The Opportunity Gap

by | June 22, 2015, 12:28pm 2

This interview appears in Skyd Magazine Vol. 1, Issue 1 – now available on Amazon.

I captain three teams.

Faced with a decision of how to spend my time, I repeat the words like a mantra. People entrust me with stewardships of Furious George, Vancouver Riptide, and Team Canada. Their successes and failures are my own. I value them. I remind myself that I haven’t got the time or energy left for anything else.

Yet “something else” routinely knocks on the door. I was asked to coach one of the women’s teams. I was asked if I would coach with the U23 program. I was asked to chair the British Columbia Ultimate Society. It seems as if there’s a shortage of every kind of contribution. But I am already juggling at my limit. Even at my desk, at home, and when taking out the compost, the needs of those three different teams ever-presently tug at my mental apron strings.

It wasn’t always so all-consuming.

In 2009, the WFDF leadership was intent on introducing a U23 world championship event. It was an ambitious, exciting proposal for the first new championship event in a decade, wreathed in righteous, build-it-and-they-will-come optimism. Ultimate Canada opposed the move. There were several reasons behind the objection, but the one I think about most these days was an innocent strategic question that we felt had gone unasked. Does it make sense to have one? And can we support it?

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Every program and opportunity carries a cost, and it draws on the human and financial resources of the community. If there are lots of players lacking a place to play, then it makes sense to create more venues for them. If we produce those players in sufficient number in enough places, provide reasonable staffing, and pay for them — or pay to watch them — then the program is supported.

In 2008 (and today), the top U23 players in Canada already competed as the backbones of the major club teams. They already had venues — expensive ones in the form of CUPA and UPA collegiate series. The very best also played in CUPA and UPA club championships. It was a lot of work, but it was manageable at the time. If we had divided their attentions, without national funding and a development program to support them, could they have afforded to do even more? Would we have undercut what we already had? Would the national teams have just become a clubhouse for the moneyed few? We feared that the breadth of playing opportunities would outpace our development, our ability to produce and fund athletes. In the end, we elected to try to support those who wanted to represent Canada on the international stage. The talent pool could probably accommodate another major event every few years, we reasoned. Nobody thought that was just the beginning.

After that, the playing opportunities exploded. In 2010, the Pan-American Ultimate Championships were created. In 2011, WFDF sanctioned the World Championships of Beach Ultimate. In 2012, professional ultimate was hatched and the Triple Crown Tour was unveiled. The U23 championship shifted to a biannual schedule. In 2013, Major League Ultimate came to Vancouver in the form of the Nighthawks. In 2014, even before settling the question of whether the world would pay for professional ultimate, we gained our second team — the AUDL’s Riptide. Plans are in the works to develop a national 4-on-4 championship, and also a national beach ultimate championship (already instituted in the United States). The season now theoretically stretches from February to November, depending on whom you ask. With every addition and iteration, rules and requirements balloon. We have certifications, rules accreditations, drug checks, and labyrinthian roster eligibility rules. If you make it to the USAU Championships, participation in the TCT is mandatory. Ironically, the better your team plays, the more it becomes required of you to play. On the surface, it all glows of progress and potential talking-points on the sport’s credibility. Beneath the surface, the stress pulses.

I look at the list of registrants for the Riptide tryouts, and what I see is a Rubik’s Cube of competing variables. I see overlapping schedules and strategic needs, and conflicts to resolve. And we try. We negotiate and stagger our plans, but who takes precedence? What is most important? Current world championships? Next year’s world championships? The leagues with monies invested?

I need to take care of the Riptide, but I also need it to cultivate players for Furious. 2015 is a WUGC qualification year in Canada — the entire national team program revolves around a leadership committee chosen by the national champions. Furious needs to be at its best for the August championship. The university teams — from which we farm talent — practice on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays until at least May. The cream of the crop is doubly tied up with U23 training camps and a two-week trip to London in July, precisely when the Triple Crown Tour schedule peaks. The Riptide will practice on Wednesdays, with track sessions on Saturdays. Furious will practice on Mondays. Nighthawks will practice on Thursdays and Mondays. We have optional weight training on Fridays. I run Team Canada beach practices on Saturdays. The names of players spill over from one obligation to the next. How long before we burn them out? And if we don’t, what about their wallets?

