Ultimate’s Infrastructure Needs an Overhaul

Ideas for a different path forward.

DISCLAIMER – Tim Smith is executive director of the Washington Area Frisbee Club (WAFC), a nonprofit disc organization in the Washington, DC region. His comments are his own, and in no way reflect the official position of WAFC, its staff, or directors.

This August, Ultiworld published my op-ed “Why Ultimate Should Walk Away from the Olympics.” From the community dialogue which ensued – including polls on Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram – most ultimate players apparently share Nob Rauch’s perspective that Olympics inclusion is a worthwhile goal for the sport. Perhaps the Olympics could lead to explosive growth and financial support if ultimate is confirmed and featured on sport’s biggest stage. Perhaps the heightened visibility, as Nob contends, will attract sponsorships and funding to expand the infrastructure of our developing sport. Perhaps, despite its flaws, the Olympics can be a net positive for ultimate.

But unless the Olympic Movement can move us forward through time, here in 2020 we are facing existential threats to the infrastructure of our sport. The pandemic persists, keeping leagues and events on hold in most communities and delaying cash flow to disc organizations. After some initial staff furloughs this summer, USA Ultimate is imposing additional rolling furloughs to mitigate their ongoing financial squeeze. National daily case rates of COVID-19 show no obvious sign of decline, and the specter of a lost 2021 college season — which features USAU’s largest member group — evokes serious concern over the welfare of our national governing body.

Meanwhile, our national community is wrestling with questions of equity and justice and pursuing meaningful progress as many organizations struggle to keep the lights on operationally. The recent resignation of Remy Schor, USAU’s Mixed National Director, suggests that frustration with ultimate’s disconnect from social issues may spark volunteers to focus efforts elsewhere, away from our sport. As our desperation intensifies for some return to normalcy, we must acknowledge that COVID is not the only threat to our infrastructure — failure to reconcile ultimate’s trajectory on social justice may threaten volunteer engagement and recruitment and induce a lingering rot within our sport’s operational capacity.

In their June statement, USA Ultimate declared “it’s time we do our part” to make our sport and our world more equitable, diverse, and inclusive. Today, four months later, it has become clear that doing our part means we cannot go back to “business as usual.” Kneecapped by a pandemic and risking conscientious disconnect from players and volunteers, we need the collective courage to consider fundamental change to the governance of our sport. We must start over.

I have argued that starting over means renouncing our Olympic dream, but the urgency for a progressive strategy is more broad. Fissures are widening in the foundation of traditional American sports governance. In addition to flaws within the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (which I have explored previously), the education-based delivery method for American sports is decaying. The NCAA’s foot-dragging on name, image, and likeness rights for intercollegiate athletes has provoked surging legal resistance, including in the US House, where the bipartisan Student Athlete Level Playing Field Act was proposed just last week. Change to the business of intercollegiate sports feels imminent. Meanwhile, athletic departments are eliminating non-revenue sports programs more frequently, scapegoating the pandemic to insulate football and men’s basketball programs. If established sports like soccer and lacrosse are being sacrificed, could we ever expect ultimate to be welcomed into varsity status as a goal for growing our sport?

According to David Ridpath in his book “Alternative Models of Sports Development in America,” this reduction of opportunities is impacting the youth sports landscape as well: “the American college model has…acute issues and is drowning in scandals and debt, while the primary and secondary levels of education are being squeezed financially and are dropping opportunities for sports and physical education (p.14).” Fewer sports options at schools has resulted in an overall decline in American youth sports participation…except for the wealthy, who can access expensive travel sports. As Derek Thompson at The Atlantic describes: “the American system of youth sports – serving the talented, and often rich, individual at the expense of the collective – has taken a metal bat to the values of participation and universal development. Youth sports has become a pay-to-play machine.”

USA Ultimate has flirted with the “tried-and-true” template for American sports development and its hopeful payout of visibility, resources and growth. The annual Youth Club Championships (YCC) replicates many of the unsavory trappings of elite, pay-to-play youth travel sports, prompting some sponsoring disc organizations to question the value of this competition alongside local priorities for growth and outreach. Among adult clubs, USAU’s expansion of more visible elite-level competitions has sparked a clamor over travel costs for required events among our sport’s most prominent athletes. If USAU indeed seeks to promote a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive sport, the typical road of sports governance offers only dead ends. Our restart must go an entirely different direction.

