With contributions by Tushar Singh
On Tuesday, April 16, the AUDL’s Toronto Rush held a Media Day to introduce to the community their team, sponsors, and the sport of ultimate. The conference attracted more than just the normal ultimate crowd: CBC News and other journalists were in attendance with cameras to capture the event. The event gave Tushar and I an inside look at what running an ultimate franchise really entails, especially in an area that has over 10,000 ultimate players.
The Rush were founded by the Lloyd family: Robert Lloyd, his brother Jim Lloyd and his son Mark Lloyd. Due to Mark’s involvement in the sport playing club with Toronto’s GOAT, the entire family was quickly introduced and hooked on the game. The family moved to then purchase the team at the start of the season. The Lloyd name goes deeper into the AUDL. Robert Lloyd is one of the managing partners of Ultimate Xperience LLC, the company that purchased majority stake of the AUDL from Josh Moore at the end of the league’s first season.
Down to Business
Upon entering the conference room at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, the first thing that jumped out were the sponsor logos that graced everything from banners, to the media packet, and the digital display screen. Chairman and Co-Founder Rob Lloyd spoke to this in his video introduction. He explained that the Rush’s “first step” was to secure a partnership with Cosmos Sports in order to make sure the ticket sales were in good hands.
Cosmos Sports is a sport marketing company based out of Toronto, and their President Cary Kaplan also spoke at the press conference. He said that while major partners such as Telus (a Canadian telecom company) had stepped up to sponsor the team, it was truly about the talent in the sport and on the Rush that would help “change the sport in North America from a participation sport to a spectator sport.”
In part Cosmos and the Rush will be able to do this because of both the venue, located in downtown in the middle of the University of Toronto, and because it will be the least expensive sporting event in Toronto. Kaplan spoke to their confidence in that once people come out for their first Rush game, they would back because of the environment and the team.
Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder Jim Lloyd spoke more about how the sponsors have allowed the Rush to truly treat their players like professionals. With 28 players signed and the talent on-board attracted from across Canada – including many GOAT players and the GOAT coaches – the cost-effectiveness of the games will not hinder the game-day product. That includes pregame events, halftime shows, and concessions (even beer) on top of the expenses associated with competing athletes. When Jim asked the players how much they would normally pay to travel in a season, he smiled and answered back to the media that they would no longer have to do that. Any conditioning, training and travel costs were being covered by the team in a step to treat them like pros.
As for paying the players like professionals, it was revealed that there is a league-mandated baseline stipend per player. According to Lloyd, the team may choose to pay the players at the beginning or end of the season — the Rush chose the latter. Asking both team officials and the players, the exact number that the Rush players would be paid was unclear and the players were unable to talk about it. Players do all have jobs outside of the team, which is why the Rush announced a program for individual player compensation based on their participation in ticket, merchandise and community participation events. But at this time, there would be no stock options for the players to control a stake in the Rush, or any AUDL team, as the league as a whole decided it would not be pursuing that option.
Within the league, revenue sharing will be taking place and Jim Lloyd mentioned at the event that it is being done because the owners felt the need to support all of the teams; “It’s not every man for himself,” he said. This revenue sharing would include streaming profits, ad revenue and any league-wide sponsorship deals that are obtained. The owners have been working together great so far, Lloyd said, including a collaborative effort to provide game stats, led by the Madison Radicals owners, and numerous other improvements.
Ticket sales are often a question of concern, even for the major professional sports, but in a stadium of 5,000 people, 1,000 season ticket holders is the goal for the team. So far, they’re at 300, but the team seems to have a clear plan to make sure the stadium is packed for opening day on May 4th. “We’re in it for the long haul… we’ve made commitments,” said Jim Lloyd.
Toronto & Ultimate
Also speaking at the conference was Jason Robinson, the General Manager of Toronto Ultimate Club (TUC). TUC has over 10,000 members and is a major driving force for Ultimate in the Greater Toronto Area as well as the touring community in the region. Jason spoke about TUC’s partnership with the Rush and the contributions that the players would be making. Primarily, the players will be assisting with clinics and camps throughout the summer, which indicates commitment outside of the regular season. Jason emphasized the presence of the team as a big win for Ultimate as “anything to promote Ultimate in the region is positive”. When asked if TUC was offering any financial incentives to the Rush or players Jason happily stated that they were not.
In many ways, the partnership is much more positive for TUC than for the Rush as the professional team seeks to gain acceptance and audience in the region.
Home Field Advantage
The Rush definitely have a home field advantage at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. The outdoor stadium, which holds 5,000 people, sits in the middle of both downtown Toronto and a very active college campus that serves over 33,000 undergraduate students alone. Anita Comelia, an Assistant Dean with the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, spoke at the press conference of the important role the campus will play – and why the Department jumped on to sponsor the team. Citing the popularity of the sport of ultimate already in her student body alone, the partnership with the Department Comelia said, only made sense in order to increase participation in the sport among students and faculty, and increase popularity of the Rush.
Indeed, those who attend or are fresh out of the college life are the prime demographics that Cary Kaplan mentioned in an answer to a question later in the conference – 22-30 year olds. These are who helped bring in sponsors, a benefit which the Rush hope will only increase because of the opportunity this location provides.
Both Coaches Evan Phillips and Scott Hastie were certainly excited for the venue, both mentioning the close proximity of the subway and the atmosphere fans will certainly bring. He compared it to past NexGen games held in Toronto, though hoping the home games now could top even that. Another reason for the excitement may be that many of his players are very familiar with the field site. The fields are where many of the Toronto leagues and a past Canadian Ultimate Championships were held. In a busy area of Toronto, especially on weekends, those CUC games attracted many random people off of the streets, who had simply seen the sport being played and wanted to see more. The Rush hope that happens yet again with their home games.
Another aspect that could help drive the home field advantage would be the plans to bring local teams to the games, even just to watch. With the high school championships happening not too far away on opening weekend, the Rush are working closely with tournament organizers to bring the entire tournament out to the stadium for the first professional game in Toronto.
GOAT out for pasture?
The big question many are wondering with many teams this summer – where does that leave the club team GOAT? Speaking with Coaches Evan Phillips, Scott Hastie, and a few players, none were all too concerned about the future of GOAT, and other Toronto area club teams. The two seasons don’t have much overlap, and any overlap (like for the U.S. Open) was quickly corrected by the AUDL’s scheduling. Given the parallel seasons, Hastie doesn’t see anything too different out of GOAT for this season.
It may mean that the team has to miss out on some early tournaments, such as Cazenovia – an early season tournament held in May in Syracuse, New York – something that Coach Hastie was upset about. But he and the players were also very excited about the new opportunities that the Rush would provide them.
Coach Hastie also wasn’t worried about any player absence on GOAT due to the Rush, or other commitments such as U-23, as they’ve had it before, and the AUDL training has been largely the same. And for that reason, Hastie mentioned that he really wasn’t nervous about burnout, something that was heavily speculated last year in the Philadelphia Spinners switch from the AUDL to Southpaw and USAU. Focus could prove to be an issue though; many of the players spend Saturday practicing with the Rush, and during the week practicing for GOAT, Grand Trunk or other club teams, or preparing for the U-23 championships.
Many club players before have mentioned the differences in the AUDL, and that was once again stressed by the Rush. Coaches and players said that getting used to referees especially would take some getting used to, but the wider fields wouldn’t be too much of an issue.
All in all, the media day was a success for the Rush. To truly get an inside look at the business side of the AUDL, and to see just how much the professional teams can impact their local ultimate community, was very telling in how professional ultimate may be able to mix both the spirit of ultimate and money.