While coverage of the AUDL usually focuses on the exciting games and star players, many teams and now the league as a whole are investing time, money, and energy into building the next generation of professional ultimate fans.
April 27, 2023 by Alex Rubin in Other, Profile with 0 comments
On a relatively cold day in February, the Colorado Summit’s Alex Atkins and Conor Tabor hop in a car and drive about two and a half hours south down Interstate 25 towards Pueblo, CO. They’re planning to run two days worth of clinics for middle school kids as part of the school’s gym classes. This set of clinics will reach about 500 kids, many of whom had never heard of the Summit or touched a disc before. While most AUDL players are focusing on tryouts or early season practices at that time of year, a growing subset of teams are investing in youth development and leaning on their star players to coach the next generation of players and fans both over the summer and into the offseason.
The AUDL’s outreach efforts have grown immensely over the past half decade. “I think the first year ,I played on the team, and I was also kind of managing this team. I felt like we should get some youth camps going, so we tried running a youth camp in the summer,” Chicago Union owner CJ O’Brien said. “And we went through the whole normal process that you might expect thinking about running a youth camp, which is we rented a field, we got insurance, we figured out the time that it was going to be. We tried to pick a location that was going to be somewhat central to people. And then we did our best to market the heck out of it on our social media channels, which really was only reaching our fans. And the result of that was… something like nine kids signed up.”
A lot has changed since then. In 2021, the AUDL and its teams collectively interacted with about 4,000 kids at camps and clinics across the country. In 2022 that number ballooned to 8,000. Matt Smith, the AUDL’s Director of Youth Engagement and Player Relations and a star on the Atlanta Hustle, shared that the goal is to get to 50,000 kids by 2025. “I am really happy and proud to say that as a league, we are getting in front of more and more kids and introducing the game to more and more kids,” Smith said.
For the Love of the Game
While ultimate has grown a lot as a sport since its inception in a New Jersey parking lot back in 1968, it still lags behind America’s legacy sports in overall participation and recognition. While one might think that a professional league would be focused mainly on its players and games, the AUDL has taken an interest in recent seasons to focus on youth and help grow the sport as a whole.
“At the league level, we are actually very focused on spreading the game of ultimate,” Smith said. “Our intent is not to try and, you know, get blood out of a stone by just continuing to market towards all the YCC kids in each city.” Across the league, teams are partnering with their local Parks and Recreation Departments to run and advertise summer camps, putting on clinics in schools, and hosting learn-to-play events all in the name of getting more kids touching frisbees.
The players and team staff who sign up to do this outreach work recognize that there are more factors at play, but many are simply looking to help popularize ultimate to the masses. “First and foremost, I genuinely love this sport,” Philadelphia’s Brandon Pastor said. “And I want everyone to love it as well. So that’s like a big reason why I go and I do all these camps, because I think that this sport is a little different than all the other ones.” Each spring and summer, Pastor takes about six weeks off of work to run camps and clinics for the Phoenix all over the greater Philadelphia area, sharing his love of the sport to thousands of kids and far exceeding the five hours of coaching each Phoenix player is expected to contribute.
Ronnie Goff1 runs the youth camps for the Chicago Union. For her, spreading the game is important, but it’s just as important to create a space for kids to easily play sports at all. “It’s well known that sports is a great avenue for kids to have a sense of belonging to work on something that’s bigger than themselves to be connected,” Goff said. “It’s always been that way for sports. And if you watch the news at all, you’re probably aware that there is a huge concern coming out of the pandemic about the mental health of young people, that the incidence of mental health problems has gone up tremendously. So, you know, again, it kind of feels natural for me that the response then is that we got to get more kids outdoors playing, we got to get more kids being a part of something exciting.”
One thing that the AUDL makes easy is removing barriers and start-up costs. “With USAU,” O’Brien said, “it’s difficult to get kids playing for the first time because they need to sign up for a membership. [This is an] easy entry point into the sport without jumping through hoops.”
