Growing a sport is a complicated business. Beyond the workings of a national non-profit (complicated) there are interactions of players (complicated) with the rules (complicated) and opportunities combined with pitfalls everywhere from the highest championships to the simplest lunchtime pick-up game. Say it with me: complicated.
If you are the kind of person that needs to simplify an issue to the level of a headline, you can stop reading now. By the end of this long-winded opinion, you’ll either believe that I hate USAU, or that I love everything that USAU has ever done. In reality, it’s complicated. If you want massive oversimplification, then there is plenty of it on rec.sport.disc waiting for you.
I want to tell you about what I think “business as usual” means for USAU, and why you should be hopeful but concerned. I’ll try to lay out my theory, and in the process try to show why I think examples from the past support my take on USAU business and where future business issues might clash with that culture of decision-making. My own full-disclose bio is at the bottom of this article- I am a very close insider on some issues and very much an outsider on others, so I hope I have the right mixture of information and distance to put this complicated article together. Understanding business as usual starts by defining the unique and powerful position that USAU maintains within our sport.
The single largest pool of resources in our sport is in Colorado. In terms of money, professional experience and community standing there is no group in the world that approaches the power of USAU. WFDF, though staffed with good people, is dwarfed by our governing body and limited to a few programs and championships. The combined person-hours of all of the Ultimate-related companies around the world is a young cousin to the yearly effort administrated by the USAU mission, and those companies balance an admirably altruistic set of goals with the full-time pressure of for-profit existence. Other national governing bodies are not on the same playing field.
At the same time, there is no larger producer of positive change than the growth of play that has come directly from USAU efforts. Nothing comes close to the benefits that we see from the increases in College and Youth ultimate. USAU made the decision to focus in these directions amidst pressure and criticism, and they were 100% right to go that way. We are seeing huge growth in the game (in playership, membership and national exposure). This growth is on par with the large percentage growth in countries just starting to develop the sport, and I don’t need to explain to you why it is much easier for India to see 8% growth than it is for the North American market.
Our question is not whether USAU is wasting resources or benevolently leading. It’s doing both. The balance, and how that business is done, is what is important. Being the biggest means that USAU is at once our best opportunity for the future, and also the most glaring example of squandered possibilities. Where does USAU rate in that balance?
The Little Things
USAU has a good history of positioning good people with good ideas into positions where they can work for the good of the game. Outside companies and partners in the past pushed USAU around, making deals and agreements difficult and one-sided in their favor. In response, Sandie Hammerly was brought in to play hardball. And she did. I worked with CSTV on multiple occasions, and the final imperfect product was far better with Ms. Hammerly’s continual and not-so-gentle insistence on quality and mission. USAU found a problem, addressed it with the right person, and changed for the good of the organization. In another example, increased size and complexity in the Youth and College called for leadership at the top. Finally hiring a full-time director and keeping full staff on the youth divisions were strong calls to make. Those divisions continue to boom. When USAU gets a sure bet they do a good job of investing in it with capable people.
Where they’ve fallen short repeatedly are in smaller, more speculative opportunities. Take the STAR program, for example. This is a move to develop young college players and increase the level of play through fall development for college teams. If there were one person in the entire country that you would want in charge of this, it is Michelle Ng. Ms. Ng helped set up the first pilot events of this small but expandable program. The problem is that it’s an unfunded mandate.
The STAR program isn’t reaching out to possible coaches, networking them with college teams and offering the funding that, while small compared to with USAU’s overall framework, would put coaches on the grass. Instead, this program is limited to advising about how someone might go about helping. If you bring the money, the time, the effort, the field, and the teams then the STAR program will bring the…advice. There is no one you would want more advice from than Ms. Ng. But this program is a GREAT bet. Put some money behind it, pay a few coaches for a few Saturdays, and you have the start of something that is a natural descendent of the very successful Without Limits strategy that Ms. Ng pioneered outside of USAU. Why bring her in at all if you weren’t going to take her great idea and combine it with your singular resources? [Editor’s note- Ms. Ng has very recently ended her employment at USAU to focus on the Without Limits program that she is so well-respected for. Another editor’s note: An initial STAR clinic in Georgia seems to have come off extremely well.]
A side note from a smart editor: Good entrepreneurs develop ideas that either succeed or fail quickly. By extending long, slow pilot programs USAU may be guaranteeing themselves an overworked future. It is possible that going bigger, earlier, with these programs would allow a proof-of-principle test in a single year instead of 3-4.
