By Lou Burruss
If you missed yesterday’s opening arguments, you might want to start there. Today I am hoping to lay out a bunch of the different strands involved in this whole mess, so things might seem a bit disjointed.
One of the reasons I was given for USA Ultimate’s refusal to partner with League X was the conflict between two of the underlying principles of the organization. USA Ultimate is committed to promoting the sport, but they are also committed to gender equality. It was the lack of a similarly built women’s league that helped torpedo League X.
I am completely committed to the gender equity policy, but conflicted about the most effective way to achieve this. While there is gender equity in policy and practice, the reality on the ground is very different. Women’s ultimate is in a very different stage of development than men’s ultimate. As a general rule, women’s ultimate is about a decade behind men’s ultimate. Here are three general markers of development. First, look at total number of teams. In April of this year, there were ~270 ranked men’s teams and ~180 women’s teams. In 2000, there were ~200 men’s teams and ~100 women’s. All through the 90s, the West dominated the college championships in Open and Women’s. Since Brown’s victory in Open in 2000, the men’s division has scattered its semifinalists across the country, while women’s has remained isolated on the West Coast. Last piece of evidence is DoG and Fury. DoG won 6 straight titles, Fury 7 and both were an indicator of the fairly shallow National talent pool at the time of their runs.
There are more under currents and issues in women’s ultimate than I have the time or space to address here, but I want to stay focused on the impact of the TCT and NexGen. Given the current situation, what does women’s ultimate need? More than anything, it needs more players. It really needs more youth players. The explosion of boy’s ultimate is what fueled the shift in the Open Division, but girl’s ultimate is languishing. It needs dedicated, long term coaches in high schools and middle schools.
Uncoupling men’s and women’s ultimate makes me nervous, but I have also seen it be really successful. When Prez Day collapsed in the rain, there were several years when it was a women’s only tournament. Centex has always been split across the two division and on two separate weekends. I know that the players don’t really like it because they miss the social piece, but as a coach I loved it. The women’s games, usually relegated to outer Siberia, were always on the best fields. Rather than be subjected to a bad men’s showcase game, we watched the best of the women’s division battle. When teams had byes, rather than scatter off to watch their men’s teams play, they stayed and watched the best running women’s game. There is a lot of similar appeal to a well-promoted, women’s only Nationals. Instead of a single game broadcast a day, there’d be three. No sharing fields, no sharing announcers and no sharing focus. Additionally, a women’s only tour and Nationals would have appeal to potential sponsors like Title Nine, who probably have no interest in Open or Mixed.
A well-known ultimate Frisbee organizer decides to start a league. He takes a cross country trip to meet with each and every team invited to be a member. The teams like the idea and conditionally agree to take part. Kevin Minderhout and NexGen in the winter of 2012-13? No. Skip Sewell in the winter of 2011-2012. What is unfolding right now, just out of public view, happened last winter in complete secrecy. It is really hard to fully understand the current situation without this piece. (I wasn’t able to get a comment from any of the major players in this situation, USAU, Skip Sewell or Greg Connelly, prior to press. Because of this, I am going to deal only with the broad generalities of the story that I’ve had confirmed by multiple people and leave digging up all the details to another day or journalist.)
The league (let’s call it League X) was the organizational work of Skip (now of MLU) and Greg Connelly (head of observers for USAU). Skip toured the country, got all the teams to conditionally commit and the shopped League X to USA Ultimate for a partnership. After very quick deliberations (and no public input), USA Ultimate declined to be involved in League X. At that point, Greg Connelly pulled out and League X collapsed. Immediately after, USA Ultimate released the notification of the club restructuring that has been realized as the TCT.
Currently, USA Ultimate is viewing AUDL, MLU and NexGen as competitors and I think that is a big mistake. Given the interest from the fan base and the elite players, there will be a league of some kind outside of USA Ultimate. It would be far better for USA Ultimate to come up with some sort of plan and criteria for partnering with the leagues rather than trying to shut them down.
Additionally, viewing USA Ultimate as a business that is selling services helps clarify their situation. (It isn’t a perfect fit.) They are going through a period of rapid growth because their market (ultimate players) has exploded in size. However, as their market has grown in size, it has also greatly diversified. In the 90s, there were only four divisions: men’s and women’s for college and club. Now there are 13? In the 90s, the UPA did little more than send existing teams off to Worlds. Now, they are managing a nascent National Team program that spans U-16 to masters.
This diversification has put huge stresses on the organization as they have tried to meet the competing needs of all these different clientele. NexGen actually presents USA Ultimate with an opportunity. Here is an organization that will operate a league that will help meet the needs of two of their clientele groups: elite players and fans of elite ultimate. Letting go of this piece would allow USA Ultimate to focus on its core constituency: youth and college ultimate.
Feature photo by Kevin Leclaire (UltiPhotos.com)