Get schooled by witchcraft and wizardry.
April 20, 2021 by Mags Colvett in Analysis, Opinion with 0 comments
Wizards had a hand in one of ultimate’s biggest stories this spring. Did you catch it? Check the registration page for the Richmond Cup — club’s most extravagant cash event since the Cuervo series and a rare showcase for the mixed division, which often plays a secondary role to single-gender in the elite game — and scroll, if you can, past the five-figure prize purse. “Richmond Cup allows each team to have a maximum of four players who identify as the same gender in active play on the field at the same time. The gender that a player identifies with is considered to be that player’s gender,” reads the tournament policy on mixed-gender play. And: “Credit: US Quidditch’s Title 9¾.”
Title 9¾ — a riff on Title IX and Platform 9¾, where students board the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter series — is the gender equity branch of US Quidditch (USQ), the sport’s American governing body, but some variation of the policy holds wherever quidditch games are sanctioned. Like its fictional counterpart, the terrestrial sport is played mixed-gender at every level, a fact that quidditch organizations from nationwide leagues to local club teams tend to center in their public identity: a Guardian piece on the 2017-2018 AUDL boycott cited quidditch as “the current standard-bearer for mixed play,” outstripping curling, team Alpine skiing, and, yes, ultimate.
Beyond establishing ratios for men- and women-matching players, however, quidditch’s Gender Maximum Rule is designed to create even representation on the field without leaning on a traditionally gendered binary. Well before USA Ultimate’s own gender inclusion policy updates in 2018 and 2020, USQ’s policy has also allowed players to self-identify without restriction and explicitly affirmed nonbinary players since early in its implementation. As ultimate looks for inclusive ways to structure mixed-gender play, it’s not so surprising to see a high-profile mixed ultimate event turn to quidditch for guidance.
But ultimate’s relationship with quidditch reaches further than that. XII Brands, the organizer of the Richmond Cup, has long-running relationships with multiple American and international quidditch organizations through its subsidiary VII Apparel. VC Ultimate announced its own partnership with Quidditch Canada in 2020, describing the move as a natural match between “like-minded organizations” with “a perfect mix of fun and serious [and] focus on both competition and community,” as well as commitments to equity and social justice. As far back as 2012, Outside magazine pulled three PoNY ringers1 for the team assembled for its feature on the “surprisingly violent” quidditch national tournament — now the Quidditch US Cup, last held in Round Rock, TX weeks before the same fields were host to USAU’s D-I College Championships.
What is it that unites these sports? The look a physical therapist gives you when you explain how you shredded your ACL, for one thing, but the ties run deeper than outsider status or surface quirk. While ultimate is older and larger than quidditch,2 there are striking parallels in the history and development of each that can tell us a lot about where their cultures are now. Both began as pickup games with improvised rulesets; both grew in size and organization at the hands of a few driven evangelists, on and off college campuses.
Now, both find themselves at a curious intersection between grassroots do-it-yourself character and higher-level professionalization, with larger orgs taking on increasingly important roles, but most player experience and development happening at the local amateur level. Furthermore, although both quidditch and ultimate present their commitments to egalitarianism, mutual respect, and a certain unique… spirit as central to the meaning of the games — watch USQ’s “Quidditch Is Coming Home” and USAU’s “Pull Together” back-to-back and tell me I’m wrong — both have also faced rising calls from their players to examine how these visionary sports can also create homogenous, restrictive, or exclusionary spaces within the tight-knit communities that play them.
Ultimate has often looked to more established sports like rugby or lacrosse as models for growth, but there’s much to learn from smaller, more independent sports like quidditch — whose social position and organizing resources often look more like ultimate’s than, say, lacrosse’s, especially on the local level. I spoke to Mary Kimball, executive director of USQ, and Christian Barnes, USQ board member and interim director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Major League Quidditch, to learn more about the structure, culture, and organizational strategies of the game with those three weird hoops.
Build an officiating pipeline.
Many a college ultimate team has lost recruits to the wizard sport, but my conversation with Barnes was the first time I’d heard the other side of that story. He practiced with both teams at Hunter College for a semester or two, and while ultimate didn’t win out, the experience left a trace on his quidditch game. “When I started playing quidditch, I was very big on calling my own mistakes — like, oh no, I messed up, I need to go back to the hoops or give up a ball, because I know that’s how it should be, right?” he told me. “And that was weird, because in quidditch there are many people out there who are more, ‘if the ref didn’t see it, it didn’t happen!'”
As a highly physical sport with a complex ruleset, official quidditch games are always refereed, with as many as six or seven officials to a match. Additionally, since the end of a game depends on an appearance from a live “snitch runner” with allegiance to neither team, teams have to source a neutral athlete certified by USQ for the position.3 Officials in these roles must be certified by USQ and are paid between $8 and $20 per game.
