USA Ultimate Announces ESPN Coverage

by | March 20, 2013, 4:00am 0

Yesterday marked a historic day for the past, present, and future of ultimate. It should, and will be recorded and remembered by those who truly love the game. Yesterday USA Ultimate announced what has been described as a “multi-year” coverage deal with ESPN. The two parties are still quite tight-lipped about what exactly “multi-year” means due to ongoing discussions to take place at a later date. Twenty-three live games from the Triple Crown Tour will be streamed on the ESPN3 app, along with tape-delayed coverage of the College Championships on ESPN U.

This is only the latest development in a rapidly-changing ultimate landscape, though arguably one of the largest. If the recent changes show one trend, it’s that the ultimate community cares about their sport on par with any other sport featured, now side-by-side, on ESPN.

I immediately had 1,000,000,000,000 questions when the news broke on Tuesday morning. I was also granted the opportunity to talk with USA Ultimate CEO Tom Crawford and Director of Marketing and Communication Andy Lee today after the news was released, and I’m pleased to share what I learned in hopes to at least begin to ease any inquiring minds.

If (and due to the enormity of the situation, inevitably when) I fail to extinguish all curiosities, please leave any additional questions in the comments below.

TCT Does It

As you can imagine, the partnership announcement is the culmination of many months of talks between the two parties. ESPN would not, and did not pick up ultimate as an option until the final details were set into place for the Triple Crown Tour. The strategic structure of upcoming events, as well as the TCT’s detailed future vision, were enough to convince the worldwide leader in sports to add the TCT to its already tremendous coverage umbrella.

Brand Alignment

First and foremost, the decision to join ESPN’s team, despite talks with other competing networks, came down to how well ESPN’s package fit within the strategic plan of USA Ultimate: for a higher public visibility of ultimate. ESPN is a $40 billion company, reaching over 80 million people worldwide with the expertise, resources and knowledge of sports coverage to bring ultimate into the national spotlight, and more importantly, keep it there. “Visibility” would be a gross understatement of the potential provided by ESPN’s coverage, and really, it’s a win-win for both sides of the table.

“Did you see what was on ESPN again today?”

“Yeah, they were playing ultimate.”

Now put a hashtag in front of ESPN and ultimate and realize the potential of merely a mention.

Additionally, other networks –  including those covering USAU events in the recent past – wouldn’t allow for the immediate redistribution of live games on the USAU website via stream directly after their completion. ESPN does. This allows an international audience to enjoy all the action, even if their cable or satellite provider (Did a million old commercials just run through your head?) isn’t on the approved list to provide ESPN.

This amazing grab is from a Brodie Smith trick shot video featured on ESPN's Top 10. It made it all the way to #1.

The agreement, as it stands today, gives the USAU an opportunity at even further coverage in the future. Like any sport in its infancy, it will take committed viewership from dedicated fans, to ensure longevity. Continued and consistent viewership from the ultimate fanbase, alongside the exposure ESPN can provide to a broader audience, will bring a sense of “appeal” to USAU. With more appeal comes more acceptance. With more acceptance comes more opportunity. And when opportunity comes is when we will begin to see full ultimate coverage on the largest platforms, ESPN and ESPN2.

Complete Coverage

Coverage will include Triple Crown Tour events from all three divisions, Open, Women, and Mixed. As the success of this partnership is based so squarely on viewership and followers, this seems like a good move in order to be inclusive of players and potential viewers from all divisions.

Now that it will be consistently shown, and therefore on record with ESPN, all appropriate staff will take a crash course in the understanding as well as inner workings of ultimate. This includes the entirety of their on-air talent. This will hopefully prevent any further condescending phrases such as “Can you believe this is professional!?” Thanks for belittling our attempt at temporary stardom, Linda Cohn. We told you we’d be back…

The voices you hear doing the play-by-play commentating will be provided by ESPN, which understandably brings up concerns of quality. But, as my fellow contributor here at Skyd, Robyn Fenning, so eloquently put it:

“I don’t think that we as ultimate players can expect ESPN to get it right the first time they try,” Fennig noted. “Be realistic. I guarantee that all of us have gone through trial and error to get to where we want to be.”

You may still hear a familiar dulcet tone or two from the sidelines this season: ESPN’s color commentator will be chosen from a pool of candidates with previous experience in ultimate commentating.

Just because the largest, most comprehensive sports network will soon be covering select USAU events doesn’t mean that the existing previous networks for ultimate coverage will go by the wayside. While it is the most comprehensive sports network, ESPN cannot be completely comprehensive. No network that covers such a variety of sports can. Fans still want a place to go for 24/7 ultimate news, stats, and highlights.  That’s why Tom Crawford and Andy Lee made it so that the existing coverage networks would still be in the mix.

Seattle Sockeye's Andrew Fleming making a bid worthy of the nickname 'ESPN'. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Sockeye)

“Although ESPN will have full rights for distribution [during the select TCT events], we would ideally love to see all events eventually streamed by everyone,” Crawford explains, “Complementary streaming.”

An agreement between ESPN and the likes of us here at Skyd, Ultiworld, the NexGen Network, for a simul-stream is, speaking optimistically, quite a ways away. In the meantime, fans can still find their favorite coverage networks at events all over the country. ESPN may also be using previous ultimate footage provided by these networks to air alongside ESPN content for build-up and/or background type pieces for events they are covering.

Finally, arguably the most important service ESPN will provide won’t be seen on iPads, Xbox 360s, or TVs. It’s the service provided only by public recognition…legitimacy. The countless hours of needless explanation to others, the years of verbal torment and inquisitive looks have finally turned a corner and paid off. Ultimate, at least for the next “multiple years” won’t need hours of fruitless yelling for legitimacy, only one hour of Sportscenter. It’s obviously not our biggest concern, if we cared about being considered truly legitimate athletes, we would have left ultimate long ago. But that doesn’t change the fact it still feels, for lack of a term with more eloquence or potency, really damn good. Because at the end of the day, we ultimate players, watchers, lovers, and even addicts remind me a lot of the song Boys in the Hood.

“Knowin’ nuthin in life but to be legit.”  Yeah, and the next lyric works for me too.

Once again, leave your questions in the comment section below and I will try my hardest to get them answered for you.

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