The (Broken) Economics of Tournament Organizing

TDs aren't making any money. It's a problem.

Late afternoon action in San Diego. Photo: Stephen Chiang — UltiPhotos.com

This story was originally published in Ultiworld’s In The Zone business newsletter that goes out monthly to subscribers

When Todd Curran, the owner of XII Brands (VII Apparel, Five Ultimate, and Aria Discs), called me up about the Richmond Cup, his new mixed division tournament, the $10,000 prize purse wasn’t the most interesting part of the event.

Call me weird, but I thought that the tournament’s decision to implement a $200 team fee and a $25 per-player fee was a much bigger deal.

“I think that’s the model that we need to do moving forward in ultimate,” Curran told me. “I think that the team bid fee model is broken. It’s very difficult to run a successful event if you don’t know who’s coming. You have communication with 16 captains, and that’s it.”

It’s not like this is some never-before-seen innovation: plenty of championship tournaments (USAU Nationals, WFDF events) and party tournaments like Wildwood use a player-based fee structure. But it’s quite rare for a regular season event to take this approach.

The direct effect is an increase in the amount of money players pay to compete at the tournament. In Richmond Cup’s case, a 25 person team would pay a total of $825 in fees, which is definitely above the average two-day tournament team fee, which I’d peg at $400-600 from my anecdotal experience.

We’ll discuss the implications of increasing fees more in a bit, but first, let’s hear from some long-time tournament directors about their experiences running ultimate events.

***

“Running tournaments, for me, never has been and, at this point in my life, is definitely not about the money,” said Michelle Ng, the founder of Without Limits, a tournament organizing company dedicated to growing women’s ultimate.

“I’ve gotten a lot out of the sport and wanting to invest back in it and the people,” she said.

That basic sentiment underpins the attitude of all of the organizers I spoke to, and probably the vast majority of the group overall. Running a tournament is hard work, featuring dozens more hours of labor than may appear at first glance, and profit is minimal to non-existent for all but a handful of events.

“It wasn’t about making money for me,” said Dale Wilker, the founder of Poultry Days and an Ohio organizing legend. “It was always about trying to enhance the fun and camaraderie of ultimate…I always kid people – ‘You couldn’t pay me enough.’”

These fundamental elements of running ultimate events means that the most dedicated organizers are all doing it as a passion project, a side hustle that’s mostly side and not much hustle.

As a result, nobody is doing it professionally and burnout is a major problem. I wrote a few issues ago about Nick Lindeke, a prominent Chicago-area organizer, quitting for good, even though he had aspirations of trying to make it into a career at times. This week, I talked with Dave Branick, the founder of the Chesapeake Open, a long-standing summer club tournament near Washington DC, who told me that he and his team are ceasing operations of the event.

“Honestly, it came down to most of us running out of steam, energy, and drive to do it as we’ve gotten older,” he said. “We tried to recruit some younger people to help organize so we could hand it over to them eventually, but we really didn’t have much luck finding people who were interested in doing that.”

This wasn’t a COVID casualty, either. Branick said that they had already planned to stop running the tournament in 2020 and that taking a year off didn’t change their minds about stepping away. Chesapeake had been running since 2005, played host to some Triple Crown Tour events, and was a stalwart event for east coast teams.

But the money was never there. “The most I ever got out of Chesapeake was a polo or a quarter zip from a sponsor,” said Branick, who noted that any leftover profits from the tournament always went into replacing tents or purchasing equipment.

And that was despite Chesapeake running at a higher price point than many other tournaments, due to the rising cost of fields (more on that shortly), offering a high quality player dinner, and other amenities. Every year, said Branick, he would get emails (“like clockwork”) from teams questioning the team bid fee. In 2019, it was $750 (which amounts to $30 per person for a 25-person roster).

Ng told me a story about the early years of Without Limits at the beginning of last decade. She wanted to raise the team bid fee $25 to help cover some of the additional costs of the amenities that Without Limits provides at events.

She described a conversation with a partner college team: “‘Just think about it reasonably,’ I said. ‘Would every player at this tournament play 1 extra dollar per person to have Without Limits run this tournament?’ And that was a real conversation. It was not an obvious answer.”

Think about that. $1 per person. Not obvious. $1!!

I fear that this exact same extreme sensitivity to tournament fees exists today, more than 10 years later. I get the sense that even players in their 30s–well-established professionals who pay thousands of dollars a year to travel around the country (or even world) to play ultimate–are still anchored to the tournament bid fees they paid when they were in college.

How else could you question a $750 team fee that amounts to $30 a player for a weekend-long tournament with lined fields, water, food, staff and volunteers, a dinner, and more?

“What do you compare [a tournament] to?” said Rodger Oakes, the founder of Oshadega and tournament organizer for nearly two decades. “It’s something you doing for entertainment, for fun, for how you’re going to spend your weekend. Compare that to a movie, you’re paying $20 for a 90 minute movie.”

***

I, like many, have been playing a lot of disc golf over the last year. Although the bulk of my time playing disc golf over the last five years has been (and always will be) purely recreational, I’ve started playing in some tournaments.
Last month, I played at the FDR Fools Fest, a two-round, one day tournament north of New York City. I paid $47.99 in total to compete, which included a player’s pack that included an OK-quality half zip and a bag of Birdie Fuel coffee.