Membership in decision-making groups has carried this USAU feel of “you come to us, and we’ll decide whether or not you are useful”. Got a valuable viewpoint? Fill out our survey request for application to this committee, and we’ll call you back in a few months. Want to help with something new? Fill out an application for a grant, and we’ll see what we can do in February. USAU has a long history of accepting help on terms that are designed and carried out to be maximally advantageous to the organization, rather than the sport necessarily. At the same time, they tend to encourage the inclusion of eager people with free time rather than experienced perspectives that need to be asked. Recruiting, actively and humbly, is the only way to get the right people on those committees. This has never been a USAU strong point.
Playing it Safe
The reason for these situations, in my opinion, is that USAU plays it safe. Before they leap, they look…and make sure that there is no way that allocated funds could be overused, or underused, or taken advantage of in any way. There can be no hint of favoring one area of the country or another. No gender or segment of the membership can be left behind. This is how governments give grants, and it works for sure bets. With huge bets, this caution is admirable, but I think it is taken too far by our current USAU. There is a big reason why venture capital is free to make the smaller, faster bets with big potential that government can’t. USAU does the government part, and I think they do it rather well. But I believe that role needs to become more of a mixture between governmental and venture capitalistic.
Next year, we’ll see the first US Open. This new tournament-slash-conference is an attempt to bring high-level and international teams together in a yearly event that is a special opportunity for media and fans. Sound familiar? It sounds like ECC. ECC has a long tradition of bringing the exact kinds of fields together that USAU would want, in a great venue and the powerful draw that has in the past lured teams away from their own National Championships (CUC ’09) and even drawn full American teams on a non-vacation day. It would seem like USAU might want to copy this model, or even work with ECC to create something in tandem.
In fact, this offer was made. ECC organizers (including myself) offered control of ECC to USAU for use as the first US Open. USAU could have taken total controls of the field, the schedule, the media, the sponsorships…everything except for the location (USAU intends to change the location annually anyway). There was no cost. The offer was respectfully turned down so that USAU could wait an entire year to roll out the US Open in Colorado on its own. Does that seem like playing safe, or does it sound like missing out on a good bet? I think that it is a complicated question.
If the point of the US Open is to do something completely new then combining with ECC might not have been the best path. But if the US Open relies on the validity and spectacle of the best teams, then USAU will have to recreate that from scratch. In addition, playing it safe for the US Open means running out a series of ‘in-house’ experts to give conference type talks on the subjects that USAU is already familiar with. If those aren’t the types of events that will bring in fans, then we’ll be talking in August about the people that USAU should have recruited.
A word about the unbelievably bad planning that led to the WUGC and US Open scheduling overlap. As it stands, it appears that the US Open was intentionally placed less than a week away from the World Championships in Japan. I’ve heard (from sources I trust) that this serious problem was not the fault of USAU. It makes me feel better that this wasn’t a USAU mistake…but it worries me that it took me six months and some direct asking to find this out. Given that anyone reading the 2012 calendar could see this is a problem, would you (if you were USAU’s executive staff) want to make this error public, and discuss how it would be worked around?
Restructuring, Rebuilding, Rebranding
I am both hopeful and worried about Club restructuring. The top North American teams are the class of the world and are ready for a more meaningful regular season. What will USAU do with this opportunity? My worry is that the proposed restructure is going to look a lot like the STAR program: USAU will give up very little besides organization, and the elite teams will be asked to provide the work, the time, the travel money, the changed habits to fit a premier event, and the control of their season schedules. This is a problem for teams that are already being run and organized on a completely volunteer basis, but it also opens USAU up to competition. Any proposed league that offers teams a cut of the financials or somehow works with them to ease their burdens will be a better deal than a skeleton set-up. While a USAU premier league is exactly the right way to take advantage of a massive asset (the combined effort and talent of the elite teams), the worst case scenario is eventually losing that effort to a future competitor. If the USAU puts forth this ‘safe’ proposal, they are open to competition (from an expanded AUDL, perhaps, or a future National UOA series) that offers financial incentives and season control to the teams. If you are one of those people that wants a great premier-style league, then you are hoping that USAU puts forward a great plan that is a slam-dunk for teams and immediately has notoriety and buy in. If this doesn’t happen, then groups that are currently too small, too unproven or too risky when compared to the USAU gain strength by being the more reasonable option.
