In the last two years I have tried and failed several times to write out my opinion and thoughts on the club restructuring. Each time, I’ve given up and failed for one reason or another. Once a couple of friends asked me not to write because of something they were working on. Most recently, I couldn’t figure out how to say what I wanted to say without saying a bunch of stuff I didn’t want to say. Recent events have inexorably pushed me closer and closer to coming clean on all this stuff, so I’m getting in the water no matter how cold or nasty it might end up being.
Part of why this has been so tricky to write about is because I have conflicts of interest all over the place. So many in fact, it is hard to know where to start. Do I start with my financial interest in NexGen? Kevin has employed me in the past as a broadcaster and I certainly stand to reap a (modest) windfall should NexGen broadcast 100+ games. What about the 8 years of conversations I have had with Skip Sewell about various possibilities for leagues and formats and so on? How about USA Ultimate? I am currently trying to get the SotG committee up and running under a viable, activist model; should I be spending my meager credit with USA Ultimate making them angry about restructuring issues? How about my position as a coach? Oregon is my number one ultimate priority; am I risking anything there?
We are presented with four competing visions for the future of elite ultimate: NexGen’s League, Triple Crown, AUDL and MLU. In the short term, the competition seems to be NGL vs USAU and AUDL vs MLU, in the long term all four of these visions are in direct competition with each other for talent and resources.
We can debate all we want about the various possibilities all and what they mean for the future of ultimate, but the decision isn’t really ours – right now the ball is in the court of the elite men’s teams. If they chose to go to NGL, they will strike a death blow to the future of the other three visions. Obviously, the heart of the TCT will be gutted, but less obviously, the long term prospects of the two so-called ‘professional’ leagues dim considerably. For the AUDL and MLU to thrive, they need the existing talent to slowly switch over from USAU. They can create a little buzz and snap with their in-the-red advertising budgets, but there is no way a Seattle Rainmakers (one of MLU’s franchises) survives while there is healthy Sockeye that you can go and see. The best hope is that USA Ultimate continues in its neglect of the elite men’s teams and that the talent slowly but surely transitions from one format to the other.
2004 was a watershed moment in elite men’s ultimate. A team no one had heard of (Pike) came out of nowhere and battled to within 2 points of the finals. A member of the royal family (Ring) had its best pool play ever, going 5-0, but lost in the quarters. Two great rivals (Jam and Furious) played a classic semifinal that led to another pair of rivals (Sockeye and Jam) play a 16-15 nail-biter in the championship. Gone were the days when the top two teams rolled into the finals with a 5+ average margin of victory. Gone were the days when everyone else was fighting for the right to be blown out in the semis. Here was real parity brought about by excellent play across the board.
This growth in men’s matters, because since that time, the production value (video, league play, fan access, promotion) brought to these games in no way matches the product value (the quality of the game) the teams are generating. These teams are playing far and away the best ultimate anyone has ever played, game in and game out. They are doing this by working incredibly hard and recruiting the best talent in the country. As long as there is such a discrepancy between product and production value, there will be tension within the ranks of elite teams and players for something different and better.
I don’t think that the Triple Crown goes far enough for the elite men’s teams and I know that they are unhappy with it. It is a tiny step toward matching product with promotion in an era that is begging for a big bold step. Because it is such a tiny step, it all but guarantees that a second organization will come and ‘steal’ all that talent. That doesn’t mean that the elite teams are going to go for NGL, though – they are naturally cautious. Their goal is to win a championship, not promote ultimate. There is also a lot of risk in choosing the NGL, whether it succeeds or fails.
So what do I want to happen? I want the elite teams to choose NexGen. As I’ll try to outline in the next few days, it is the best choice for the two biggest interest groups in this decision – the teams and the fans. It also has the best opportunity to preserve one of the things I value most about ultimate: the player-driven nature of the sport. The fallout from the teams selecting NexGen isn’t as bad for the other divisions (women’s, mixed, open, masters) as it appears at first glance. After the teams choose NexGen, I want them to approach USA Ultimate with a partnership offer and USA Ultimate to accept it.
I promise much more detail tomorrow; today was just an overview of some of the existing issues.
Ring of Fire’s Noah Saul pulls the disc at the 2012 USAU Club Championships (Photo by Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com)