Asked if Furious would consider representing Canada at the Pan-American Ultimate Championships in Mexico, I withheld a maniacal giggle. If we chose a Furious roster of 25 based solely on merit and potential, 8-14 of those players would come from the U23 teams. They flew to Vegas for a training camp in February, and will fly to London in July. Between three to five more are on the national beach ultimate teams; many of those players flew to Santa Monica in January, and are flying to Dubai in March. To decide Team Canada 2016, Furious needs to fly to Winnipeg in August. Triple Crown Tour obligations will require another one to two flights, and another thereafter — on the assumption that we qualify — to Texas. Who will have money left for Mexico at the end of a season like that? Should we take on fewer challenges, or should we refuse the best players?

Notoriously short-sighted and eager, glory-seeking players always put their names in for a shot at prestige. They sign up for tryouts and succumb to pressures to join additional teams, striving to climb the pyramid to be recognized among the best. But the old-fashioned pyramid with the one or two championships at the top is now treacherously multi-peaked. And they realize a little late that their bodies or their bank accounts can’t deliver. The national beach teams suffered a preposterous dropout rate this year. The Open beach team lost eight players, and the Women’s team lost seven. I see a multi-level game of Moneyball unfolding in my spreadsheets, and I feel the eerie sensation that success may hinge on our ability to choose the correct rosters instead of the best players. I feel less and less in control.

Groaning, a friend of mine once dryly observed: “Canadian teams have too many masters.” He’s right. Because there are too many teams that share all the same names. I captain three of them.

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  • Kyle Weisbrod

    I just want to say that I think this is a great article and hopefully spark some discussion. What do you (Alex, other readers) think about how the increase in all of these “elite”, “competitive” opportunities/requirements impacts attendance at what used to be the high-level, “fun” tournaments (e.g. Poultry Days, Potlatch, Mars, Wildwood, etc) and the resulting cultural impact on the sport?

    It used to be that many of the very top players would play at those events regularly. And not just play at them, but play with players they would regularly compete against in the fall series. And, even if they weren’t competing together, the social scene at those events meant that there’d be a good deal of hanging out w/ opponents in very low key environments. Has this changed as much as I think it has? Do the top players miss this? Is the change impacting the sport positively or negatively?

    • Davis

      The expansion of elite opportunities, and the commensurate requirements surrounding them, has eroded upper-level attendance at legendary institutions like Potlatch. The resulting culture impact is predictable: there is a firmer partition between fun-seeking and competition in the sport. Those tournaments that don’t fall into USA Ultimate’s strategic bins now
      face questions about their brands and their place in the larger picture. They can try to become part of the competitive ladder-climb, or they can become purely recreational, but it is now very difficult in 7v7 ultimate to satisfy the dual mission of “fun-and-competitive.”

      This also means that competitive players become a little more distant and a little more untouchable to the general community. They become less like real persons whom you might meet, and more of an abstraction whom you might see on video or a scorecard. There is less of a general ultimate community, and more of a water-column of communities that just happen to have something in common. In short, ultimate is gradually fractionating (competitively and culturally) in the way that other sports do when they expand.

      As for the culture within the elite community, I don’t know how to judge whether it has suffered. There are still parties, and the enforced regularity of the competitive events now means that I see my opponents time and time again, arguably building a familiarity among adversaries that I never had before. And after all, it is mathematically unavoidable that you will always play against more people than you will play with, so the friend-or-foe proportions have not been wildly up-ended by this evolution. In summary, I wouldn’t say that the culture has been impacted negatively — only that the way we build relationships has subtly changed.