Many of the teams that run youth programming partner with their local Parks and Recreation Department (or Park Districts as they call them in Chicago) to advertise to kids outside of the ultimate bubble. In many cities, local parks run all sorts of summer programs for kids including bigger sports like basketball or soccer. Many teams have taken advantage of the free marketing parks departments can offer simply by listing their name next to the more popular sports’ camps.
“You have to build this phase of getting outside of the current ultimate community,” Smith said, “and especially in youth ultimate that has traditionally been, you know, wealthy, suburban, private schools. And we think the partnership is really the place to meet different kinds of kids to get in front of a different demographic and to introduce the game of ultimate.”
“I would say that these Park District camps are really our way to reach the kids that maybe aren’t already playing ultimate and maybe not playing any sports at all,” Goff said. “So we are really trying to bring in new kids. And I think last year we had about 325 kids at that park district level. This year we think we could be at 450. We’re working with 29 park districts this summer for 42 camps.”
The goal in Chicago, and potentially more cities if this model proves successful, is eventually to have the Park Districts run some of their own programming in existing ultimate-knowledgeable neighborhoods so the Union can focus on growth areas in other parts of the city. “Park districts already run soccer leagues, and they already run basketball leagues, and they do this by themselves,” O’Brien relates. “And if they could run an ultimate league by themselves, they would, but they can’t do it without us, without our connection to the community, without our knowledge of the rules of the sport and how to coach the sport, and everything else. So our goal would be to take a community, like Evanston, where they had sold out camps and wait listed summer camps and start a league there, get them up and running until it is self-sustaining. And at some point, Evanston Park District is going to say, hey, we don’t need you anymore. We’re going to run our own Ultimate Frisbee League, just like we run soccer leagues and just like we run basketball leagues, and now we’re going to run our own for ultimate. And then we will move on and try to find a new community where we can start that up. But the people who benefit the most from this are those other organizing bodies, because now they have high school teams, and now they have other kids to participate in their programming.”
In that sense, investing so much time, energy, and resources in growing the game has altruistic benefits not just for the Union or the AUDL but for the sport of ultimate and its existing institutions as a whole. However, the league and its teams realize that the more people there are who know about and play ultimate, the more customers they could have at their games and events. “We really think that getting in front of new kids is a really important part of the sustainability of our business and of the sport in general,” Smith said.
“[We’re] just trying to grow the sport in the state, in the country,” Colorado’s Alex Atkins said. “Which, you know, along the road, could have the potential of just making the sport more popular, making the league more popular. And like, that’s where I think you’ll really see the big gains in terms of popularity, having more money in the sport, and those types of things.”
Show Us The Money
Ultimate is far from the only sport to turn to youth camps and clinics as a revenue driver. Most MLB, NBA, WNBA, NHL, NFL, and NWSL teams offer them as well. However, most teams in those leagues are earning significant revenue from hosting games and merchandise sales; they are offering camps as an investment in their community to keep fans coming to their games. Most AUDL teams are not yet able to turn a profit from the gameday experience and the added revenue from summer camps and clinics helps to keep the doors open in addition to building out a wider fan base.
“It’s very rare for the profitable thing and the right thing to do to be the same thing,” Smith said. “You are often forced to make compromises there. And I bet a lot of people do in their everyday jobs for stuff. But you know, I think in the youth ultimate space, it’s one of the few places where it is true. And as long as you’re not price gouging or doing it sort of dishonest business, spreading the game of ultimate is the right thing to do for the game. And it is also the profitable thing to do.”
Lest you think the rise in youth programming is something of a money grab for a league that is earning more revenue each year but still is not entirely financially sustainable, it’s certainly not. “We’re leaving money on the table,” Smith said, “in part to help spread the game of ultimate. And is that because we want more folks playing from everywhere, because we think this game is inclusive and awesome, and offers a lot to a lot of different people, for sure. Is that also because we would like more fans to attend our games? And we know that we need more fans at our games for this to become a sustainable thing? Yeah, that’s 100% a part of it as well.”
The cost for camps and clinics run by AUDL teams and the league varies of course, but most are in line with what other professional teams in their area charge in order to remain competitive in the youth engagement marketplace. Many teams cut their own costs by outsourcing field and administrative costs to their local Parks and Recreation Department and asking (or requiring) that their players volunteer their time as coaches2. “Honestly,” Pastor said, “it’s like so obvious to me when you see a kid in the stands that you just taught that week, and they’re just like so excited to see you and I think that alone should make people want to go and do these things.”
