For better or worse, the ESPN contract has made USAU Nationals the most visible event in the game. The new format for this tournament is indicative of a trend towards less tournament play, fewer games, and more publicity that is similar to what is happening with MLU, AUDL, and other Ultimate competitions. Here are some quick thoughts on how this might influence the continuing development of the sport.
The top players will play more. While past championship teams were often judged on their ability to bring their stars to game point with something left in the tank, modern teams are able to keep their best players on the field for more points per game. Watching Sandy Jorgensen play 5 in a row, or watching Beau’s involvement in 10 of 14 goals, should tell you that one-game-days are just different than previous tournament play. With Nationals being stretched so that teams now play 3-2-1-1, or on professional teams that play only a single game per day, this trend will continue. There have in the past been exception players that played high point totals (like the incredible 4 players from Florida that all played all but one point of an entire college Nationals), but these exceptions will now become closer to the rule.
What does this mean for the game? Those points need to come from somewhere. As teams play their top lines more, their rotation players will play less. In 2004, the penultimate break in the Men’s final was blocked and scored by a 3rd backup at his position. This wonderfully versatile player might not have taken the field in 2013. Being the 23rd player on a team is now less valuable than it was in the past within the confines of a game. The ability to help your team rest starters in early games is still useful (as shown by the pool winners taking all 12 semifinal spots) but this luxury for the top teams is still less useful than it was in previous formats (or in different competitions like WUCC).
This might improve the playing of the game if the most skilled players stay on the field. This is likely to be mitigated, though, by an unfortunately numbers issue.
Teams will no longer carry enough players to legitimately practice on their own. They’ll either substitute more tournament play for the lost scrimmage time, or they will simply practice less often. That might increase the total number of teams playing, but will probably also hamper home-town development of local talent. The trend for players to travel to play for new teams, which also sacrifices practice time/cohesion/strategy, is likely to continue. Additionally, injuries to top players are likely to be more influential on tournament victories than in previous years when teams prioritized health and backups at every position.
Finally, we should expect to see defensive battles in all top-level games. It has been common (and generally incorrect) to say that offense in Ultimate holds all of the advantages. The trend for defenses to take even more control of the game will continue, as defenders will be better rested, will have more time for pre-game scouting, and better focused as teams rely on fewer players to run their offenses. Defenders from past generations had little video and less rest before cleating up for these big games. If your aesthetic for high-level Ultimate is smooth disc motion and frequent scoring, then you will be disappointed. If you like stall-nine prayers and marking schemes like me, then the game is going to get better and better in the most televised scenarios. And offenses will respond, either by prioritizing different skills or by finding ways to avoid fighting this battle (hucking every possession is one way to partially avoid the effects of better defense).
I lament the changes, but this is a personal aesthetic choice: I love big egalitarian teams, long battles of attrition, and engineering O and D lines to come up with useful combinations. I hate having to sit a player for most or all of a game, even if that is the right thing to do from a competition standpoint. I worry that these changes will make USAU Nationals less of a draw for all but the very best players, because I think this will have a cascading effect on how skillfully the game is played.
The new format is not necessarily a bad thing. My point is simply this: the sport is changing in big ways. Some changes are being made for reasons of publicity, and I think they come at the expense of the development of the sport itself. The USAU membership specifically asked for this prioritization in the last survey, mind you, so this isn’t simply the whim of a couple of people in Boulder. With big changes percolating, the difference between the Ultimate we see in the next five years and the Ultimate we saw five years ago might be significantly different. How you want the game to look is an aesthetic, not a logical, choice in most cases. In this case, it remains to be seen if the sport we know will change in ways that agree with it’s players, promoters and fans.
Feature photo by Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com