Ultiworld

An inside look at the rise and fall of Major League Ultimate, from its promising launch through its abrupt suspension.
BY NATHAN JESSON

This is the sport. This is the time. This is ultimate.

With this tag line — and a series of slick promotional videos — Major League Ultimate (MLU) burst onto the scene in November 2012 with a clear message: this league is for real and serious ultimate fans should follow it.

MLU promo 2

It was everything that the American Ultimate Disc League wasn’t. Every piece of news released about the MLU that first offseason separated it. There was the brand. The MLU was a better sounding name for an ultimate league, it produced high quality videos, and had a modern looking website. The league had eight franchises, all located on the coasts with well established elite club teams to draw talent from. And draw talent the league did, with many of the best players in the country signing up to play.

Everything about the MLU exuded professionalism. And expectations.

The MLU was built on the idea that ultimate was the next big sport. This was not a league designed to exist and move along as a niche sport that drew 500-1,000 fans a game. This was supposed to become something bigger. Especially in its early days, the MLU was not shy about discussing its expected growth.

Yet the league didn’t meet those outsized expectations. After perennially failing to reach its goals, the MLU closed up shop for good in December 2016. When the announcement broke, few outside the MLU found it surprising. But there was a time when it seemed like not only would the MLU outlive the AUDL, it could become something much bigger.

The Beginning

Shortly after the MLU was announced in October 2012 the league got moving. Teams were announced. Staff was hired. Players and coaches signed on. So much happened so quickly, in fact, that the league ended up putting too much on its plate. Initially, the MLU was slated to be a ten team league, with markets in New Jersey and San Jose along with the original eight announced. A Midwest division was put on the schedule, slated to come into being in 2014, with teams in Minneapolis, Toronto, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Denver. Those teams never came to be.

“We were thinking about the wrong things at the wrong time,” according to Jeff Snader, who was Commissioner of the MLU from 2013-2015. “From a sports perspective we wanted to expand and add more teams, even though financially and logistically, it was a silly idea.”

Those ten teams were supposed to operate on a $1.25 million budget. The MLU ended up with eight teams and a budget just over $600,000 in that first year. The concept of the league was only created in September 2012, and the league opened the following April. It was quite the turnaround. Snader thought it could have waited another year. “I wish we would have said ‘It’s going to take a whole lot more money’ and waited until we raised that money,” he said.

“We were thinking about the wrong things at the wrong time.”Jeff Snader

Waiting another year to open the league would have probably meant a bigger budget, a smoother season, and better preparation, but the drawbacks might have been even more significant. The idea of waiting a season when the AUDL was starting to right its ship could have accelerated that league’s growth.

When the MLU opened in 2013, it had a near monopoly on the elite men’s talent in every city it was going head-to-head against the AUDL. Delaying the start time might have meant that elite talent came into the semi-pro ultimate scene with the AUDL rather than the MLU, in a year that was not nearly as scandal fraught as the inaugural 2012 AUDL season. As it was, many of the best players that played in the AUDL in 2012 shifted to the MLU in 2013.

One of those players was Brandon Malecek, who played for the Rhode Island Rampage in the AUDL before joining the MLU with the Boston Whitecaps in 2013. To him, the contrast between the leagues was clear from the start.

“The Whitecaps had all their ducks in a row,” he said. “They knew exactly how they were going to do tryouts. They had all the logistics sorted out prior.”

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