I would have gladly paid that price to play in the tournament even without any benefits beyond the organization of the event itself.

So what is an ultimate tournament worth?

Before we continue, I want you to stop reading for a moment and really consider that question. Think about your favorite regular season ultimate tournament. How much would you be willing to pay to compete in it? What’s a fair price? Not for a team fee, just for you personally.



I asked the same question to the organizers I talked with.

“You go to a movie, it’s like $20,” said Michelle. “It’s definitely worth more than that. You go to a concert, it’s like $100, $200…It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think $50.”

Rodger said $40-60. Dale said $50.

Dave said over $100. “When I think about what I pay to go to a local 5K or 10K, I’m paying $35 to $50 for something that amounts to an hour of time,” he said. “I think we as a community undervalue the tournament experience.”

I personally think $50 is still an under-pricing of the kind of tournament that these organizers put on, which typically includes an entire meal on top of the full organization of the event. But let’s stick with that number just for a moment.

That means $1250 in total fees for a 25-person team. That’s about double what gets paid by teams at most tournaments today.

“If I’ve got $1250 coming in per team, I think about all of the extra things I could do,” said Oakes. “I’ve always wanted to add one of those inflatable obstacle courses.”

Spoken like a true player-first organizer.

I think the most important thing about pushing fees to a reasonable level is that it makes it possible for organizers to pay themselves and their staff for the work that they provide to hundreds or even thousands of players in a weekend.

“If you want outstanding organizers to run outstanding events, you have to be willing to pay for that,” said Ng, and she’s absolutely right. Otherwise, people find other things to do.

***

Regardless of what number you came up with above, everyone needs to prepare themselves to pay more for tournaments going forward. The cost of renting athletic fields has never been higher, and ultimate is competing with soccer and other sports that commonly pay almost double what ultimate organizers do for them.

Wilker said that the fields for the Elite-Select Challenge this year are going to cost $18,000. Divided by 48 teams, that’s $375 a team just in field costs.

“I’m competing against everybody else for those fields,” he said. “I have the fields reserved, but I can’t pay the price. I can’t charge teams $500-600 to play, because they’re not used to paying that.”

“I don’t know if it’s sustainable anymore,” he added. “It’s hard to put on an event and meet both sides of the expectations – both a high quality event and the team and player cost side.”

Ultimate’s tournament structure makes this even more challenging. Soccer tournaments often feature hundreds of teams that play one to two games a day on the same number of fields that ultimate tournaments use for just 48 teams, because those teams are playing many more games.

Aside from the lucky organizers that have access to inexpensive or even free fields (often college teams running on-campus events), rising field costs have to get passed through to players.

***

I often wonder if a bare-bones, cost-minimizing approach to tournaments is even what players want. It seems to me that if you’re going to spend a weekend at a tournament, you should want lined fields, plentiful amenities, showcase games or other entertainment, food, and more. I think that the success of the tournaments that offer such amenities, even at higher price points than competitors, shows that teams do in fact want a richer experience.

For all the complaints about the cost of ultimate participation, it’s worth remembering that increasing the per-player cost from $30 to $50 for a weekend is a true drop in the bucket towards the total cost of a season when compared to transportation, food, uniforms, and everything else.

Yet that extra $20 a player could make an enormous difference in the tournament’s ability to offer a high quality experience – and allow the TD and their team to actually take a salary for their effort.

Let’s return to what Todd Curran said: “I think that the team bid fee model is broken. It’s very difficult to run a successful event if you don’t know who’s coming. You have communication with 16 captains, and that’s it.”

His point was that having a per-player fee allows TDs to collect information about exactly how many people will be at the event, which makes budgeting easier (how much food should you buy?) and marketing the event to sponsors a much more effective sell.

Curran expanded on why the increased cost makes sense for players too. “Everybody gets a disc, everybody gets lunch provided, and all the other things that you get from a player pack,” he said. And that doesn’t even include the fact that, at his tournament, some teams will walk away with thousands of dollars in prize money.

I think that per-player pricing structure is essential for a different reason: the psychological factor.

Think about the sticker shock of a team fee going from $500 to $750. Compare that with player fees going from $20 to $30. That’s the same thing financially, but which do you see as more palatable?

When you really think about it, it is comical that a two-day ultimate tournament costs players what it does today. Not only is the organizer typically doing dozens of hours of unpaid work, but they’re also taking on risk – they have to front money and typically eat the cost of a rainout.

Do we want to continue to watch top TDs decide to walk away because it’s not worth the effort? Or do we want to reward organizers who put on top-tier events?

I really believe that players and teams should think hard about what they value from the tournament experience and, I hope, broadcast a willingness to pay more for a positive tournament experience.

Meanwhile, I hope that organizers recognize that battling for teams by trying to compete on price instead of quality experience is a losing proposition. Part of tournament budgeting should include compensation for key staff.

It’s far more expensive to lose the sport’s few dedicated top TDs than it is for everyone to decide to get comfortable paying an extra $5 to $10 a day at tournaments.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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