The Big Payout: College Ultimate’s Road to Marketability

by | May 24, 2011, 10:34pm 30

Photo by Andrew Davis

Every year it seems as if Ultimate is on the verge of a breakthrough. If the game could just change a few rules, attract some sponsors and establish a fan base then Ultimate could finally earn respect from the mainstream.

This feeling is most fervent in the College Division, USA Ultimate’s largest, most high-profile and most active.

Last year at the College Championships in Madison, Wisconsin, the Ultimate Player’s Association—after thirty years as the UPA—re-branded itself as USA Ultimate with an effective visual campaign coordinated for the televised finals broadcast. It was no coincidence that the College Championships was chosen for the unveiling.

This year the college division is again at the forefront of change. The 2011 Championships in Boulder will mark the beginning of a significant college restructuring plan designed to broaden the sport’s appeal and match Ultimate with rival NCAA sports.

Will these new changes and the constant call for referees, sponsorship and fan-friendly games pay off?

To know where Ultimate is heading it helps to know where it came from. The push for referees, sponsorship and spectators has been part of the game for twenty years.

The College Game in the Mid-1990s

In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a tangible sense among the club division that Ultimate would break out. Tom “TK” Kennedy, UPA founder and leader of the Santa Barbara Condors, told me in an interview that players thought “Ultimate was just around the corner” when Coca-Cola helped sponsor the 1984 Santa Barbara Classic tournament. At that time most club teams were still college-oriented.

But ultimate never did break into the consciousness of the masses.

In the late 1980s city-based club teams like New York, New York sought to bring Ultimate mainstream by emphasizing the game’s competitiveness in television interviews and newspaper articles. New York tried its hardest to pummel opponents and permanently debunk the bohemian stereotype of “team Frisbee.”

NYNY's Kenny Dobyns

NYNY’s bid to bring Ultimate mainstream culminated in the early 1990s when José Cuervo sponsored a series of tournaments that featured new rules (a two-point line, for instance), prize money and heavy sponsorship from the tequila company. The Cuervo Series failed—for several reasons, not the least which was players’ independent streak and the sport’s lack of appeal to non-players— but where NYNY succeeded was in impressing young players that Ultimate wasn’t just a freaky 70s sport.

No one was more convinced than a group of college players in North Carolina.

ECU of 1994 (Note: Toad, in dreds, and Mike G stand beside each other in the upper left.)

Led primarily by Todd “Toad” Leber and Mike Gerics, the men’s and women’s college teams at UNCW and East Carolina began to vociferously hold competitors to a strict interpretation of certain rules that both justified and promoted their aggressive style of play. Their goal was to imitate NYNY by demolishing opponents and eviscerating anything “hippie”. With vigor the UNCW women captured College titles in 1992 and 1996, the UNCW men took home a Championship in 1993, and the ECU men won in 1994 and 1995. Few could argue against their success but many hated their disregard for the Spirit of the Game and aggressive style that seemed to rig games in their favor.

Gerics’ and Leber’s response to the charges—then as in now—was to call for the introduction of whistle-blowing referees. But throughout its history Ultimate has relied on the principles of fair play, self-policing and the Spirit of the Game for the enforcement of rules. Referees haven’t been in the picture.

This hitch between the Spirit of the Game and the call for referees—a call that has always resonated with college players—left the game at an impasse.

The Callahan Rules Come to College

Henry Callahan, the Callahan award's namesake.

Nowhere was the crisis more turbulent than in the Mid-Atlantic region where rivals at several powerhouse programs battled on and off the field with ECU and UNCW.

In the mid 1990s Charles Kerr, a booster for the North Carolina State Ultimate teams, began to think of new possibilities to promote and streamline the college game. In 1996 he founded a collegiate MVP award, dubbed the Callahan Award, which rewarded talent, success and a sense of fair play.

But Kerr wanted more and he desperately sought success for his NC State teams in the face of the blustery Wilmington-based crew. He was also keenly interested in promoting the game to the mainstream. As an entrepreneur in the burgeoning field of internet communications, Kerr struck a deal with Nortel Networks to provide $25,000 in sponsorship money to promote Ultimate, NC State and the “Nortel Series” of collegiate tournaments that defined the 1997-98 regular season: The Classic City Classic, Stanford Invite, College Easterns, and Yale Cup. The tournaments received free discs, local advertising and most importantly—new rules for the game.

The first of these tournaments was the Classic City Classic in Athens, Georgia, organized by UGA’s open player-captain Will Deaver. Deaver had already been looking for new rules to combat what he considered the unwatchable and disrespectful game of Ultimate common at the time. After Kerr responded to an email seeking new ideas the two hammered out a lengthy list of changes to Ultimate that were overdue in coming.

