have time to read one or two things, read the above links and spend time in your local community assessing risk and determining the next course of action that best serves your area. But if you’ve still got time after that, read on!

This article is also not a victory lap. You’ll see no “mission accomplished” banners hanging from our USS Abraham Lincoln now or in the future. The threats presented by COVID-19 are real. Our understanding of the implications of this disease continues to change. There is a risk in operating any league or programming at this time—the best laid plans can hope, at most, to mitigate the risk. Our plans continue to account both for changing risks and opportunities in hosting a league, and we continue updating plans and practices as we move forward.

To Play or not to Play: Guiding Principles

As Utah County entered Yellow Phase restrictions on May 16th, our league, like many others, deliberated the pros and cons and ethics of league operation, while simultaneously developing a plan to present a safe, accessible league experience. We decided to post registration and delay the start of the league for as long as possible in the summer to give us enough time to assess new information and trends in our state/county, but we continued forward with plans to operate.

During this registration period, our group did our best to track local trends regarding the spread of coronavirus. Our Governor and State Epidemiologist provided useful information specific to the disease, updated guidelines for businesses, and placed an emphasis on how personal choices and PPE could help slow the spread.

We witnessed hundreds of other leagues for every sport resume competition in early summer. We also watched as unorganized ultimate games and even ad hoc events began to spring up locally. Many of these events were not led by trained and invested professionals—a lack of social distancing, sanitizing equipment, updated protocols, etc. made them ripe for potential spread of the disease. And not a mask was in sight.

As our group discussed league operation, we determined that running a safe league could help encourage players to participate in leagues that normalized masks, socially distanced fields, contact tracing efforts, and more. While total lockdown might be the safest choice, the prevailing government strategy in our area no longer allowed for that option. By cancelling a league, we would leave the organization of sport to others that might not have the same vested interest in safe ultimate. It became clear that by allowing the league to run, we might best be positioned to help deliver safer outcomes for those choosing to participate in league play.

Maintaining a Healthy Environment

The bulk of our league administrative focus rested with designing an environment that allowed for social distancing as frequently as possible. These included:

  • A mandatory symptom check and non-contact temperature check to weed out potential cases of symptom-presenting COVID-19
  • Fields spread out across baseball outfields to prevent back-to-back fields and a literal fence around each of the playing spaces to prevent gathering
  • Hand sanitation stations at check-in and half time
  • Using a disinfected disc every point
  • Assigning teams to stay on specific sidelines
  • Discouraging people from bringing friends/fans/family to games, if possible
  • Instructing teams to leave the fields immediately after their games. No winning the fields this season!

For the most part, our participants found these protocols easy to administer and easy to follow. It took some muscle memory to take the disc, add it to the ‘to be disinfected’ pile, and get a newly sanitized disc each point, but captains assigned a player to manage that process every point so teams did not forget. Depending on if shade was in limited supply, assigning team sidelines was a bit of a…hot topic. And some people, limited almost exclusively to parents of players in the youth league, disagreed with being required to submit to a non-contact temperature scan. But given the alternative (no ultimate!), most seemed willing to put in good faith to comply.

Some (myself included) argue that individual elements of the above comprehensive plan are akin to security theater. However, we felt that an entire ecosystem of sanitization and safety was our best plan. Constant reminders–from your first temperature gun interactions to every point of play being delayed by a few seconds to switch discs to your hasty exit from the fields—helped remind veteran league participants of these new protocols. And if each of those non-contact touch points was a reminder to wear a mask and stay socially distant, then it seems the ecosystem was worth maintaining.

Promoting Behaviors that Reduce the Spread

Beyond league modifications, we also put an emphasis on personal behaviors that would reduce the spread of COVID-19. Some were simple—no high fives or unnecessary physical contact between players. Others, like requiring masks for all players and participants, were a bit more involved.

Masks are not currently mandated in Utah, or Utah County, or Provo as of August 20th. However, our league wanted to require masks for all players and participants at the fields as consistently as feasibly possible, with a few notable exceptions:

  • By children two years old and younger
  • When engaging in physical activity outside
  • When in a high exertion setting
  • When consuming food and drink
  • When no one is within 6-10’ of an individual and is not likely to soon be within that range
  • When doing so poses a greater mental or physical health, safety, or security risk, as determined by the individual.

