Go big!

by | October 12, 2011, 5:59am 0

The crowd for the game-to-go at NW Regionals was three deep on the sidelines and wrapped the field.  The endzones (always the best place to watch) were relatively clear but still full.  That crowd won’t be in Sarasota.  The greatest Frisbee tournament in the world will pass completely unwitnessed.

The ultimate played by the elite club teams is absolutely stupendous.  The game is particularly stunning live where you can have a front-row seat on the technical skill and playmaking of the best in the sport.  That this show takes place in total obscurity is a travesty.  A travesty for the teams, for the players, for fans but most of all, for the sport of ultimate itself.

Ultimate is still in a growth phase.  When I was at NW Regionals last weekend, I tramped all the way across the fields to get to where Further was playing.  I had to pass through game after game after game of little kid soccer.  Big kid soccer.  Medium kid soccer.  If they were playing ultimate, I’d have been stunned, but that’s where we need to get as a sport.  Fields and fields of little kids playing ultimate.  We need club ultimate to help us get there.

The Club restructure is coming down the pike and I hope USA Ultimate gets it right.  (They did not respond to my email in connection to this story.)  Here are the pieces they should include:

A meaningful regular season. Right now, all the tournaments that lead up to Regionals count as little more than a glorified preseason.  Some of the best ultimate of the year is getting played at tournaments like ECC, Labor Day and Chesapeake, and for nothing.  The Sectionals-Regionals-Nationals layers of qualification don’t reflect the reality of the season for the elite clubs.  Sectionals and Regionals should disappear and be replaced by a regular season that determines the postseason.

Create a league. The model that makes the most sense for ultimate would be a modified version of the English Premier League in soccer (official site or Wikipedia).  Under this system, the league would be formed of a group of teams that would play a regular season featuring a round-robin format.  Some number of the top teams would qualify for a playoff and some number of the bottom teams would risk relegation. This would allow continuity for your perennial powerhouses, but also a way in for new teams.

Small tournaments and small venues. The tournaments in the regular season should involve a small number of teams and a small number of games.  This greatly increases the number of field sites available to host.  NW Regionals saw a few juniors players whose folks would drive them up or who drove themselves.  A two-field tournament at Bobby Morris park in Seattle would draw every juniors player in the city and all their friends. Sockeye’s special events (like games versus the Buzz Bullets) have shown us there is a live audience for ultimate games.  This past summer’s NexGen confirmed this.

Finals teams host Championships. After a first round of playoffs, the two teams in the finals should host each other in a home-and-away best of five series.  Two games played in one city and then the remaining three played in the other city a week later.  This two-weekend series should be played in September when the weather is still nice enough to host anywhere in the country.  Can you imagine what a home-and-away would draw in a city like Seattle, Vancouver or Boston?

Make Spirit of the Game a central component. Growth is dependent on youth players and parents decide much of what their kids do.  The Seattle Youth Ultimate Camp sponsored by Disc NW runs from 8 years old to 16 years old (with a few exceptions).  Parents are choosing to put their kids in camp because of the reputation the camp and ultimate in general enjoy.  No parent wants to turn to their kid (who is wearing a Ronaldo jersey) and explain why their hero would do something like this.  But they would be happy to explain why Reid Koss turned to the sideline to ask for assistance with a difficult foul call.

There are some real problems with implementation that have to be negotiated.  The biggest logistical issue is travel, which is insanely expensive.  One solution is to split the league East and West and minimize the $600 cross country flights.  The biggest ethical and philosophical issue is what to do with women’s ultimate.  For years, the UPA and then USAU have maintained a one-size-fits-all approach to gender equity in our sport.  As a coach of women’s ultimate, I have often been very appreciative of this.  However, men’s and women’s are in two very different places and the one-size policy has its own injustices.

In the past ten years, the UPA and USAU have done a really nice job of promoting and advancing youth and college ultimate.  This growth has helped fuel the competitive value of elite Club ultimate , which has blossomed to the point where any given season boasts 8 to 12 truly competitive teams.  But while the product (the play) has grown, the production value (the presentation) has not changed.  With restructuring around the corner, I hope USAU makes some bold changes; for the good of Club ultimate and the good of the sport.

Photo by Ben Beehner

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