Western Ultimate League Uses “Gap Year” to Prioritize, Prepare for 2021

Enthusiasm is high for the league still waiting to play its first game.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just shut down the seasons planned by existing ultimate leagues and organizations — it prevented the Western Ultimate League (WUL) from even getting off the ground. After delaying early-season games on March 12th, the WUL announced four days later that it had made the difficult decision to indefinitely postpone its entire inaugural season.

Players and supporters were unquestionably disappointed, but despite not having any games in 2020, the WUL board and individual teams have kept busy — and through it all, leaders within the WUL have maintained their excitement and continue looking ahead to when they can finally take the field.

Let’s take a closer look at how the 2020 “season launch that wasn’t” unfolded for the WUL.

Community Reception

Since the inception of the Premier Ultimate League (PUL), ultimate’s first semi-professional women’s league, the ultimate world has made it loud and clear that there is enthusiastic support for the women’s pro game. Through the new WUL — a complement to the PUL covering a different geographical region, rather than a cross-national competitor like the defunct Major League Ultimate men’s semi-pro league was to the American Ultimate Disc League — over 200 more players would have the opportunity to take the field as semi-pro athletes, and communities have been excited to support these new home teams.

For some areas, assembling a new marquee franchise meant finally getting to see something of a regional dream team suit up for the first time. “The mountain west region is full of exceptional players that often play club in the mixed division due to the geographic spread, so players and fans alike were excited to see so many regional powerhouses take the field together in a womxn’s division,” said Erica Bindas, co-founder of the Utah Wild.

Further west in Los Angeles, Astra knew that the reception would be positive based on previous showcase events. According to co-founder Jessica Creamer, “During last year’s showcase series, we got amazing support from the people of L.A. At each of our three games we saw attendance of 400+ people.” When the WUL began campaigning early in 2020, the Los Angeles community once again did not disappoint. “Los Angeles has been an amazing place to start a new team! The fans bought so many jerseys! They were excited and ready to rep their city,” Creamer said.

The support for WUL teams has not been exclusive to the women’s ultimate community. “There was no doubt there was a real appetite for women’s pro here [in San Francisco], given that we’ve had multiple men’s pro teams here. So it was awesome to have a really warm reception not only from the women, but also from the men,” said Manisha Daryani, co-founder of the San Francisco Falcons.

Not every location, however, was certain they would have the necessary interest — until they asked the question. To gauge the community’s perspective, Helen Eifert sent a survey to the Arizona ultimate community and the feedback received was overwhelmingly positive. Here is a selection of responses:

“LET’S MAKE THIS HAPPEN!”

“…Even if I can’t play, I’d love to make it happen for others.”

“I am 16 so I cannot try out, but I would love to practice and come to games to show support.”

“I think it would be great to bring a pro team to Arizona as we have an active ultimate community that is hundreds strong.”

“I think this is an amazing opportunity for the entire Arizona ultimate community. The current climate of the club scene in Arizona leaves something to be desired…and most importantly (in my opinion), the sport itself now has a chance to plant a seed for more exposure and growth in our area for years to come.”

Reflecting On What Is Important

The unexpected “gap year,” so to speak, was not all bad. Being forced to halt all ultimate activities provided the WUL organization and its teams the rare gift of time to reflect on their priorities.

In November 2020, WUL founder and Board President Felicia Yang released a statement about what the organization had been doing over the last several months. “The league has used our time away from the field to refine our mission and goals for the league,” she wrote. “That process has included restructuring our board of directors, rewriting our bylaws, and creating functional committees within the board, including a DEI committee that is meant to keep diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at the forefront of the work that we are doing.” (In a similar update earlier that month, the PUL had announced the creation of a new equity non-profit and additional appointments and changes to its board with the goal of “transforming [the] organization towards becoming anti-racist and anti-oppressive between now and the next time we’re able to take the field.”)

Individual teams have taken it upon themselves to use this time for this important work as well. Members of many WUL teams participated in the Black Lives Matter protests and marches, and all teams voiced their support of the movement on social media.

Utah Wild took a step back to reflect on their organization and the community in which it exists. “We have been grateful for this time to organize and learn before we ended up too far down a path that oppressed black, indigenous, and people of color in our communities. We, as an entirely white board and predominantly white team, organization, state, and region, definitely have some work to do,” said Bindas. “We got some valuable feedback from players as we made a public statement, and have since been working internally to make sure our mission, goals, and values are equitable and anti-racist.”

Los Angeles Astra has used the time to take action within their community. “With our free time off the field, we have been participating in the Movement for Black Lives by running a donation matching fundraiser for The Centre for Black Equity (with huge support from the LA community we were able to raise over $3000), attending protests, and having discussions within the team on racism in ultimate,” Creamer reports.

San Diego Super Bloom released a statement on Instagram in September that noted “we feel that it’s Super Bloom’s responsibility to mobilize the San Diego ultimate community to support Black and brown San Diegans who are struggling during these trying times.” They launched a fundraiser for three local organizations selected by their 2020 roster that provide essential resources and services to vulnerable communities. To kickstart the fundraiser, Super Bloom pledged $1000 towards the fundraising effort, and an additional $1000 toward their own internal equity initiatives.

Community Initiatives

Many WUL teams got involved in community projects and local initiatives to fill their time away from the field.

On the same day that the WUL announced it was indefinitely postponing the 2020 season, the Portland Swifts organization tweeted a statement signed by the team about a shift in their priorities. “The Swifts will continue to pursue an important part of our mission: social responsibility. In the coming weeks we will be promoting organizations, fundraisers, and cooperatives that are working to help individuals and communities in immediate need,” the statement read. “We are pausing fundraising initiatives and encouraging our friends, families, and fans to invest in efforts to support those who have been or will be affected by Covid-19.” Since then, they have posted about many local programs and initiatives to help those communities most affected the pandemic, including the homeless, immigrants, and those without paid leave.

The Falcons donated their time and labor to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank in December, while Los Angeles and San Diego encouraged increased voter turnout through get out the vote letter writing. Speaking of letters, LA also took some time to write festive letters to isolated people and Portland put pen to paper and wrote to those who are incarcerated.

Looking Ahead

With the arrival of a new year, the WUL is hopeful that the league may finally take the field for its first playing season. Per Yang’s November 2020 statement, the league will only return when it is deemed safe by medical experts for their athletes to do so. And while starting their first season is an exciting prospect for everyone involved with the WUL, the lessons they’ve learned and the reflections they’ve made in 2020 will remain at the forefront of the league’s mind.

“We want to provide high quality entertainment for our fans and ensure that our athletes are highlighted and celebrated in the ways that they deserve,” Yang wrote. “To that end, we are in the process of building a partnership with an equity consultant, are organizing more widespread outreach strategies, and are considering ways to be more intentionally inclusive of transgender and non-binary players.”

The timeline of the WUL’s future may be uncertain, but the anticipation is anything but. Whenever these seven new teams get to suit up, it will be a celebration of some of the west’s most vibrant ultimate communities.

  1. Kelsey Hayden
    Kelsey Hayden

    Kelsey Hayden is an Ultiworld reporter, covering the Premier Ultimate League and Western Ultimate League. She is originally from Goulds, Newfoundland, and currently resides in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She plays with a women's club team, Salty, and coaches an open club team, Madhouse. You can follow Kelsey on Twitter (@hikelseyhayden).

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