Smart Takes On The USAU Semi-Pro Position

I’ve received a lot of smart emails about USA Ultimate’s position on the semi-pro leagues. There are two in particular that I want to share: one from Ultiworld’s Ian Toner, the other from the parent of a current college player.

Here’s Toner:

Some of the complaints about USA Ultimate’s semi-pro statement seem to be missing the mark. It’s great that we’re a concerned and educated membership base, and we should be holding our representatives accountable, but we need to be reasonable and can’t put forth double standards. We cannot criticize Boulder for not saying enough one week and then saying too much the next. It’s also clear that USAU’s justification for avoiding partnership is not a crazy reactionary move. Rather, it’s based on central tenets of the organization’s mission statement and strategic growth plan.

(MLU and the AUDL have provided awesome products, themselves. I’ve streamed my friends’ AUDL games, and I had signed with an AUDL team before I moved to Colorado. The MLU ran a really fun tryout process, and I’ve loved watching their games online and in person. With the exception of MLU’s recent creative (disrespectful) accounting/podcasting/tweeting, I supported that group without reservation. I still like that Snader and company are pushing the visibility envelope for the sport’s sake.)

If you only want to read a slice this piece, focus on the next two paragraphs for the crux of my argument.

USAU’s concerns about and reasoning for rejecting the semi-pro partnership and are rooted in a clearly defined mission statement and strategic plan — not in a pissing match or arbitrary fight. If you’re not on board with gender equity or self-officiating (two central parts of USAU’s qualms with the semi-pro leagues, related to USAU’s mission statement), you should know that those are ultimate’s most appealing factors in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee. Yes: believe it or not, gender equity and self officiating elements give ultimate a leg up on other Olympic hopefuls.

It would be (almost) hypocritical for USAU to tell the IOC and USOC all about its support for gender equity and self-officiating…and then formally partner with organizations that don’t go as far to uphold or promote those factors. Supporting leagues that don’t uphold the same elements could raise questions about USAU’s commitment to the principles that set it apart today.

Yes, the AUDL has sponsored female players, and MLU welcomed women at tryouts, but they’re not focusing swaths of resources on developing a women’s league in the near term. Many will decry that practice, but as for-profit businesses, the AUDL and MLU are entitled to maintain focus on their flagship (men’s) divisions. Unfortunately, that focus just isn’t in line with the trajectory that USAU, WFDF, and the IOC are on right now. USAU’s arguments are not fickle, convenient, or self-serving — they’re in accordance with USAU’s expanding initiatives and guiding principles.

If there’s anything to criticize or disagree with as a result of the 
semi-pro statement, I really think you’d have to focus on the mission 
statement or the growth plan, not the organization that’s sticking to 
its mission and trying to achieve its predetermined goals. Even then, 
the mission and plan have produced tangible benefits for the membership. Boulder has made notable progress in the last year (ESPN streaming, provisional IOC recognition, a new competitive structure (granted, that some of us might dislike)) while working towards new goals: helping WFDF move beyond provisional IOC recognition, strengthening ties with the USOC, and expanding youth camps and opportunities, among other initiatives.

At the end of the day, I can see two primary responses to this argument: (1) stop being such a USAU homer; and (2) semi-pro partnership does not preclude/should not be subjugated in favor of improving IOC relations and recognition. Both are reasonable responses, but the IOC path simply appears to mesh best with USAU’s mission statement and strategic growth plan.

An aside: If you don’t agree that seeing ultimate in the Olympics is a worthy end goal, then we’d need to have a separate discussion. To me, it seems like a stepping stone to an exponential increase in growth, exposure, and legitimacy.

And here is an email from the father of a current college player who asked not to be identified by name:

Prior to my son entering college, I did not know what Ultimate was. I thought it was frisbee golf. I went to tournaments, and did not understand any of the rules. I have gotten beyond that, but if you think that the ultimate fan that is not a parent will quickly learn the rules, you are mistaken. I thought that I could conceptualize the game as similar to basketball but … no picks … I thought football, but no traveling, and myriad other differences.

Now, lets assume that the average fan is smarter than I (not an unreasonable assumption). Here is what you get at high level games:

A. Very fast play – which is great

B. High quality play – which is great

C. Frequent calls followed by long discussions. The further you are into the tournament, the more you just KNOW that there will be more calls (each throw becomes more important). And I can virtually assure you that almost every call will be challenged. Result: 3-5 minutes of discussion, followed by the players not agreeing, resulting in a do-over (not the technical term).

I am all for spirit of the game. And I believe it applies. But let’s face it, when in doubt, I am going to make the call that favors my team.

From a PLAYER perspective, self-officiating makes a ton of sense. But from a fan perspective, it makes the game tedious. The players are arguing over a call (which you do not hear); the players are arguing over a rule (but you do not know which one), and then the disc goes back.

From a purely FAN perspective, this makes the game all but unwatchable.

Having said that, I believe that the pro game has rules that I do not necessarily like, which are different than rules for USAU. But that does not make it a conceptually different sport. Think basketball. There is a longer three point shot, a much shorter shot clock, quarters instead of halves, and you cannot really play a zone defense. Does that make the two sports incompatible? Absolutely not! Nor does it diminish the college or high school basketball version of the sport.

I think the same is true with ultimate.

Most frustrating from an outsider perspective is this: There is a limited window for everything. There are limited resources. And this infighting among the organizations (think NexGen) causes unnecessary angst and confusion. If these organizations cannot understand that they are using different methods to grow the sport, then the organizations (USAU as well as the semi pro leagues) need to re-evaluate their leadership.

To the extent that the semi pro league increases exposure of ultimate: that is a good thing. To the extent that USAU develops their youth and competitive programs: that is good for the sport, as well as for the pro leagues.

The NBA and the NCAA do not take actions with the intent of undermining the other. And in those cases, there is real money that would be an incentive to do everything possible to get the biggest piece of a very lucrative pie for their own organization. But they seem to understand that mutual support and cooperation is good for the sport AND for both the developmental leagues, college leagues, and professional leagues.

Sorry for such a disjointed email. But I wanted you to hear from someone who supports ultimate (does not play), watches ultimate (and is starting to understand, after 4 years), and wants to see it thrive.


  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

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

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