This, in effect, is what Cultimate and Conference 1 forced us all to realize. It wasn’t the competition, it was the realization that a competing group could do a much more equitable, exciting and successful job even with far fewer resources. Cultimate didn’t realize those goals but it brought the potential of competition to the light. USAU was forced to change, and the resulting system is a huge benefit for college Ultimate and the game as a whole. How can we push USAU to change without needing to threaten its existence? If the College changes are simply another example of a safe bet meant to ensure stability at the top, then my general point holds very true: USAU makes safe bets to keep itself safe. If the College changes are a part of an overall strategy of improving the sport, then my belief is still relevant: USAU is in position to make good bets that no one else can make.
I believe that more members would be engaged if USAU could make those bets more clear. The videocasts that Dr. Crawford has maintained are a good step, but are almost unerringly political and always positive. Would it have hurt to tell the membership about the horrible website situation? When an outside company really screws us over, tell us. Otherwise, we think that the website (which I believe is inferior to the goals that USAU set out for their website before the disaster that was the subcontracting) is exactly what USAU staff wanted.
Sometimes, I think the USAU ignores or just doesn’t understand a basic fact about this sport: There are organizers, coaches and administrators that are taking huge losses personally on their labors of love for this game. A tiny amount of coin in USAU terms goes a huge way towards allowing these people to continue, even if doesn’t come close to putting them in the black. When your spare change buys a feeling of mutual respect from hardworking volunteers that are highly motivated to help others…then you are a leader in the game. That support will be remembered by the people that are most likely to do more for our sport.
In the Right Direction
Other gambles that the USA should make? First off, ditch the magazine. Unless it is going to be used as a marketing tool for non-players, it isn’t worth the printing. Lately, especially, the articles are often contracted out to volunteers that (bless their hearts) are willing to help but are not producing the kind of professional media that is likely to increase membership or recruit new players. Informing the current membership can be done much more effectively online. Force the Board to write the magazine out of the bylaws (it’s a costly leftover the days of a small UPA and less internet media) and put that money into quality website copy or coverage of events. If USAU can’t do it, find someone that can and subcontract it under the editorship of our media people. So far, status quo keeps spending USAU money on printing.
Wouldn’t you rather that money was going into innovations? The USAU Innovation grant program is a good idea. Expand it. Instead of simply funding twice as many opportunities, give USAU executives a small fund of innovation money that goes, unsolicited, to people that are already doing great things in the game. Instead of simply waiting to see if DivIII College Nationals was going to work out (it did, fantastically well) wouldn’t it have been great if a USAU exec could quietly give those original organizers $1-2K of ‘angel’ money? It would have gone a long way to insuring that good people don’t have to give up good ideas just because of real life. Would it be fairly distributed to all parts of the country? Of course not. But it would help to jumpstart resources that might otherwise falter for lack of leadership even though the idea is excellent. Imagine how little it would take to help Brodie Smith (or the next generation of public elite player) develop a new idea?
My personal feelings about USAU are strong and mixed. I’ve felt personally cheated on several occasions by USAU actions. I have confidence in many of the Board members. I’ve gone from ‘usually supporting USAU for reasonable decisions’ to ‘generally annoyed at a lack of communication and action’. I think that there are talented people on staff (Dr. Crawford, Mr. Bourland, Mr. Lee and Mr. Pratt to point out a few examples at HQ). I think that business as usual means playing all bets so far to the safe side that the mantra of ‘first, protect the organization’ is failing to take care of opportunities with high reward to risk ratios. And I think that this mantra can change.
What should USAU do? My quick list of items, which I think is in keeping with my theme:
- Support UOA officiating experimentation by allowing UOA games to at-least-partially count for USAU seeding. Find a way to work towards common goals, even with people like the UOA’s Mike Gerics that are too openly caustic and vulgar to hire directly. If this means eating crow and apologizing for the past, do it. Valuable disagreeable people are still valuable people.
- Sell or give away The Huddle to someone that will run it. I’m very biased, but I think this project was underfunded from the start and should be given new life in someone else’s hands.
- Keep discretionary innovation grants on hand for when projects arise, not just accepting applications. Put this small relative amount under the direct control of executive staff without limits on the equality of its distribution.
- Reach out to club teams with restructuring concepts and find a way not just to produce a product with the USAU name, but also to add value to elite players that are helping to grow the sport and are disenfranchised with all USAU projects beyond the Sarasota beer garden.
- If you can’t engage in RSD successfully, then find another way to reach that audience…difficulty is not an excuse. Leaving that communication field unmet continues to be a wasted opportunity. Encourage staff and board members to write their personal feelings in public forums that are widely read. RSD is not the most important place to find Ultimate information, but it is a very large one and should be treated as such.
