Ultimate Needs To Think Big In 2021 And Beyond

What does a stimulus package for ultimate look like?

We're all going to need to pitch in to lift up ultimate in 2021. Photo: Paul Rutherford -- UltiPhotos.com
We’re all going to need to pitch in to lift up ultimate in 2021. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

Throughout 2020, we saw professional sports return to our screens. Despite the eerie quality of baseball played in cavernous empty stadiums and basketball in confines that possessed a certain Super Smash Bros. vibe, their reappearance on the calendar conveyed one of the most significant senses of normalcy that we’ve gotten during the pandemic.

Amateur (and semi-professional too, I suppose) sports like ultimate that don’t support multi-billion dollar industries — industries capable of paving over the mess going on behind the curtain with a massive outlay of cash — have had a very different road back. For American ultimate, there was no grand recommencement, but rather anxiety, anger, and confusion over pockets of sparse local play. Instead, we got off-the-books pickup, subject to various levels of secrecy and recrimination, symptomatic of the larger systemic failure by governments to manage the crisis and restore actual normalcy to our lives.

Whatever fringe ultimate that has been played since the beginning of the pandemic notwithstanding, ultimate has not come “back” in a meaningful way since the shutdown last March. The ultimate community is still in lockdown until the world becomes a drastically safer place than it currently is. Ultimate, as it is presently constituted, is a sport animated by the interests of the people playing it and it will not be back until those people are back on the field.

But what will the normalcy be that the sport’s return delivers? We will say that life has gone “back to normal” when the virus recedes, but whether it’s the global economy or ultimate, things will not just automatically revert back to how they were before. The vaccine is not a passport to 2019.

There will be immense challenges facing the entire ultimate ecosystem in 2021 and beyond as we lace the cleats up and re-enter play. USA Ultimate faces significant budget shortfalls as a result of reduced membership and canceled events. College programs are primed to suffer serious leadership and participation vacuums after two lost seasons and the recruitment and development that follows. Local disc organizations have tough decisions to make about what to prioritize and how to hang on to community members. And all of this occurring when the sport is hearing more and louder calls than ever before to commit itself to racial, gender, and economic equity. The demands on the ultimate ecosystem are increasing while the resources are dwindling. If we try to return to business as usual, to just normal, we will find that ultimate is not in the state we left it. And beyond that, we will find that we are unable to make it the sport we want it to be.

The ultimate community needs to think creatively, plan broadly, and accept that we cannot be inert and expect things to go back to normal. Ultimate needs its own version of a stimulus package, but one tailored to a sporting infrastructure in which the governing body doesn’t have the ability to literally print money.

You might find yourself nodding along to all this, but how do those platitudes apply practically? Let’s look to the college division as just one example.

With 2020’s half-season, and another spring without the animating momentum of the USAU regular season and Series, college programs around the country are facing a substantial gap between meaningful play. This has the potential to create some massive structural problems.

You’ve seen something similar when a team loses a big senior class and doesn’t have the programmatic infrastructure to survive the transition: the team gets smaller, which dampens enthusiasm and means there are fewer people who know what they are doing, which diminishes the institutional competence of the program, which makes the team worse, which further dampens enthusiasm and participation, and on and on. This phenomenon has been a big problem in the Metro East over the past decade, in which the lack of programmatic infrastructure has created a doom spiral among teams that keeps the region at the bottom of the barrel. If you thought things were bad now, imagine a whole country of Metro Easts. Chilling.

The first order of business in staving off this dystopia is the most obvious: expanded eligibility. If people want to play college ultimate, USA Ultimate should be doing what it can to let them. USAU seems to read that message loud and clear, and they have already extended eligibility for all players who would have been eligible this spring, and are planning on hosting sanctioned fall college events.

“For the fall, the eligibility rules are going to look different. The guiding principle is to be inclusive. We’re going to try to figure a way to do it. I think that’s a pretty radical departure,” said USAU College Manager Tom Manewitz in a recent interview.

It’s definitely a good start. But can they go further?

Should USAU expand college eligibility for anyone in school, no matter how far into their academic career or how bogus their course load, for a couple years? Ditch any stipulations on participation for students who already have degrees or aren’t taking enough classes and let them pay for some college memberships. This will mostly be older, more experienced players who can provide stability to programs on and off the field while teams get their participation numbers back up.

USAU can’t just snap their fingers and make this happen, of course. They have to balance relationships with schools that don’t want their funding spent frivolously. But the specifics can be figured out. Keep the eye on the prize: more memberships and stability for college programs are needed and we need to be thinking about how to accomplish that.

