Can you operate a successful professional sports league for a niche sport when some of your biggest fans aren't completely on board with the plan? The American Ultimate Disc League, along with some Ohio State grads, think they can make it work.
Consider the following hypothetical scenario: Suppose there was no NFL, and college football remained a somewhat niche sport. Some enterprising businessmen decide to launch a professional football league, but with slightly different rules, say, akin to the CFL. After their first season, a few owners grow frustrated, and set up a spin off professional league, operating mainly on the coasts, while the original league continues to operate mostly from the midwest. Finally, let's pretend that a chunk of college football players and fans oppose the idea of professional football on principal, and refuse to participate in or support the ventures.
Sounds like a tough gig, no?
That's pretty similar to the situation of the AUDL, or the American Ultimate Disc League, as it tries to bring ultimate frisbee into the mainstream.
For those unfamiliar with the gist of the sport, ultimate frisbee, or just ultimate, borrows principles from soccer and football. Teams score by advancing the Frisbee (or as it's commonly called, the 'Disc", since Frisbee is actually trademarked) into the end zone by passing it to each other. Once caught, the player cannot run with the Disc, keeping a pivot like you might in basketball. Possession changes after every incomplete pass. The result is a free-flowing game where players are constantly running and cutting to get an advantage, that looks a little like this:
Ultimate isn't exactly new. The first intercollegiate contest, Rutgers vs. Princeton (sound familiar?), took place back in 1972, and various college and club level competition popped up shortly thereafter. An organization which eventually became USA Ultimate was formed in 1979 to become the sport's governing body in the United States, which standardized rules, and provided the framework for college, youth, and club level competition. What it didn't do was pave the way for a professional league.
Until last year, when the American Ultimate Disc League rounded up owners in eight cities, including one in Columbus, and decided the world was ready for professional ultimate.
The first season certainly gave the AUDL some reason to be optimistic . Teams in Indianapolis and Philadelphia drew players from highly successful club teams and played in front over 1000 fans a night. The league also helped establish sponsorship deals and laid the difficult logistical and organizational groundwork for a successful league.
But like many young professional sports leagues, there were significant struggles as well. Individual teams struggled with capitalization, and later in the year, a few owners in the Northeast fought the league over expansion plans and territory rights. Fan support and attendance were not strong throughout the entire league, and was most dramatically displayed with the league curiously decided to play their first championship game at the Pontiac Silverdome, the former home of the Detroit Lions. The league expected thousands of fans, but only around 300 showed up in the cavernous space. At the end of the season, five of the eight teams, from the Columbus franchise that played at Westerville Central, to arguably the most successful franchise, the Philadelphia Spinners, either folded or decided to join a new, rival ultimate league, Major League Ultimate. Another, the Bluegrass Revolution of Kentucky, relocated to Cincinnati. That sequence of events would be enough to sink a lesser league.
The AUDL didn't fold, though. They brought in a new commissioner, Steve Gordon, to replace the founding one, Josh Moore, and help firm up the league's books and establish a revenue sharing system. The league expanded to 12 cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast, making sure to establish teams in strong ultimate cities like Madison, Chicago, Minneapolis and New York. Gordon was bullish on this season's prospects, saying that a culture for teams to reap the benefits of their hard work directly has been established.
With new owners, new teams, new players (the Chicago Wildfire sports two Ohio State ultimate alumni, Craig Poeppelman and Geoff Serednesky) and new ways to market the game, the AUDL had reason to be excited for the start of the season. When the Chicago Wildfire and the Madison Radicals, two teams projected to be at the top of the league, tussled to kick off Chicago's home slate, I wanted to make sure I got a chance to see what professional ultimate was all about.
The Chicago Wildfire play their home games at Lane Stadium at Lane Tech High School, a campus that dwarfs some liberal arts colleges in size and is referred to some affectionately as "Hogwarts". Recently remodeled, the stadium is surrounded by a concrete wall, obscuring the view from street level and creating the effect of walking into a "real stadium". Walking inside, all the trappings of a professional sporting event were in place; numerous staffers in brand new Wildfire polos, a collection of press and field passes on special Wildfire lanyards were right by the ticket counter, and the back endzone was full of merchandise tents, where you could buy food, sign up to win free tickets in a contest, or even buy real, professional ultimate jerseys at real, professional sport prices (an authentic Wildfire jersey will set you back over 70 bucks).
