Ultibucks: An Idea to Help Solve Ultimate’s Volunteer Problem

Our volunteer base is shrinking. What do we do about it?

Volunteers at the US Open.
Photo: Hart Matthews.

This article was written by Charlie Eisenhood but draws heavily on work from Pawel Janas and Ariel Jackson, who contributed writing and ideas to this article.

Stop me if you’ve heard one of these before: why hasn’t USA Ultimate announced where Sectionals is going to be yet? Why weren’t stats taken on our pool play game at Nationals? Why didn’t my game have observers?

While many are quick to blame USAU for these kinds of problems, there is a deeper issue at play: ultimate runs on volunteers.

Maybe you didn’t know that observers are often unpaid at large-scale tournaments. Or that coordinating Conferences and Regionals is typically handled by local volunteers. Right now, there are 176 listed volunteer vacancies on the USAU website. While some of those positions – like, say, Alaska Sectionals coordinator – aren’t a huge deal, others are quite important.

Local disc organizations also rely on volunteer support and seem to be finding less of it these days. Getting enough help even at Club Nationals has been a challenge. The sport needs many more coaches but few are getting paid. TDs are burning out. So what can we do?

One obvious thing to do is charge higher tournament fees. However, paying all of the current volunteers isn’t a realistic solution. While some high commitment positions (like observers) should get compensated directly, there will always be a need for unpaid volunteer support at big tournaments and in local organizing.

Enter Ultibucks.

The concept of Ultibucks comes from Ariel Jackson, the former Boston Brute Squad coach, who posted the idea in the Ultiworld Discord (access available to Full and Plus subscribers – there’s an Ultibucks channel!). It was later discussed on the Deep Look podcast:

The basic idea is that USAU creates a new virtual currency that is earned through volunteering, coaching, becoming a certified observer, etc. and is redeemed as a component of a bid fee for Nationals, Regionals, or other events. It creates an incentive structure for unpaid labor.

What Ultibucks Needs to Work

There are some key considerations:

  • USAU must require Ultibucks (UB) for some things to generate demand
  • People can purchase their way out of Ultibucks at an above-market price (creating a net cash gain for USAU). If UB are too “cheap,” then buying out is easy and the incentive is gone.
  • Ultibucks must be properly budgeted for – if Ultibucks are substituting for actual dollars in bid fees, e.g., the expected cash loss for USAU based on exchange rate.
  • If you aren’t paid for your labor in ultimate (i.e. coaching), then you should earn more UB.

Keep in mind, this entire concept is similar to the gold coins you might earn in a video game and then spend for upgrades.

Some Key Questions Answered

Should UB accrue to individuals or teams?

Why not both, depending on the objective? For example, you could offer 10 UB to an individual for coaching and 5 UB to a team for posting an accurate roster with numbers to the USAU Score Reporter backend.

How can you purchase UB directly from USAU?

USAU should maintain information about how many UB each player has in their backend website. When you log in to your USAU account, you should be able to see how many UB you have, and there should be a way to transfer UB to another USAU account holder. You can also purchase UB directly at a predetermined exchange rate (say, $10 for 1 UB).

Where should you be able to spend UB?

You could use Ultibucks to pay for things like Regionals, Nationals, National Team tryouts, annual USAU memberships, or other services from USAU.

USAU could also develop a new affiliate/state-based organization model that integrated UB, so that local disc organizations could require UB for playing in leagues, renting fields, joining hat tournaments, etc., and also offer them for localized volunteering.

Should you be able to exchange UB for goods and services from non-USAU entities?

There’s no reason this wouldn’t work. If a team wants to sell you a jersey for UB, for instance, you can transfer UB to their team and they can give you a jersey. If USAU wanted, they could offer dollars for UB, perhaps at a less favorable exchange rate. But they could also only “burn” Ultibucks via bid fees or other USAU expenses.

An Example of Ultibucks in Action

Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario for Nationals. Assume for now that USAU merely adds an additional UB fee on top of the standard player fee (in $). This is the likeliest model, although USAU could choose to charge a lower dollar fee since UB will have a monetary value in the market.

So, an example:

  • USAU will require each player to pay 10 UB along with the $150 fee at Nationals.
  • USAU announces that players can purchase UB at $15 each from the UB Reserve, effectively allowing players to pay $300 to play at Nationals if they don’t want to earn UB. This also sets a price ceiling for UB (nobody will pay more than $15 since they can buy them from USAU at that price – think Settlers of Catan!).
  • Players choose how many UB to (a) obtain through involvement in volunteering/coaching/etc., (b) buy from the marketplace, or (c) buy directly from USAU.
  • Players can transact UB amongst themselves for any price.
  • UB is stored on player USAU accounts, transacting from one player account to another must be made through USAU.
  • Players exchange UB for Nationals player fees.

USAU can choose to “print” as many UB as they want. If they later decide UB are too plentiful or cheap in the marketplace, they can just increase UB fees, much like frequent flyer programs devalue their points by raising the cost of award tickets.

Selling UB or Buying UB Rewards

A potential challenge: what do you do to incentivize people to volunteer who don’t explicitly need UB in order to play at Regionals/Nationals/etc.? If a local league player competes in an organization that isn’t affiliated with USAU and requiring UB, then there may not be a good mechanism to incentivize them to earn UB.

One option, of course, is that the players can sell their UB in the market. A team needs UB to pay their bid fee, you have UB you earned for volunteering: sell your UB to them at an agreed-upon price.

Another potential solution: offer cool benefits for accruing enough Ultibucks! You could give people a free Ultrastar for 10 UB, a free annual USAU membership for 50 UB, or a free all-expenses-paid trip to Club Nationals with a VIP ticket for 250 UB. Essentially, make a UB redemption store.

These kinds of prizes can create a powerful incentive for people to earn UB – and thereby drive the volunteer apparatus that ultimate really needs.

Conclusion

While implementation would take real effort and certainly there are logistical hurdles to overcome, creating an Ultibucks system could be revolutionary for ultimate. Even if it largely fails initially and everyone just chooses to pay the additional dollar fees instead of acquiring UB organically, that represents a huge additional revenue stream that can be used to pay staff or key volunteers — and adjust the system until it is working.

It could also allow for teams to offer dues reductions to players who contribute to the team’s fees by earning UB, a natural way to increase affordability and equity.

Creating a “volunteer loyalty program” of sorts has the potential to make helping the sport fun and rewarding with a modern approach.

  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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