With national competition in pandemic purgatory, the revised strategic priority for USA Ultimate is clear — we must develop the national grassroots infrastructure of ultimate. We must enhance the organizational capacity of programming and outreach in local communities. We must build from the bottom up and disavow false hopes that highly visible elite ultimate will produce money and resources to provide long-term sustainability for our sport.

Of course, developing our national infrastructure is already a core function of our national governing body. But an examination of USAU’s finances suggest this priority has ranked below our NGB’s promotion of elite competition. Based on a breakdown of 2018 financial statements, spending on competition and events outpaced allocations toward community development by nearly 5 to 1. While affiliation memberships have risen from 1,537 to 7,789 over the past seven years, these members still represent only 13% of USAU’s overall membership as of 2019.

Expense buckets based on analysis of USAU’s Audited Financial Statements from 2018.

USAU’s core members are the competition-focused players from our national community, and its largest investment of resources has understandably gone toward serving this audience by prioritizing national competition. But, as we chart a new path, is this the primary function we need from our national governing body?

The ultimate community features proven event management examples from the likes of Without Limits, Oshadega, and Oak Creek Ultimate, among others. The emergence of the semi-pro leagues demonstrates the community’s capacity to self-organize into national competition formats outside of USAU’s support. If USAU shifts toward other priorities and national competition is forced to reorganize, there is some evidence to suggest our community is up to the challenge. Comparatively, it feels harder to expand a national sporting infrastructure without our national governing body intently leading the way.

Retooling for different strategic priorities would have massive implications on USAU’s business model and staffing allocation. It might be tricky to propose governance changes for ultimate without denigrating the folks at the helm, but that is my intention. USA Ultimate is comprised of amazing staff, directors, and volunteers, many of whom I know and work alongside personally and whose livelihoods I would never seek to harm. I believe the folks working to serve our sport are acting in good faith, while I simultaneously maintain the strategic goals are misprioritized.

As a full-time professional in ultimate, facing uncertainty over my own future within this sport, I am driven to explore any alternative strategy which sustainably addresses the challenges we face. Here are my suggestions:

1. At all levels of ultimate, folks who can pay more should pay more to expedite the growth of infrastructure.

If prioritizing grassroots development means reducing our opportunities for big money sponsorship and visibility, financially privileged folks in the ultimate community will need to step up. Infrastructure cannot be magically conjured. Grants and partnerships can help, but most funding must come directly from the player community. Setting aside the cost of travel ultimate (which I’ll address later), ultimate typically charges well below the market rate of traditional sports programs. We shortchange our own growth and infrastructure when we undersell the market rate of programs for folks who could otherwise afford to pay.

Instead, ultimate should capitalize on its relative cheapness by charging closer to the market rate and using the extra margin to accelerate growth. Fees which would cover officials or expensive equipment in other sports can transparently fund infrastructure and initiatives in the ultimate community. This extra margin, for example, could transparently subsidize playing opportunities for folks with financial barriers or fund dedicated staffing for equity work.

2. USAU should pursue a 50/50 split between “affiliate” and “club” members by blowing up the current Affiliate & State-Based Organization model and starting from scratch.

The glaring weakness in our national infrastructure is USAU’s disconnect with many of the largest local disc organizations in the country. Our sport cannot sustainably succeed without our biggest organizations working together. USAU must bring local disc organizations to the table to discuss new models for affiliation.

In the short term, USAU could leverage the working capacity of local disc organizations with paid staff to mitigate its own bandwidth and resource challenges. In the longer term, a greater percentage of affiliate members provides a broader foundation for the sport’s membership and finances. A boost in affiliate members would also encourage USAU to reconcile the experiences of local grassroots players with the demands of high-level club competition, promoting a more holistic approach to strategic planning. Local leagues and programs will ramp up well before national competition can return, so now is the moment for USAU to affiliate with more local organizations and position itself to capitalize on ultimate’s earliest return to play.

What if instead of governing from the top-down, USAU prioritized the grassroots development of ultimate?