In ultimate, observers are often former players or other community members who have voluntarily stepped into officiating after years in the sport, and while high-visibility games may have teams of observers working together, even elite tournaments often have trouble sourcing enough observers to cover much more than finals, and most sanctioned ultimate is played with no officials at all. Quidditch, however, is a younger sport with a smaller pool of experienced refereeing talent, as well as a pressing need to source officials in order to hold matches. Given those conditions, quidditch has to be much more active in its recruitment. Their solution? Commission the players.
In order to participate at large events, teams are often required to bring a certain number of USQ-certified officials — who may also be members of the team. In 2019, for example, teams at the US Quidditch Cup were asked to provide five referees and one snitch runner to be scheduled for other games at the tournament. When training members for these roles is a pragmatic necessity for teams, more players at the local level are directly incentivized to learn the rules and get certified. Some even find out they like the job and make that their primary contribution to the sport going forward.
What if we required something similar for club or college ultimate? One or two players per team certified as observers in order to participate in the series, with accessible in-person or remote training that scales to the size of the initiative. Not only would the pool of certified observers be exponentially larger across the sport, but with some careful scheduling, players at an event could be assigned to other games in different divisions, opening up the possibility for more observed games and more reps for observers-in-training. (And even if we didn’t go that far: imagine college ultimate if one or two players per team truly knew the rules.)
Think outside the big travel tournament.
Large quidditch events such as the national championship or its regional qualifiers often follow a two-day tournament format familiar to ultimate players, but a scroll through USQ’s events calendar shows that “official games” range from full tournaments to smaller round robins to simple match play between local teams. Because sanctioned, real-season games can be held somewhat flexibly as long as officiating requirements are met and the event is registered with USQ, members have had leeway to experiment with the format that works with their space, time, and availability, as well as the distribution of teams in their region.
While weekend travel tournaments are a cultural mainstay in ultimate, they’re not necessarily the most time- or cost-efficient format for competition, nor the most accessible for spectators — and eight games in a weekend followed by eight hours of driving an overcrowded car certainly isn’t the safest for players. UK Ultimate’s pandemic-adjusted 2021 season offers one model for integrating match play into high-level club, but even within USAU’s existing guidelines, there could be benefits to making smaller official games easier to set up. For regionals- and sectionals-level teams, accessibility and cost-efficiency may already be more valuable than finding cross-national matchups. But even for nationally competitive teams, the kind of connectivity that comes out of large regular-season events isn’t the only factor to consider, and there are ways to set up interesting and significant events that meet teams where they are.
“We had one or two seasons of transition where we tried to keep club competition happening over two days, but with the exception of maybe one or two regions, it didn’t make sense to have play be over that long of a period of time for the effort that the players were putting in,” Kimball said. “The round robin format isn’t the most exciting on paper, but it is excellent at determining rankings, [so] our gameplay department really likes it. But there’s a point at which it doesn’t make sense anymore because there’s just too many teams, so that’s when you go into something a little more interesting like cross pool play or Swiss or something like that.”
You like Swiss? The 2019 US Quidditch Cup’s college division ran its pre-bracket play as a 60-team Swiss draw — an especially appealing format at an event where some teams qualify by at-large bid and many haven’t faced each other in the regular season.
As ultimate continues to weigh the costs and benefits of seasons driven by a small number of major travel tournaments, it’s worth considering whether we could also arrive at a meaningful champion via a combination of flexible, regionally-based play and postseason events that use a format like USQ’s to place teams in the bracket.
Make organizing resources easy to find and use.
While some of quidditch’s first two decades look a lot like the early years of ultimate (we didn’t always separate club and college play, either), they’ve also undoubtedly made use of resources we didn’t have at their age: nobody was livestreaming the 1987 UPA College Championships. Beyond broadcasting showcase events, however, quidditch has also used the internet to make basic organizational tools accessible to people interested in starting teams or events in their area.
Among the offerings on USQ’s website is an all-in-one packet for new teams with suggestions for recruiting and retention, organizing leadership, running practices, and pitching the sport to the uninitiated — much of them applicable to club or college ultimate teams. References like Without Limits‘s College Women’s Ultimate Resources Manual or Elevate Ultimate‘s The Art of Coaching Youth Ultimate provide detailed high-level guidance for organizers, but a centralized, easy-to-find document with tips and tricks for players starting teams (or inheriting leadership roles within existing programs) would be invaluable — maybe now more than ever, as the naturally high-turnover college division faces an uncertain return after graduating two classes of player-level knowledge.