Driving participation with creative thinking is going to be needed outside of just membership and outside of just the college division. There is more rigidity that can be done away with to stimulate growth. In a call with USAU Board of Directors President and Madison Ultimate Frisbee Association Women’s Director Robyn Fennig, the 2019 Club Women’s Player of the Year expressed a conviction that there is an appetite for the sport to be played in a variety of ways, and a pool of potential new members if we can take the steps to meet people halfway.

“Not everybody wants the same experience,” said Fennig, “but we are going to have to all be in this together.”

From sanctioning indoor 4-on-4 or 5-on-5 college tournaments — “because winter is a thing” — to redrawing sectional and regional boundaries to limit travel distance for fringe teams, to abandoning our dogmatic devotion to the tournament format, Fennig’s ideas represent the kind of perspective that we should be taking into 2021 and beyond: that ultimate can be many things to many people, but we’ll need more cooperation and willingness to collaborate on our ideas for any of our visions of the sport to thrive.

The practicality of specific ideas for sanctioning alternative methods of play, redrawing competition boundaries, and ways to drive revenue for USAU and local disc orgs can be debated on their merits, but the larger sentiment that we need to be broadening our conception of what the sport can be is crucial. As Fennig put it, “We have something great to offer, let’s figure out how to get people to stick around.”

To make up for the budget shortfalls the ultimate ecosystem will be facing upon the return of play, we’re going to have to do more than just get the people already playing to stick around. We’re going to have to grow the game to get out of the hole we’re looking up from. And crucially, growth through change doesn’t just ensure USAU’s solvency. It expands the player pool and brings more people into touch with the sport in ways that can address the racial, gender, and socioeconomic disparities that ultimate has overlooked for too long. Whether it’s shoring up the college division, growing the game at a grassroots level, or establishing a stronger foundation for the sport at the local league level, right now is a time to think big, outside the box, and to be comfortable with reimagination.

And while USAU is responsible for driving what change it can, it absolutely will not be able to solve this alone — much of this will need to be a grassroots effort. Getting ultimate into the place we want it to be will require lots of people at all levels in the community being willing to do a little more. Perhaps that means players coaching a struggling college team, providing the structure that turns them from a sectionals-every-third-year team to an annual participant. Perhaps it means organizing a Learn to Play clinic in a low-income area and recruiting new players from marginalized communities to join your local league. Maybe it’s local disc orgs hosting showcase events — whether high-level friendlies between local elite clubs or targeted exhibitions like the Color of Ultimate — in their communities that can raise both revenue and awareness.

Whatever the specifics are, it’s going to take an investment of time and resources that are admittedly scarce. But that’s the basic principle of stimulus: investing now to create sustainability that outgrows the initial investment. To create something that could reshape the face — and faces — of what ultimate looks like.

There will need to be tradeoffs. Some things will have to give for others to grow. With a governing body that, again, cannot print its own money, investment in anything needs to come out of somewhere else. This is a concept that the ultimate community has historically struggled to understand.

Even when a change can bring two steps forwards and one step back, we often fail to realize the progress that was made because we are too worried about that step back. But at a time when we need to be moving forward on so many issues — combating the imminent budget and participation shortfalls while addressing the racial disparities in the sport that animated so much of the community’s attention this past year — giving something up, even if only temporarily, is necessary.

But what gets sacrificed? Is it increased costs for participants? Is it diverting funds from the TCT and other elite events towards grassroots development for a couple of years? Is it abandoning the goal of the Olympics? Is it backburnering certain equity efforts for the sake of others? Just like with the steps forward we make, the specifics of what gets sacrificed can and should be debated more robustly than this space allows. But can the ultimate community have those conversations productively? We will have to if we want to accomplish anything significant.

If big changes are being made, if the sport is going to look very different a year from now than what we remember it as, a necessary component of this whole effort is transparency. From USAU on down to summer league commissioners to anyone involved in the future of the sport, transparency has to be a pillar. We get that choices need to be made, but show us the calculus. Show us what is being balanced. We need to be prepared to discuss what the sacrifices are going to be, and we need trust and transparency for those conversations to not cave in on themselves with recriminations and people retreating to their corners, focusing on “getting theirs.”

The ultimate ecosystem cannot afford to spend a year just waiting for things to normalize. The world is changing, and we can change ourselves with intention or passively let the world change us. Now is the time for imagination, for questioning how things are and becoming comfortable with what they might be. Progress needs to happen, ultimate needs its stimulus package, but that can only happen if we are prepared to think and talk about these issues in ways that lead to actual change.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller
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    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld, co-host of the Sin The Fields podcast, and also a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.

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