As it had been since its inception in 1968, Ultimate was largely unregulated. Gerics and Leber, however, had founded the National Ultimate Association in the late 1990s and demonstrated an NUA game at the 1997 Mid-Atlantic Open Club Tegionals that was highly regulated. The NUA game featured six referees empowered to make active calls and violations. Although the NUA never succeeded on a larger scale, the fact that the referees could keep the game moving and cut off lengthy arguments impressed Kerr.

When Kerr and Deaver discussed new rules for the CCC it was evident that having some type of referee would be necessary—both to avert bogus foul calls and to keep the game in motion.

“We were looking at two things,” explained Deaver, now the Managing Director of USA Ultimate, in a recent interview. “First, the sport is incredibly fun to watch when there’s action. So a lot of the new rules were designed to speed up the game, increase the action and appeal to spectators.”

“The second was that we wanted to cut out arguments from poor-spirited play and even discussions on calls that were good-natured and positive. We needed to streamline games whereas call-fests only prolonged them.”

Thus the new rules called for strict time limits between points (90 seconds) and restarting the disc after turnovers (10 seconds, or 20 seconds if out-of-bounds). Halftimes were 10 minutes on the clock. Penalties were enforced for infractions like out-of-bounds pulls and crossing the line on pulls. Games were assigned an overall time limit of one and a half hours and were to be played to 15 points. Unresolved foul calls were awarded to the defense to inspire a more exciting type of play. Catching an opponent’s pass in the end zone would be an instant “defensive goal”.

To keep all the new rules in place, Kerr trained a group of club players in Raleigh-Durham to be Observers—Ultimate’s form of referees. Three observers were assigned to games, two on the sideline and one head observer. They were given stopwatches, a cheat sheet with the time limits and rules infractions and lime-green T-shirts to distinguish them on the field.

One thing the new observers did not do was make active foul calls. Unlike the NUA, all fouls and violations remained with the players. If a call was contested or remained unresolved after thirty seconds, the head observer would make a hard-and-fast ruling and play would continue.

“Persevering personal responsibility and a player-officiated sport without allowing it to devolve where a few bad apples could take over a game was key to the observer program,” said Deaver.

A post-game Observer survey.

“I think there was a concern that if college Ultimate didn’t change to speed up play, the future was likely to be NUA-style referees,” said Kerr in 2004. “Neither Will nor I wanted that in any way.”

The Classic City Classic and the rest of the Nortel Series proved to be a success. The new rules appealed to college teams seeking a more competitive and level playing field. Needing a name Kerr extended the Callahan brand and called them the Callahan Rules. The “defensive goal” proved especially popular and came to be called a Callahan goal because of its association with the rules.

In the fall of 1999 the new rules—with some notable modifications and a name change to “Experimental Rules” from the UPA—were officially voted in for the 1999 College Championships. The rules and their novel use of observers without resorting to referees proved to be the future of not only the college game but also the sport as a whole.

Cultimate and the 2000s

The college game in the 2000s owed much to the work of Deaver and Kerr. The new rules tightened match play and lessened years of bitter conflict. Tournaments were able to run efficiently and on time. With the increase in observed games and the UPA’s uniform requirements Ultimate finally began to look and feel “professional.”

But something was still missing: Fans. Sponsorship. Advertising. The new college rules were designed to attract investors and fans. It didn’t happen.

This fundamental failure kept alive the alluring yet perpetually impotent drumbeat for active referees and a professional ultimate league by provocateurs Leber and Gerics. In the mid-2000s another Mid Atlantic rival took up the challenge when University of Florida player-captain Cyle Van Auken began to promote an alternate vision of the future of the college game.

Like similarly inspired teams before him, Van Auken’s zeal propelled Florida to elite status in the college division and several Championships. When he graduated Van Auken teamed up with fellow entrepreneur Matt “Skip” Sewell, a former Austin fixture and current Seattle Sockeye player.

Sewell had founded Cultimate as an umbrella company to run Centex and other large, stylish college tournaments like Trouble in Vegas, which began in 2006.   He asked Van Auken to help run the company and they became an ambitious duo.

Cultimate’s tournaments were an instant hit. Teams from around the nation lined up to attend. Fledgling Seattle apparel company Five Ultimate lent design expertise and sponsorship. Tournament websites were fresh and players enjoyed the sense of a regular season and elite-team status.

In short order Cultimate became a marketable brand of tournament. But hosting tournaments wasn’t enough. Cultimate wanted Ultimate to break out of its “cult” status.

“Cultimate was built to be a midwife between the mainstream and the Ultimate community,” spoke Sewell in a 2011 phone interview. “The only people coming to Ultimate tournaments are players, friends and family and potentially a few fans. A few. That’s it. We wanted to bring Ultimate to major cities, create an audience and bring in sponsorship.”

“Our idea was to popularize two things at once for a potential audience,” said Sewell. “First, this ‘new’ sport of Ultimate and second their local college brand. Many people already have a loyalty to college programs. For example, I support the University of Texas in any sort of sport. We said, ‘Let’s piggyback on that support and create an audience for [Texas] Ultimate’.”