On The Ground
For the first time this year, the AUDL is hosting a national academy from June 25-30, 2023.. While the league had put on learn to play clinics at marquee events like Championship Weekend and the All Star Game, this is their multi-part event and represents their first significant foray into the work that their teams have been building over the past few years.
As of March 29, the camp had 30 campers signed up and a number of high level athletes as counselors and coaches. Jeff Babbitt and Jordan Kerr will be joined by the WUL’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Kendra Miller, while Smith will direct the camp. Unlike the outreach activities that most teams are doing, this camp is aimed at campers who have already played before and are looking for elite coaching. The camp is open to campers of all genders and can hold up to 50 campers total.
The AUDL is partnering with Davenport University as the host. Davenport recently announced the creation of varsity men’s and women’s ultimate teams with athletic scholarships available for chosen players. The school’s commitment to ultimate played a big role in landing the AUDL as a partner. “Putting money into ultimate in the form of athletic scholarships is actually an inclusivity issue,” Smith said. “And it’s something that we want to promote and start, you know, opening opportunities and opening doors for different types of players through the sport of ultimate.” Campers will spend time in the film and weight rooms on campus, as well as on the ultimate field. Registration is still open for interested campers aged 15-18.
For potential players who are less experienced or not quite old enough to attend the AUDL National Academy, most teams are offering summer programming. Each team will be slightly different as they connect to what holes need to be filled in their city or region. Every single team interviewed for this piece mentioned their desire to work with their local disc organization and YCC teams to differentiate their programming from what is already offered. With the goal to grow the sport to new players, areas, and audiences, most AUDL teams are not interested in simply replicating the work that ultimate organizers have been doing for decades. For example, the Union are placing much of their programming in areas of the city that have little to no ultimate at all. “We’re trying to build on our anchor sites, and then bolster the areas that have shown some traction but haven’t quite had enough to run a camp in the past,” O’Brien said. “And we are again, being very intentional about trying to make sure that there are opportunities to play in the south suburbs of Chicago where there aren’t really many or any opportunities to play today.”
Many teams also work with their local parks and recreation department because of the built-in advantages they can provide including priority field reservation, event insurance, and free advertising and promotion. “It’s really good for advertising,” Pastor said. “It’s basically: right next to their soccer and baseball clinic is the frisbee clinic so they can just say, ‘I’ve already signed my son up for, you know, for two of these like let’s let’s get him a frisbee one too so they don’t have to play soccer all summer.’ I think it’s really helpful.”
A few teams have unique programs beyond a standard camp or clinic. The Atlanta Hustle have a program in which high school teams can request a Hustle player to come to one of their practices. The Carolina Flyers have an academy team that competes at local college events (and defeats some good college teams!). In partnership with their local disc organization, BADA, the Oakland Spiders run an annual “Rising Stars” showcase game for local up-and-coming girls, women, non-binary and gender expansive players.3 The Union hire local college students as coaches, rather than relying just on their own players, which has a pleasant side effect of bringing yet another demographic into the AUDL mix.
The Philadelphia Phoenix built in a clause to their standard player contract that each player is responsible for five hours of community outreach each season, a condition many players accomplish by coaching alongside Pastor and James Pollard, whose flexible job allows him to attend most of the Phoenix’s clinics alongside Pastor. “We built in the contract that all of our players have to do five hours of community service or giving back,” said General Manager Matt Shade. “So we put that emphasis on there. And, you know, that’s through the course of their contract. So from January to September.” The Phoenix also offer year-round programming, notably offering clinics and day camps on school holidays such as Memorial Day, and Election Day.
The Chicago Union are looking at bolstering their offseason programming as well, including potentially starting a middle school ultimate league–something that Illinois Ultimate and Ultimate Chicago do not offer. “We’re not trying to take away from what anyone is doing,” O’Brien said. “We’re just trying to connect these kids with a next opportunity to play because this loop of a kid comes into one of our camps, loves ultimate, and doesn’t have another opportunity to play until next summer, is causing kids to go and end up spending their time playing other sports. And we have to retain their attention.”