For members interested in running events, USQ’s TD Resources page provides standard documents like a player packing checklist, incident event log, and budgeting forms, but also a fully-developed event-planning template on the project management platform Trello, which allows teams to assign subtasks within a group and check their progression on a central interface. The template (viewable here as a spreadsheet) breaks the massive job of running a tournament into super-sections of pre-tournament, day-of, and post-tournament to-dos, ensuring nothing from sourcing field equipment to writing thank you notes to volunteers gets lost.
Making these resources easily available helps distribute institutional knowledge that otherwise tends to stay within a small number of increasingly burned-out organizers — a wise investment that pays real dividends for the short- and long-term future of the sport.
No sport has to be all fun or all business, but no league has to be all things to all people, either.
When I mentioned ultimate’s somewhat fraught relationship with “legitimacy” — the push and pull between growing the game by carrying ourselves like a conventional sport and preserving the distinctive spirit of the community — Kimball knew exactly what I meant. “In quidditch that gets framed as ‘sport versus whimsy,'” she explained. “I think it’s a false dichotomy, to be honest — you can have many things existing under the same umbrella.”
If USQ’s club and college divisions — which operate much like their USAU equivalents — present one balance of sport and whimsy, Major League Quidditch (MLQ) probably tilts harder toward sport. While not precisely a pro league, MLQ looks and feels much like the semi-pro ultimate leagues, with a limited number of centrally-organized, glossily-branded “franchises” and a game-of-the-week season schedule for fans to follow along with.
Why organize any of this if USQ’s club division already exists? As MLQ’s website puts it, the league’s purpose is “to present quidditch in an elegant, highly-consumable form that mirrors other sports’ top leagues,” with “standardized schedules, high-level officiating, in-depth statistics, and live and recorded footage of all games” and a cap on total franchises, which “ensures the teams are of a high quality and maximizes the amount of coverage that can be given to each team and each game.”
For all MLQ’s surface similarities to the AUDL or PUL, this also sounds a little like the rationale behind the Triple Crown Tour in USAU’s club division: amateur play with connections to community roots, but also consistency from year-to-year among high-level teams, greater emphasis on a broadcast-friendly product, and a certain amount of professional spit-and-polish at major events. But how successful has that been? Debatable, and the ultimate community can and does debate it: travel costs for required events, real ROI on the ESPN contracts, the tradeoffs of limiting team expression (from mustaches to, uh, muffins).
“I imagine USQ is like a big tent,” said Kimball. “Major League Quidditch has a different tent that’s smaller and a lot more specific. And the higher you go up in that [professionalization], the more focused you have to be, because you’re designing a very specific competitive experience for most likely a single set of teams, whereas USQ has many different sets of teams. And I don’t necessarily think it’s the place of a national governing body to be deciding how teams should be expressing themselves, right?”
Should USAU step back from the TCT model and let the semi-pro leagues assume the mantle of the “showcase” form of domestic grass play — broadcasting, branding, and all? The scale in ultimate is different: MLQ’s 15 teams for a sport with 3,500 members in one mixed division to the AUDL, PUL, and WUL’s combined 40 single-gender teams in a sport with over 60,000 members makes for a different ratio of league roster spots to high-level talent, and abrupt divestment from something like the TCT would leave a lot of that talent without a comparably visible platform. In the long run, however, elite-level amateur play and league-style showcase play may be staking out claims on some of the same territory, and the eventual path forward could be to let each structure find its own balance without trying to play a role better served by the other.
Our sports are special, but they’re not alone.
“A lot of the ways I describe it to people is like a mix of dodgeball, rugby, basketball…” “It was surreal — at first I could not imagine it would ever become something I’d be so heavily invested in.” “The quidditch community is a place that I’ve really found a home in.”
These are speakers from “Quidditch is Coming Home,” but throw in a line on self-officiation and they wouldn’t sound out of place in a #LiveUltimate spot. We’re not so singularly different from each other, ultimate and quidditch, especially when we start talking about how singular we are. In practice, of course, neither sport is so utopic as we make ourselves sound — and that’s useful perspective to have.
Much like ultimate, quidditch’s focus on gender equity among a predominantly white player base has at times belied slow movement on necessary conversations on racial equity within the sport, which many are now taking more active steps to address. (Even the Gender Maximum Rule hasn’t been without controversy, with women’s colleges expressing concerns early on about being excluded by the policy.)
Beyond broader social justice issues, we’re also both prone to the same scandals and petty intra-community beefs of any niche interest group. If you’ve ever watched through your fingers as our famous self-officiating ethos gets stretched to its limits in games like Florida United vs. Doublewide or HUCK vs. Brilliance, you can imagine something of what it was like when an MLQ referee incited a brawl that led to a team being fully disbanded in 2018.