In 2008 Cultimate took collegiate aspirations one step further by creating a new collective called Conference1 (C1) that would pull together elite tournaments and elite teams with promises of better competition, increased exposure and coverage of most team expenditures.

C1 sought out the top 25 college open teams and asked them to sign on to playing in a C1 series which included a regular season and a championship. Conference1 teams would exclude and thus be in opposition to the UPA College Series, a bold and controversial decision.

(click to zoom)

Online magazine The Huddle explained the proposition as such, “Simply put, Cultimate wants to make College Ultimate similar to an NCAA sport. Meaningful regular seasons, better publicity and tiered competition; a proposed plan which could potentially accelerate the development of the sport. This altruism is balanced with their entrepreneurial nature; Cultimate also wants to make money off a division which has been, in the past, almost completely run for the financial betterment of individual teams.”

“C1 was the rubric,” said Sewell. “The idea was to link in Centex, Stanford Invite and Easterns as a meaningful regular season. The tournaments would create an audience. Once there’s an audience you get advertising. That gets money. Money subsidizes travel.”

Cultimate itself would gain a share of the profit, much like owners of other sports franchises.

For it all to work C1 needed the top college open teams to commit. Paring it down to 20 teams, they got 12 to join but no more. Running in opposition to the UPA proved too tall of a task.

In failure, C1 may have succeeded. The UPA had an active five-year plan to restructure the College Division along lines similar to the C1 proposition. The plan wasn’t supposed to take effect this year but pushed by the momentum (and fear) of C1 the plan was accelerated.

“A regular season, conferences, changes to how teams qualify—all of these things we had on the table,” said Deaver about C1’s 2008 plan. “Cultimate took us by surprise and we [USA Ultimate] were disappointed. It was like, ‘Hey look, we’re already going there.’ And we weren’t just focusing on college teams, either.”

“C1 definitely pushed up our timeline. It wasn’t much different than what we had in the works, but it did re-prioritize things for us,” said Deaver.

“I still think they are far away,” said Sewell recently. “I think they are doing a poor job of promoting the sport. Why isn’t this game happening in major cities with spectators? Why isn’t there advertising and an audience?”

Eyeballs and the Market Economy

Sewell’s questions are valid and there is little doubt that Cultimate and C1 activated a new mind-set at USA Ultimate. C1 did more than just push up the timeline for change.

But what, exactly, can Ultimate do to gain this mainstream acceptance it’s been alternately clamoring for and outright rejecting for forty years? Will college be the vehicle towards the mainstream? Or will another division like Youth or Beach take up the mantle?

NC State vs. UCSB in the '99 National finals.

This week’s Division 1 College Championships will answer none of these questions. But there’s still insight to be had and it begins with some knowledge about how the mainstream views Ultimate.

“The big picture is that right now it’s a tough economy,” spoke Deaver. “Companies want a sure thing. Sponsors want eyeballs. And right now the sport is still growing. We are still relatively small. To deliver 20 thousand, 30 thousand eyeballs is nothing for what major ad campaigns want.”

This isn’t to say Deaver and USAU aren’t trying. In fact this year’s Championships will be sponsored in part by a brand of candy called Warheads. It makes a sort of symmetry, considering the1999 College Championships was held in Boulder and officially crowned the “1999 Jockey Ultimate National Championships” after the men’s underwear company and part-time sponsor Jockey.

The Alt Games at the 2010 College Championships. Photo by Andrew Davis.

After decades of fly-by-night sponsorship and advertising, from Coca-Cola to José Cuervo, Jockey to Warheads, it’s clear that Ultimate as a whole still does not appeal to a reliable audience. But hope springs eternal in Ultimate.

Lee echoed Cultimate’s 2008 sensibilities in a recent email, “College is our most attractive property from a media exposure and sponsorship standpoint. The college brands resonate to the general population. Everyone knows the University of Florida and Harvard and Michigan and CU… Even if they’re not familiar with Ultimate as a sport, they know who the institutions are and it’s easier to create a fan base.”

“I think part of why the College Division is seeking exposure is that college is still where a lot of people learn to play and college players are flexible, not ingrained to ideas and open to experiments,” said Deaver.

For Sewell’s part, he has moved on.

“If I would do [Conference1] again – I would do it with club. To me you are seeing the biggest push from the NUA and MLU with observers. High media-centricity and active up-and-down calls,” he said. “The college market is not the marquee. The most marketable thing is high-level club where teams are invested in working out, practicing and sacrificing. College guys are five years and gone.”

Perhaps we’ll find out some more answers this summer when the new-look College Championships goes on air. Will it draw the fans and create in interest in our sport?

As Lee explained, “The College Championships are anchoring CBS Sports’ Alt Games on the weekend of June 24-26. It is our goal to increase the amount of media coverage of the sport from a local and national standpoint. We need to perform well this year in terms of viewership to prove to CBS that ultimate is worth it.”

Worth it, yes. A driving force economically—maybe not. Yet.

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