But What About…
Since its inception, the AUDL has faced criticism for offering playing opportunities primarily to men rather than more equally to all genders. Over the years various AUDL teams have taken steps at pushing the league as a whole towards gender equity, but the reality remains that the AUDL is a men’s ultimate league. As far as its youth outreach though, the AUDL and its teams work to create playing opportunities for players of all genders. “At the youth level,” Smith said, “kind of regardless of gender, we feel that we can provide high quality ultimate training.”
With the PUL and WUL now in full swing, there is a professional future that girls and non-binary athletes attending AUDL camps and clinics can attain. While there is no formal partnership between the AUDL and those leagues, two WUL athletes are coaching at the AUDL National Academy this summer and a few PUL athletes are former AUDL players.
In 2019, the AUDL created the AUDL Inclusion Initiative, a group of players, coaches, and owners who work to create equity initiatives in the league. One of those initiatives now is a commitment to highlighting the women in the league, showcasing the AUDL as a progressive league compared to many men’s sports leagues. “A focus of AUDL Inclusion Initiative,” Smith said, “is to be a welcoming place for women in the industry of sports. The sports industry is a very male dominated place…in terms of management and ownership. Having women involved in the business side of our league, we’re actually decently far in front of a lot of the other men’s leagues around. That’s something that we want to continue to build on…the sports world sees women who are coaches and owners, and physicians who are mostly women. The sports world sees that as super progressive.”
For players of all genders, the ultimate that they will play at pickup, on their school teams, or on a youth club team is different from the AUDL game that features a bigger field, referees, a running clock, double teams, and a few other rule modifications. The AUDL and its teams are not worried that the AUDL brand of ultimate will take over, and they make sure that the skills and lessons they are teaching are applicable to the kind of ultimate kids are likely to play.
“We actually teach more towards what kids will find if they go and play club and leagues and like USAU leagues,” Smith said. “That’s what we teach at the youth level. I’m not concerned with that. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. And I don’t think that’ll stop kids from playing pro when they turn 18. I just want to get kids throwing a disc, learning the game, and you know, they can make the decision for themselves where they want to take their careers as you develop.”
Smith emphasized that both the AUDL National Academy and the local team camps and clinics are designed for any player who wants to work hard and improve their skills. Besides, ultimate isn’t the only sport that modifies the rules for the professional level. “Basketball players play on a small hoop as little kids, so youth can be different–there’s no one way to teach ultimate. Our goal is to get to as many kids as possible and let them sort out what they think about the rules.”
Regardless of the realities on the ground that the AUDL and its teams programs are more inclusive and accessible than they may appear on the surface, some organizations are still wary of working with the AUDL. “There’s a lot of pressure from people here,” Atkins said, “loud voices in the Colorado ultimate community who like to not work with the Summit, I suppose. Which to me is somewhat upsetting, because like I said, my goal is to just grow ultimate. So, I just want to talk to people about the best ways to grow the sport–whatever that may look like–whether we’re doing it together like it’s like a co-branding thing. But, when you refuse, when you don’t want to go into it together then it kind of leaves them no choice…I just feel like if there were more discussions, more conversations, we could figure out how to compromise.”
In some aspects, the fear of the unknown may hinder the kind of cooperation that AUDL teams have been able to achieve with their local Parks and Recreation departments from translating to existing ultimate organizations. Ultimate as organized sport has looked more or less the same for decades, with volunteer-run non-profit organizations dominating the organizing apparatus. Only recently the AUDL, PUL, and WUL came along to upend that model for the elite athlete. Their collective hope for a future as sustainable businesses can feel like a threat to the existing non-profits who currently market to much of the same crowd despite successful models of professional league-governing body relationships in other sports. “I honestly think,” Atkins said, “too many of these organizations are trying to fight the fact that maybe professional Ultimate is going to be a thing.”
What Might the Future Hold?