3. USAU should remove every possible financial barrier to coaching.

The lack of qualified and available coaches remains a crippling bottleneck toward positive growth for youth ultimate. As necessary compliance and training requirements like Safe Sport increase the barrier of entry for coaches, we must remove every possible financial barrier to streamline recruitment. USAU now offers free SafeSport training for members, but more aggressive subsidization can stimulate expansion of the sport’s coaching roster. Taking money off the table is a tough ask at the moment, but prioritizing our grassroots infrastructure means making that choice.

In the meantime, how many future coaches could we train virtually while ultimate programming remains on hiatus?

4. Establish a three year moratorium on USAU national competitions to prioritize grassroots development.

Travel tournaments are expensive. Recent posts within the ultimate community have addressed the costs of travel ultimate for teams like Molly Brown and Sockeye with enhanced awareness over how this money could be allocated elsewhere. What if USAU intentionally delayed its return to national competition to instead funnel funding into grassroots development for our sport?

Consider the 2019 US Open in Blaine, Minnesota, where 124 youth and adult teams competed across all divisions. Using some basic assumptions, we can diagnose the scale of the money involved:

~2,480 players (124 teams x ~20 players per team). Does not include coaches, family members or other traveling entourage.
~1,240 players flying to Blaine (50% of overall players as a rough estimate).
~$300 per round trip flight.

This totals $372,000 in flights alone for one tournament. This compares to $380,000, which was USAU’s total expenses toward community development work in 2018. Once we consider hotels, rental cars, gas, etc., there are millions of dollars going toward travel for national tournaments. Before we restart national competition and resume wasteful travel spending, why not campaign to divert these savings toward infrastructure development? Just one quarter of that $372,000 could fund a full-time position for one year, dedicated to accelerating grassroots development. Meanwhile, a moratorium on national competition would temporarily reduce participation costs for many players and benchmark the long-term demand for national competition versus cheaper regional formats.

5. USAU should offer greater autonomy toward club players to develop preferred formats for national competition.

The demand for national competition will persist, even if USAU prioritizes infrastructure development over elite-level play. But choosing an alternative path with constrained resources would require USAU to relinquish some control over the structure and format for national competition. USAU should always be involved in the governance of national competitions to sustain overall membership and provide oversight, but – for now – the pandemic hiatus provides an opportunity to host a dialogue on the future of national competition and how its structures can evolve alongside grassroots growth.

Change is Hard…but Necessary

As we are witnessing in professional, collegiate, and even youth sports across America, the impulse to return to business as usual can be overwhelming, especially as organizations are desperate for cash to sustain themselves through forced pandemic restrictions. But in the context of traditional American sports governance, business as usual is not compatible with USAU’s promise to promote a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive sport. Under constrained finances, our sport faces hard choices to maximize its resources for the greatest long-term benefit. The best choice is prioritizing the grassroots infrastructure of our sport. But would the ultimate community accept a fundamental change to USA Ultimate’s strategy?

The events of 2020 have inspired impassioned advocacy within the ultimate community on questions facing the sport and toward social issues in the world around us. This climate suggests some appetite for changes to our sport, but one need only consider past participation in USAU Board elections to maintain skepticism on the overall engagement into our sport’s national strategy. If only 2% of USAU members can be bothered to vote for their Board of Directors, how many are attuned to the strategic challenges facing our sport? If an overwhelming majority of players maintain that pursuing the Olympics, despite its many flaws, remains a worthwhile goal for our sport, how much deviation from the current path is our community prepared to accept?

In “Alternative Models of Sports Development in America,” David Ridpath suggests that “the main barrier to change…is widespread resistance to change itself, even among those who have the ability and power to effect positive changes in sports development and delivery” (p 168).

USA Ultimate has worked hard to promote high-quality national competition for the advancement of our sport. Now, facing new and different challenges, our sport needs USAU to focus on a different goal. By prioritizing development of our grassroots infrastructure, USAU can avoid the faults of our country’s failing sports governance model and lead us toward more positive outcomes.

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  1. Tim Smith
    Tim Smith

    Tim Smith is the executive director of the Washington Area Frisbee Club (WAFC), a nonprofit disc organization in the Washington, DC region

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