Online, quidditch sites like Eighth Man4 and forums like American Quidditch Discussion fill roles a little like Ultiworld’s, a little like ultimate Twitter’s, and a little like the old rec.sport.disc listserv — with all the highs and lows those comparisons imply.
“I think that you see this a lot whenever there’s something that’s niche and you have supporters, sometimes conversations that are really opinion-based start verging into, like, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong,’ but that’s not necessarily an informed opinion,” Barnes told me. “And in college, the top 15 or so teams get talked about like 90% of the time, and culture-wise, a few [players] who are more well-known dominate conversations. And then others will pop up and say that makes it seem like they don’t matter.”
Sounds like Ultiworld’s mentions in any given college season.
Nothing’s too big to rethink — even the name of your sport.
As young sports, quidditch and ultimate are continually refining their rulesets and competitive structures. USAU’s next rules update is slated for 2022, with informal takes and proposals continuing through the offseason; meanwhile in quidditch, players debate such points as one- versus two-handed tackling (two may be better for injury prevention). Formats like YCCs or the Triple Crown Tour are still being tried and experimented with, and 2021’s adjusted season may prove a stress test for many.
But some changes go beyond logistics to matters of identity and presentation to the world. Longstanding ultimate and quidditch partner VII Apparel used to call itself Savage. Defending D-I college champions UC San Diego weren’t always Dragon Coalition — and likewise, MLQ franchise Boston Forge weren’t always Boston Forge. Some name changes are as straightforward as deciding you want to strike a different tone as a team, or honor what your program’s personality is now and not whatever it was ten years ago. Others come from deeper sources of social responsibility and desire to create welcoming, inclusive spaces for all.
It’s an occasional topic of conversation among ultimate people whether “ultimate” is really the most compelling, memorable, or legitimate-sounding name for our sport (David Gessner likes “field disc”; Ultiworld editor Keith Raynor is all-in on “disc sevens”). Quidditch has asked similar questions. “It’s been a big conversation within national governing bodies for the last few years: what’s the value of the name of quidditch, and how does it, or doesn’t it, reflect our community?” said Kimball. “What information do we want to communicate? What can we understand about why people want to play quidditch? Why is it important to them, and how does that tie into our values?”
“And a challenge within the last year or so,” Kimball continued, “is that the author of the wizard sport has come out with some comments — and more than comments — that make it clear that they view the place of trans people and gender-nonconforming people very differently than our organization.”
As J.K. Rowling’s support for transphobic ideologies becomes increasingly public, many Harry Potter fans have found themselves in a difficult place, weighing their investment in both the stories themselves and their fan communities against supporting a public figure whose positions they can’t stand by. For the muggle sport that’s long placed gender inclusivity at the center of its mission, the situation is complex: while the game’s connection to the fantasy series is the hook that draws many players in and helps explain the rules to outsiders, for longtime quidditch players and community members, quidditch itself has acquired a culture, purpose, and spirit that go beyond its ties to fandom.
Is there a future for the wizard sport without the wizard? A 2020 news post on USQ’s ongoing restructure suggests there could be, publicly raising the possibility of removing all Harry Potter-related terms from the sport’s nomenclature and outlining the process by which USQ plans to seek stakeholder and community feedback on that question.
“As we have the name quidditch, what does that mean for how we appear to someone who might want to join?” Kimball asked. “As a millennial, I got to grow up reading these books without this larger context in mind, but for the people who are reading them now, it’s not something that’s hidden. So how does that impact potential recruitment, and how does it impact the safety of the trans and gender-nonconforming people that want to play the sport?”
An overhaul that large could be a daunting prospect, and even outsider sports like ours aren’t immune to the kind of institutional inertia that can stop needed changes from happening: when so much of the effort to sustain the game comes from a small number of people who’ve bought in to what that game is already, working with institutional knowledge that tends to stays within that circle of die-hards, truly radical change doesn’t come easily.
But real growth means real self-accountability, and the resilience to face these questions when they arise. Is it too big an idea to consider rebuilding ultimate’s gender divisions? Organizational structures? The name of the game itself? Not necessarily. For as much as ultimate’s and quidditch’s community-driven structures put a lot of responsibility on their players’ shoulders, that also gives us the power to lead rather than follow where larger sports trend, creating the culture and competition we want to see in the world.
And there the magic lies.
Including Callahan winner Dan Heijmen, and referred to throughout the piece as “the frisbee boys.” ↩
Despite the name, snitch runners use an array of skills beyond raw speed to evade capture — Barnes said his wrestling background comes in handy in the position. ↩