I hope everyone had a nice couple of days off. My family and I came down to Texas and while the locals claim it is ‘cold,’ my Oregon children were complaining Monday it was too hot. It was 70 and we went swimming in the Gulf. The break has been nice and it has been good for the progress of the club restructuring discussion as well. Things were probably moving a little too fast last week and an enforced break made everyone take a deep breath.
I’ve been able to make contact with Will Deaver and Kevin Minderhout and hope to hear more specifics from the elite teams later in the week. The 18 teams have been in discussion with each other separate from USAU or NexGen and are attempting to move in unison. Anything more than that is rumor.
Inclusion and Exclusion
The weakest part of NexGen’s plan in comparison to the TCT is the lack of inclusion. One of the really wonderful things about ultimate is that the rich and the poor constantly rub shoulders. Whether as teams at Sectionals/Conferences or as individuals at Potlatch or Poultry Days, players of all abilities are in constant contact with each other. The TCT works to maintain this, while the NexGen plan abandons it altogether. Greater promotion of the sport is going to come with some costs (see below); greater segregation is one of those costs. The question is, what is that segregation going to look like?
I want to begin by conceding that our current system, which is reasonably open, is terrible for promotion. Unlike college ultimate, where is there is an expectation of instability (ie March Madness), ‘professional’ sports carry an expectation of stability. None of the big professional leagues in the US have a promotion/relegation system. All 4 proposed leagues admit this reality and work to change it by closing the system to some extent or another. NexGen, AUDL and MLU are totally closed systems and the TCT (through its use of tiers) is a partially closed system.
I have long been an advocate of an English Premier League system with divisions and an established promotion/relegation system. It attempts to balance stability and fluidity. Skip Sewell (through conversations about League-X) and Kevin Minderhout have thought about these issues perhaps more than anyone and are very consistent with their concerns about an EPL-type system. Both believe that the money and logistics involved are prohibitive. First, instead of managing 18 or 20 teams, you are managing 40 or 60 teams. Second, fluid membership works for the EPL because those teams have the travel budgets to play one-off games. Ultimate isn’t there yet, which is why we still use tournament formats. (I know the AUDL did it last year, but have you seen the numbers? Can they do it in the vastness of the West?) The NexGen League works around this issue by carefully scheduling divisions and match-ups to minimize travel. With fluid membership this becomes a much dodgier proposition.
If we accept the premise that a closed system is necessary and ignore the inherent unfairness of just picking the teams you want, where do you draw the line? In an email conversation with Kevin earlier this week, I asked him to explain his inclusion/exclusion decisions in detail:
I think most of us agree that the best teams playing against each other is good for ultimate. I defined “best” teams as any team that made quarterfinals or better since 2006. The 15 teams to meet this standard are Chain Lightning, Doublewide, Furious George, GOAT, Ironside, Johnny Bravo, Machine, Madison Club, Revolver, Rhino, Ring of Fire, Sockeye, Southpaw, Sub Zero, and Truck Stop.
Not coincidentally these 15 cities all have strong local leagues, college teams and youth programs.
I needed a multiple of six to support the tournament format I’m proposing so I determined the remaining three teams on their ability to contribute to the success of the league. I applied the following criteria: 1) were they likely to be successful in the future as demonstrated by strong local leagues, college teams and youth programs and 2) did they fit into the creation of an efficient travel schedule for optimal resource allocation.
The three teams closest to making quarterfinals, 13th or better, in the last seven years were PoNY (10th in 2010), Oakland (12th in 2011) and Condors (11th in 2006). Of these Oakland met both requirements, PoNY met some of [criteria] 1 and all of 2 and Condors met neither.
It’s tough leaving the Condors and their storied history behind for now, but it’s also unlikely that they’ll be a serious title contender in the next 5-10 years as the Santa Barbara area lacks many of the support structures necessary to field competitive teams in today’s ultimate environment.
Of the remaining teams on the shortlist for recent success at nationals Madcow fit the criteria above better than Streetgang, Tanasi and Boost Mobile.
When I spoke to Kevin about these issues, I was critical of the closed nature of his League and he justifiably challenged me to propose real solutions. The first thing would be a commitment to expanding the openness of the league. Also, despite the issues facing SoCal ultimate, I think a single team in California is crazy. The necessary logistical changes would follow the commitment to inclusion. Here are several options.
1. Just expand. Add a second California team and Tanasi. The advantage is that fewer of the deserving teams and players are left out. The disadvantage is the need for reformatting the season and watering down the promotion of each team.
2. Divisions plus expansion. Go to 2 or 3 geographically based divisions with promotion/relegation within each region. The disadvantage is organization, logistics and consistency.
3. Two paths. Create two paths to the championship event. There is the regular season qualifying through the format proposed by NexGen, but some portion of the playoff spots would be held as open qualifying through other events (like Regionals).
Each of these ideas is nothing more than speculation. At this stage, it is very unlikely that all are practical for the 2013 season so the important thing would be to make a commitment to expand. Once the commitment is there, the details will follow.
Either Way, You Pay
One of the elements of the NexGen plan is substantial power for the teams through a ~70% ownership stake and a dominating majority on the Board of Directors. On the surface, this is an unmitigated boon for the teams, but it also represents a lot of extra work on their part. Right now the teams are pretty maxed out in their efforts; all of their energies are going to improving competitiveness. It is unclear where the extra time, work and money would come from to take on expanded management duties at the team and league level. The TCT also requires more from the teams, most notably expanded and more expensive travel.
The expanded responsibilities for the teams should come as no surprise. More is being delivered to the teams by way of exposure and value of competition, it should be expected that this would come with some cost. While both plans come with short term costs, it remains unclear what the long term effects would be. USA Ultimate has not released any of their financial planning for the Triple Crown, so it is unclear where any revenues they earn will go. Under NexGen’s plan, the teams would have voting control over any resources earned.
Absent from this conversation has been any discussion of Mixed. Unlike Open and Women’s which carry 30+ years of play, established teams and divisional stability, Mixed is still so new that the teams, membership and structure are still in a constant state of flux. Even without change, the future of Mixed is uncertain. With major changes looming, predictions become impossible. I am curious why USA Ultimate has chosen to platform Mixed at the same level as Women’s and Open. Like Women’s, Mixed is behind Open in its development, but there is no gender equity reason to promote it. This is a question I will certainly ask in the coming week.
I’m still waiting on information from NexGen and the elite teams. That should be forthcoming later in week; both parties indicated they would respond to my requests for information.
Feature photo by Pete Guion – UltiPhotos.com