Examples of masking were also included in league documents and communications, including:

  • Masks can be worn to and from your car, while checking in, and putting on cleats on the sideline.
  • Masks can be worn while warming up, while on the sideline talking to your team, or perhaps during a socially-distanced huddle/discussion.
  • A mask can be worn around your neck while playing, and then pulled up, if/when possible, over your nose/mouth while stalling, while discussing a call, while waiting for a pull, etc.
  • Mask-wearing is a non-political show of care for other participants and spectators. There are obviously situations that do not require participants to wear a mask. However, bringing and wearing a mask (with the above exceptions in mind) is required so that our league mitigates the risk of infection in our community.

How did the mask requirements go? Did everyone use the last notable exception as a get-out-of-jail-free card? No. Generally, players and participants tried to find ways to be able to wear masks instead of excuses to not have to wear one.

Many players wore masks 100% of the time. Others wore them as much as possible. Some did refuse to wear one at all on the field, but would wear one on the sidelines, during check-in, etc. Masks, when worn, mitigated potential risk for players and our community. More masks were worn than observed at previous non-league events and games, marking it as a successful campaign in my mind.

In my experience, communicating what I know about Utah State Health’s contact tracing procedures helped people choose to wear a mask. While each state is different, we knew that the state would enforce a mandatory quarantine of any person directly exposed to a person with a confirmed case of COVID-19 within 6’, for more than 15 minutes, and without masks on. If it was shorter than 15 minutes, if it was farther than 6’, or if the people involved had masks on, it would sometimes not result in a mandatory quarantine.

My message was simple: regardless of your political inclinations regarding masks, you stand a better chance of not being quarantined should someone here have COVID-19.

As of today, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 amongst participants. We had three participants that were in first degree contact with someone with a confirmed case, so they mandatory quarantined for two weeks and missed a portion of the season, but all three tested negative. One other player backed out before the season “due to COVID” but did not clarify if it was a confirmed case or just general concerns.

Game Play

Various documents, especially the USA Ultimate Return-to-Play Guidance, discuss modifications to actual game play. Our league did not modify game play. Players were asked to consider not marking if unmasked, and to consider the risk-reward of hard marks in a city league environment. Overall, the brief non-socially-distanced interactions of marking (or not) felt insignificant to the 60-90 minute gatherings that used to be the norm in ultimate events and leagues.

Constantly Assessing Risk and Threats

As we look forward to a slate of fall league play, we will continue to assess and monitor risk as it relates to gameplay.

Consideration for how patterns of COVID develop in our town, which hosts two universities with more than 30,000 students each, will determine if we start leagues in the fall. We pushed leagues back to the end of September (a late start for Utah, which usually experiences snow in late October/Early November) to give more time for changing information.

We also have to consider the additional barriers to participation, including the newly incurred cost of purchasing sport specific masks. As part of the league process, I purchased a variety of masks to see what would work best for players. These included:

The UA mask has some incredible top end features, but comes in at $30 per mask. Neckies were simple, convenient, and customizable, but we’re currently learning more about their effectiveness. The Adidas mask was my personal favorite, blending a snug but comfortable fit, $7 price point, and breathability even on 100+ degree days.

Finding and trying out masks was time consuming and expensive. That time and those additional equipment purchases might not be available to every participant. Our league sold generic neckie masks, slightly under cost, to give many participants a chance to purchase from us directly at the fields instead of having to research and track down recommendations for the best mask. We also sold custom branded college ultimate neckies at a markup and used the additional funds to purchase the generic neckies that were given out for free as needed. We also purchased hundreds of single-use masks for those that forget or need one the night of games. It’ll be imperative to assess the changing landscape of participation and come up with solutions in tandem with the barriers we learn more about.

Opportunities

We’ve found a few new opportunities in early league administration:

  1. We’re sharing this insight with other communities. Locally, we’ve been in touch with our state based organization and various high school coaches, as they seek to start up practices and allay any concerns they, their players, and their player’s parents might have. We’ve learned a lot about masks and ordering and fields and spacing the last few weeks—I hope it might benefit one of you reading this today.
  2. We got lighted fields for the first time ever. The established order of field rental has been disrupted; while there is no guarantee of future use, we hope our agility and responsiveness these last months better positions us to continue our field rental agreement for years to come.
  3. People played ultimate. Smarter people with better sources can share the offsetting concerns of athlete mental wellness during this pandemic. But for our community, a few hundred youth and adults played ultimate this summer, and I like to think, based on the anecdotal stories shared with me from various players and parents, that they’re the better for it.
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