Even though temperatures would eventually plummet to around freezing, the Wildfire attracted a loud, boisterous crowd that came close to filling out one half of the bleachers, around 860 people. This had to be promising, given that the league had matches where less than 50 people showed up last season. The crowd brought signs, hats, and cheered loud enough that when I stepped out of the stadium for a few minutes at halftime, I could easily hear them from the street as they yelled for the halftime high school ultimate match.
This was a smart and funny crowd – when pockets would break out into a "When I say, 'Wild', you say 'Fire!' 'WILD!' 'FIRE!' 'WILD!' 'FIRE!'" chant, some other guy would invariably say something like "you can't just yell 'FIRE!' in a public place, you guys..." Lots of fans had some sort of connection to one of the players; maybe they were college friends, or met them in a pick up game or summer league tournament, or maybe just knew them from club play.
A small group of fans had traveled all the way from Madison, even though they didn't personally know any of the players. Most were longtime veterans of the game. One, who went by "Ace", was a player on the first University of Wisconsin squad to qualify for nationals, more than two decades ago, while another had played for a high level German club team called "The Frizzley Bears". Those who didn't personally know someone had typically played organized ultimate at some level before, which led to bits of confusion about some of the new rules.
The AUDL had planned for this, however. Every fan who walked through the gate was given a brochure, defining certain ultimate terms (the midpoint of the field and 20 yards forward from the defending endzone is called a "brick", for example), and explaining how various AUDL rules differed from commonly accepted club rules. Throughout the game, I saw fans pulling out their little pamphlets when somebody asked "wait, what's the stall count again?" (in the AUDL, it's 7 seconds; 10 for club) or "Madison is clearly double-teaming the thrower, why isn't that a violation?" (double teams are legal in the AUDL). These were sort of nuances you might wonder about if you were watching an Arena Football League game on television and were confused as to why a missed field goal was suddenly a live ball once it hit the net. On TV, there is some sort of color commentator to help explain those little differences. In person, and with the sound from the PA sometimes swallowed up in the night, it can be a bit trickier.
The match combined sporadic bursts of activity and athleticism with periods of slowness. In part because of the transitions after points (teams "pull" after every point, which is basically the ultimate equivalent of a football kickoff), and from teams occasionally dropping into zone defense schemes to force players to make multiple short throws instead of longer ones, thus their own saving energy and increasing the chances that the opposition would make a mistake. I heard a few fans sigh about this, clamoring for more "hucks". A "huck" is a deep throw, and occasionally, a player would slip the coverage, kick into a sprint, and finish a huge play to the cheers of the crowd. A well executed huck is awesome for a spectator, for the same reason that college football fans love "4 verts" so much. Chicks dig the long "ball".
The most controversial rule change was the idea of adding referees. Not only do high level clubs or the college game not use refs, but it has become a point of pride in the ultimate community, with many claiming that putting the decision making powers in the hands of professional ref goes against the very spirit of ultimate. The club game may use a non-player "observer" to help adjudicate disputed calls, but officiating is nearly completely self-policed. Bringing refs into the equation, or even having a professional league at all, risks inviting a negative "win at all costs" mentality into the sport, according to some. Ben Van Heuvelen spelled out some of this concerns, and his reasons for not wanting to support professional leagues, in an article he wrote for ultimate magazine Skyd. This story, published on March 11, 2013, has over 5000 Likes on Facebook:
There will be a price to pay. What happens at the highest level of our sport has an enormous ripple effect throughout the world of ultimate. High school and college teams look to us – the best players and coaches in the game – and they learn new defenses, new footwork drills, new leadership techniques. They want to know what it takes and what it means to be a winner in ultimate, and we set the gold standard. If we come unhitched from our north star, our sport will change in subtle and pervasive ways. We'll become accustomed to pulling at jerseys in the stack when the ref isn't watching; more and more, we'll play according to what we can get away with rather than what's fair. We might not see it this year or next, but a decade from now, a high school team will gather for dinner after a tournament, and they’ll talk about how much the other team sucked, and how much the ref sucked for blowing those calls – and on the edges of that conversation, a 14-year-old kid will give up on sports.
AUDL Commissioner Gordon sympathizes with concerns about officiating, even saying that he doesn't support adding refs at the high school or college game. "I believe in and embrace the purity of ultimate", said Gordon, "but a professional league has to have refs. Doing so brings attention to the game from people who wouldn't see it otherwise", adding that a lack of officiating could present a credibility problem for the sport with the general public.
