“I don’t play the game because of SOTG. I don’t bust my ass doing wind sprints in the cold and rain because I want to be accepted in a friendly community. I don’t spend several thousand dollars a year and all my vacation time so that some computer geek has a high opinion of me. Ultimate, beyond everything else, is a sport, and sports are about competition. That’s why I’m out there. I want the game to become more competitive. I want Cuervo to sponsor us. I want the game to be accepted in mainsteam America. I want it to evolve into something more watchable.” — Jim Parinella, post to rec.sport.disc, Nov 29, 1993
“You’re not going to have the mixing from top to bottom (within the game)…It would be sad if we do lose that”. — Jim Parinella, “Future of Ultimate” Panel, Ultimate Coaches and Players Conference, March 2, 2013.
I find myself vacillating between wanting our beloved sport to go bigtime and wistfully ruing how we have already gotten away from our roots. ESPN or April Fools? Advanced weight training or post-practice beer? Perfectly matching uniforms or just dark or light? Why can’t we have it both ways? Why can’t we all just get along?
I am in favor of elite players closing down bars and then winning tournaments a few hours later at April Fools and Paganello. I think it’s an amazing part of our culture that players can team up with opponents once a year at party tournaments, while battling against them the rest of the season. I think it’s very special, though also very odd, that the cream of the game can also play summer league or coach high school with rank beginners.
I am in favor of the pro leagues (disclaimer: I’m working on the stats team for the Boston Whitecaps). Even though I prefer the observer system, I would have jumped at the chance to play refereed semi-pro ultimate in my prime. For that matter, I would have played at any point where I could fit it in my life and the team would take me. Playing with refs takes a little getting used to and it changes the game a little, but it’s still ultimate. For those worried about it fundamentally changing the game, well, we’ve been on the slippery slope for more than 20 years and Spirit of the Game is still alive and well. People predicted the demise of ultimate as we know it when observers became more prevalent. Having a small number of players playing pro some of the time will not ruin the culture of ultimate.
Ultimate: The First Four Decades by Tony Leonardo and Adam Zagoria has many references to sponsorship and professional ultimate. Leonardo described a 1990 attempt to pitch the sport to tequila manufacturer José Cuervo. The Cuervo Ultimate Championships were “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…” At the time, there was a feeling among my ilk that it was the UPA who put the kibosh on this because of the possibility of losing control, but it really was a mutual decision not to partner further.
A few years later, the National Ultimate Association (NUA) came along and threatened to pull away the top teams, and again the top teams flirted with the idea, but a lack of credibility of the organizer doomed the operation. In 2001, an idea for a Professional Ultimate League was floated to the UPA Board of Directors, which I chaired at that time. To the organizer’s request for $5000 for a feasibility study, we replied, “Let the record show that we’re excited by what he’s trying to do. We don’t think he’s prepared enough to merit a UPA endorsement or investment, especially given the lack of UPA oversight as currently proposed.” The UPA Newsletter archives detail his plan and the Executive Director’s response prior to the meeting. More recently, Sludge Ultimate did a retrospective on this.
In some ways, this is similar to USA Ultimate’s position on the pro leagues. We didn’t get involved with the development in large part because the presentation and the product weren’t mature enough. But also in both, there was also an element of being reluctant to release control. I like to think that we would not have been hostile and would have tried to make it work had the business model been more viable and if we thought the top teams would have bought into it. There is no doubt about USAU’s position today, though: NO.
Why can’t they get along? USA Ultimate has released an official statement with disingenuous arguments such as that pro players will be ill-prepared for international events. Concerns about partnering with financially unstable organizations are fair, and it would also be fair to point out that USAU has no reason to choose sides between the AUDL and MLU. But I feel that it’s still ultimate and that it’s not a zero-sum game. Encouraging pro ultimate, even with refs and even with just men on the field, encourages all ultimate and results in a bigger pie for everyone.
Why should they get along? Because this is another step in player-driven experimentation dating back to some of the first Frisbees that said “PLAY CATCH – INVENT GAMES”. Rules changes have come about from experimentation. In the Ultimate History Book, Troy Frever wrote about the rules of the game and the Standing Rules Committee (SRC), which “had the responsibility of updating the official rules to keep them as closely aligned as possible with the common play on the field”. Tournaments would introduce rules variations and those that caught on would eventually become the standard. Even the power pool format used at Nationals for many years started as an experiment at Chicago’s Tune-Up.
The barnstorming NexGen Tour was another experiment that tried to create something new in ultimate. Though I still cling to the long tournament as the ideal format, players are voting with their cleats that they are willing to travel to play a single game at a time. The pro leagues are furthering this experiment in trying to bring high-level ultimate to the masses. They should be embraced by the ultimate community, and that includes the national organization. Instead, there are scheduling changes and requirements seemingly designed to thwart the upstarts and remove flexibility and choice from the players on those teams.
But then again, I vacillate. I worry that a bigger pie will make it harder for all of us to connect. I was lucky enough to play at Fools recently with three of the players selected in Skyd’s Mock Draft, and they were enough to carry a bunch of 40-something ShortFatGuys to our first ever tournament victory after many semis and finals losses. How long will players like this be allowed to participate in such events? As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, it truly will be a shame when it is no longer possible to have such mixing. Will it be worth it? Or will our attempts to stop change be what hurts us? I don’t know. I just wish we could all get along and work together.
Addendum: More pet peeves
“Home” and “away”. I don’t know where my bag is when I’m playing, but I do know which way a forehand is, even if I’m covering a lefty. Hearing a teammate shout “home” when they’re on the far sideline does not help me know which way to force.
A foolish consistency in tournament formats, primarily with caps. Hard caps in elimination games just seem wrong. Alternate solutions: hard cap is an immediate +1 cap, or the game ends when the losing team turns it over twice. We used this latter solution at a hot box tournament once and it allowed the chance for a team to catch up without allowing the game to drag along. I wouldn’t even be against the idea of playing a strict timed game (my first full tournament in 1983 had timed games), but if it’s a game to points, a team shouldn’t be eliminated after scoring a goal. And there is no need to have the same time cap for every round in the tournament. If there has to be a short time cap to fit in all the rounds on the first day because of a lack of field space and there is no such shortage for the elimination rounds, let them play out.