With Smith’s goal to reach 50,000 kids in 2025 looming, the league has a lot of capacity-building to do. In addition to the camps and clinics that teams are running locally and the AUDL National Academy, the league is charting out new growth plans. One likely next step is to build out a digital training space including skill-building instructional videos. The league is also likely to expand its offerings in smaller communities without AUDL teams and limited existing ultimate infrastructure. One such target is Des Moines, Iowa.
Zooming out, the plan is not to just re-create the existing USA Ultimate and affiliate system. The AUDL isn’t looking for volunteers to run leagues and doesn’t have plans to create an academy league similar to what MLS has. Instead teams like the Carolina Flyers who have elite youth teams might continue to enter them in USA Ultimate competition.
With no plans to form a league-wide academy system, many teams would be thrilled if ultimate became a varsity sport at the high school level4. For some individuals like O’Brien and Atkins, that outcome continues to motivate them to provide playing opportunities for youth. “One of my goals is to see ultimate become a high school varsity sport,” O’Brien said. “That is the reason why I ran for the IYU [Illinois Youth Ultimate] board seat in the first place, because I wanted to see and have worked with and given a presentation to the IHSA [Illinois High School Association] about the current state of ultimate in the state of Illinois. I have used USAU membership data, all the way down to participation trends in the state of Illinois to show the growth of Illinois ultimate in our state.”
O’Brien learned that there is a minimum number of teams required for the IHSA, the regulatory organization for high school sports in the state of Illinois, to consider ultimate. It’s his goal to create enough demand from the youth player base to help new teams form.
One limiting factor: it takes a lot of infrastructure to create new teams. Mostly, new teams need good and committed coaching .“I would say probably the biggest challenge and the biggest barrier for other teams starting this is finding coaches,” O’Brien said. For a sport that typically relies on volunteers for those roles, creating dozens of new teams is a big ask. “One of the difficult things with youth programming now is the reliance on volunteer work,” Smith said. “I’ve been a part of AFDC juniors for years, and it’s gone up and down based on just having staff available or just having a volunteer who’s really good. And then they quit, and then all the institutional knowledge is lost, and then it’s just sort of reset and, you know, certain places and certain organizations have been able to do that really well.”
“Ultimate is so volunteer-based,” Atkins said. “As someone who wants to do this, and really enjoys doing it, I can’t do it if I’m not making money.” It might not feel like a lot of money to the players who are making less than three figures per game, but the AUDL is putting significant funding into the sport as a whole, which is intended to grow interest in the game at the grassroots level. That might also result in more paying customers, fans, players, and sponsorship for the league. It might also end up with a more accessible version of the sport given the financing possibilities with varsity status in high schools, ease of access to Parks and Recreation programming, and professional style play.
At the end of the day, the AUDL wants to showcase ultimate to the masses. The AUDL already has a captive audience in the existing ultimate community5. Now, just over a decade into the league’s existence, it’s had enough success to foresee a future as a sustainable enterprise; the AUDL can start planning to grow into something that attracts the kind of mainstream attention that it dreamed of back in 2012 when the league booked an 82,600 seat stadium for the championship game.
For two players sitting in the car on the drive down to Pueblo, Colorado for a middle school youth clinic, it might not seem like a big deal. When you multiply that by the 50,000+ kids the AUDL aims to impact in the next several years, players, teams, and the league as a whole developing robust programming to reach new communities and get more kids playing ultimate could change the sport as we know it.
Yes, Union star Nate Goff’s mom ↩
To be clear, most teams do pay their coaches for their time. However, some fill their roster of coaches with volunteers. ↩
A previous version of this article only listed the Oakland Spiders as organizers of the Rising Stars showcase. In fact, the Spiders and BADA are equal partners in the event, which BADA originally founded. Additionally, the event promotes gender equity through the showcase of girls, women, non-binary and gender expansive athletes, a detail that was left out of the original version of this article. ↩
Ultimate is a varsity sport in the state of Vermont and is treated as a varsity sport at a handful of private schools around the country, but it is not recognized as a varsity sport in most cities, even those with robust high school ultimate leagues ↩
at least the large chunk of it that hasn’t sworn off the league or the concept of professional ultimate completely ↩