- Ditch the magazine, and pay writers to create content at USAU.org [Author’s note: This is not to discredit the much-appreciated work put in by many volunteer USAU magazine authors in the past. Rather, the best of them should have been paid far more to keep you in the loop.].
- Put a portion of that money into highlight/educational videos that can be used as recruiting tools for the Youth, College, Recreational, and Women’s club levels. If I remember correctly, at least one of these videos was already made for the Club level. Distribute these to members as a huge assist in recruiting and be the outreach tool that the magazine never was. Video editing not your forte? Subcontract, oversee, adjudicate the executive difficulties, reap benefits, repeat.
- Engage with AUDL, not as a financing partner but as an interested party that respects the advancement potential and the work that is going into this very interesting test case. Put Series Improvement people in direct contact with AUDL investors to learn as much as possible. Offer help, and even if you’re turned down as a perceived competitor then your organization is still doing what a representative of the rest of us should.
- Continue to work with excellent subcontractors like NexGen Video for championship events (this was a fantastic decision on USAU’s part, and they haven’t gotten enough credit for it yet).
- Maintain and expand efforts in the hugely successful efforts that are already happening. Toot your own horn so that more of the membership knows about these efforts. Speaking personally here, if there are USAU actions that I don’t know about then it is almost certainly true that the average player (that hasn’t been paying close attention with some inside information) doesn’t have a clue about these things.
In some of these cases, it is clear that USAU will need to be a more humble voice. This means reaching out to competitors and critics. It means somehow maintaining an active presence on RSD to explain decisions without rising to the bait of the obvious trolls. It means asking the experts (the elite players) to determine who can best represent USAU in on-field matters. It means, almost definitely, creating some programs that do not serve all members equally.
Importantly, this also means some resources will go towards projects that will fail. For USAU to be the kind of organization that I think we need, it has to take a larger risk profile. Some percentage of these small-scope projects will fail, and that will be money down the drain. As a USAU member, I need to accept that this is part of the growth game. Address these failures openly and as an unfortunate remainder of a larger strategy. I think that the USAU rebranding effort was a mixed bag, but it was a mixed bag that had to happen and was much less expensive now than in the future. In the same way that I wish the name Ultimate was changed to Flatball 20 years ago, I am glad that 20 years from now I will be able to look back and see the USAU rebranding as timely move. Was every last logo and banner good? No, but it was part of a larger effort that was the right thing to do.
A New Approach
USAU is in a unique position to help the sport we all love in ways that no one else can. The mere fact that we have a rapidly growing sport and that USAU is the clear leader of that growth should tell us all that the USAU is the right bet for all of us. I mean that sincerely: we are in a battle not against other Ultimate groups but against rugby, lacrosse, and dodgeball. Being divided won’t help. On other (bigger) fronts, some of us feel that we are fighting against things like hatred, irresponsibility and intolerance and that Ultimate is a big part of that fight. Business as usual at USAU is going to be a major factor, one way or the other.
To answer an editor’s question: If I believed that a leadership change was necessary, I would have said that explicitly. I am not calling for new people, but rather for an adapting approach. The current leadership can make the changes that I feel are valuable. Which means they have no excuse if they don’t.
If you’ve read this far, then you have my thanks. I hope that you agree with some of my points, and that we disagree in ways that will tend to push our sport forward. Most importantly, I hope that you believe like I do that USAU represents biggest pool of resources, and as such, we should maintain an active interest in what they do. Right now, what they are doing is asking for your input on their future strategies. If you haven’t already, complete their survey. If you have an issue that you feel strongly about refs, gender equality, international outreach, rules translation into Spanish, tell them. And don’t expect to stop there if you are serious about our future. Write a board member, or get involved at the local level. Our resources are concentrated for a good reason, but we still have a role to play in pushing the complicated balance of growing our sport.
Ben Wiggins is a long-time player who has been involved with USAU on several occasions. He’s worked as a Regional Coordinator, an Eligibility committee-person, a Rules adviser, a color commentator with CSTV, and a frequent feedback source for polling under the auspices of USAU. He played in the USAU series each year from 1999-2010, going to the finals 5 times and winning 3 of them. He’s a former editor and co-creator of The-Huddle.org with Andy Lovseth before selling the site to USAU for 5 years worth of membership. He has coached and played in countries around the world, and applied to be the Team USA Boys coach in 2008 after leading and developing the Moho Youth Ultimate program for 4 years. Ben retired after sustaining too many concussions to continue playing competitively, but is still actively coaching in Seattle, WA. This article represents his unsolicited opinion and is not necessarily the opinion of anyone at Skyd Magazine.