Gordon adds, "We also hope to get to the point where we can pay players quite a bit more money, and adding a referee can keep some of those issues from impacting the game. It isn't an issue now, but it might be a few years down the road."
Even though they're technically professionals, most AUDL players aren't in it for the money. In addition to covering travel, food and lodging expenses, players typically only make between $50-$200 a game. Like in more established niche pro leagues, like that of lacrosse or arena football, ultimate athletes have other jobs. Serednesky works for a financial research consulting company, and said that many of his teammates at Ohio State went into engineering. Commissioner Gordon added, "it isn't really about the fifty or a hundred bucks players are getting, but it's the money that they aren't spending on travel to play." A high level club player wouldn't think twice about incurring expenses to make sure he can participate in the best matches.
Serednesky also believes that for the most part, self-officiating does work. "When you get to an elite level of play with clubs, you get to the point where you are going to be seeing the same players over and over again. You can develop a reputation for who is fair, who is a little dirty, who might try to take advantage of the rules. I don't want to say there are retaliatory calls or anything, but you don't want to develop that reputation."
Even with the idea of fair play and cooperation an ideal held sacred by ultimate players, sometimes, a highly competitive match can get a little out of hand. Serednesky recounted a particularly egregious example from the 2012 World Championship, in the 3rd place match between Team Canada and Team Japan.
"The two teams already had a language barrier, so they weren't communicating as well as teams normally might in play. Both sides were also very competitive, then things started to get a little chippy, and then they got out of hand."
What was some decidedly un-ultimate like play, led to collisions, flopping, taunting, and at least one insistence of what appears to be a straight up tackle (in particular, check out, the 1:48 mark, the 2:12 mark and 2:43). Japan won the match in spite of the physicality, and the event spawned a significant outcry in the ultimate community, eventually leading to a public apology from Team Canada. The risk of a little more jersey grabbing with officials may be real (especially in the beginning, as professional officials are still being trained), but conflict could occur in either system.
The questions over the long term business viability of professional ultimate are interesting, but perhaps best left to the sports business analysts of the world. The fundamental question isn't about expansion rights or the relative merits of the 7-second or 10-second stall counts, it's whether going to a professional ultimate is fun. Based on my personal experience taking in the Wildfire and Radicals's matchup, the answer would appear to not just be yes, but hell yes. But does that scale? And would average fans really want to spend their nights or weekends paying to see the highest level of the sport?
There aren't any LeBron James types playing in in the AUDL right now, but there is still a high caliber of athleticism in the game. Players need to combine the cardiovascular fitness of a soccer player (there is a lot of sprinting in ultimate) with the leaping ability to catch or defend in the air, plus the body control to finish in traffic and the awareness to stay inbounds. Late in the first quarter, a Wildfire player took off on a dead spring along the sidelines, jumped up while blanketed by another defender, grabbed the Disc in midair with his left hand as he was falling out of bounds, and then deftly dragged his right toes along the line to stay inbounds. The crowd erupted, and Ohio State's Devin Smith would have been proud. These displays of aerial acrobatics are exciting, difficult, and not especially unusual in ultimate at the highest levels.
As the sport develops, there isn't really a reason not to expect the level of play, and the caliber of athlete, to continue to improve. ESPN apparently saw enough interest in the sport to justify broadcasting the college and club championships on ESPN3. The high school players who attended the match were now being coached by professionals, had already been playing organized ultimate for years, and will have more competitive, tactical and technical experience when they decide to enter the college game than the generations before them.
There is a tangible sense of momentum behind the game, but even the AUDL's strongest advocates know they don't need the success of the league to validate themselves. The league's commissioner Steve Gordon described many in the ultimate community as "like a cult", and he wasn't speaking pejoratively. If you're in the ultimate community, you're really in it. That passion is what drives people to spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year on the best equipment, and to travel to the best tournaments, even if they'll be playing far from bright lights or crowds. It's what drives middle aged men in Wisconsin to drive 3 hours to Chicago to watch athletes they've never met. That love, plus the value system of ultimate, that pushes strong competitiveness with cooperation and conflict resolution, keeps them going.
Said Gordon, "this system is different from every other sport, and every kid used to get it years ago. This is the perfect value system that folks should be exposed to now."
If your sport can inspire all that, even without fancy sponsorships, or a shiny TV rights deal, you're doing something right. Whether a sustainable professional league can take root in that or not is what we'll all find out next.