Having watched on the sidelines as Josh Moore sold franchises to Craigslist buyers, located “professional” teams in sub-optimal ultimate cities, and generally conducted business in a pretty ramshackle manner, I didn’t hold out much hope for pro ultimate.
Then, watching the American Ultimate Disc League’s Philadelphia Spinners spin off their own league, Major League Ultimate, my interest was piqued — I knew a lot more of the MLU’s involved parties personally, they were locating their teams in established cities, and they were coming to my coast. Still, I was doubtful.
I played in the MLU in its first season with the Rainmakers, and enjoyed myself overall. It was fun, albeit much, much different than Sockeye and the USA Ultimate Series, and in the process of playing I certainly questioned the “goodness” of my participation — whether BVH was right in his article, whether some of my female friends were right about the league being the wrong direction for the sport, whether I “owed” it to the sport of ultimate itself to never play with refs. I still question this.
Now we are coming to the 2014 season and I am again incredibly interested in the future of “pro” ultimate. I have always questioned the very viability of the leagues — simply put, I can’t imagine running a business that loses money year after year after year. Without knowing the specifics of their budgets but knowing that ticket sales haven’t been sky-high, I just don’t think they have made money yet and I don’t know when they will.
There are, however, certain movements that have really begun to make me wonder about the direction of ultimate.
For one, USA Ultimate. I am currently one of the two mens division club council representative to USAU (along with PoNY’s Jack Marsh), serving essentially as one of the voices representing the men’s interests for USAU. This has given me an enlightening look into how USAU works, thinks, and operates. The main takeaway I have from this experience is that I see the incredibly stark contrast between the public perception of USAU and the organization’s reality. From my personal conversations with players across divisions and playing levels in the country, as well as the opinions expressed in journalistic pieces, blogs, reddit, RSD, and the comments on each forum, it’s clear that USAU on the whole is seen as Big Government. People don’t trust them to serve the best interest of their members, and they’re seen as slow and inefficient. The reality, whatever it is, is almost moot, since public perception is where it is.
What’s funny is how the verbal abuse has shifted. For years, the complaint was that USAU didn’t change enough — the fact that it took so long for bid allocation to change from size and growth bids was the primary example. Now, they change too much — after shifting the regular season’s bid allocations to a rankings algorithm and pleasing many, they then instituted the Triple Crown Tour, and we know how well teams liked those added costs. Essentially, my take is that people simply don’t like USAU, and furthermore, don’t want to.
Now, the reason for that tangent is twofold. First, this makes pro leagues seem good by comparison: by filling in the blanks of USAU’s version of ultimate, the pro leagues look good by default. Second– and this is the crucial piece that has made me most interested– some of the true leaders of the sport, specifically non-playing leaders, are moving towards pro leagues. Matty Tsang is now a part of the San Francisco Flamethrowers staff in the position of “player development.” Alex “Dutchy” Ghesquiere is coaching the DC Breeze. Ben Wiggins has already been a part of the Rainmakers.
Simply put, players will choose to play in pro leagues for a lot of reasons, with many reasons currently having to do with how the pro leagues will help them in their USAU seasons. Machine, GOAT, PoNY — they all played together a lot more last year thanks to their participation in pro leagues, and they all leveled up.At present, the USAU series remains the focus. However, the shift of major leaders and teachers towards pro leagues is incredibly impactful, especially looking ahead to a USAU club season that will more and more directly overlap and compete with the pro leagues.
In coming years, player choice will be more one or the other — this year may be the last when pro leagues serve as the warm up for the club season. Furthermore, youth, who don’t necessarily know the history and meaning behind one championship versus the other, are being as exposed (if not more) to the pro leagues because of their strong social media presence. At present, a USAU National Championship is truly held as the pinnacle of our nation’s sport, but that can change. It’s simply a matter of what players think is best.
As the top thinkers and leaders in the men’s division begin to choose to participate in the pro leagues, it only serves to draw more talent towards those leagues and further (and better) develop of them to meet the needs of the players. Could elite ultimate abandon the USAU series entirely? Personally, I never thought it’d happen. But I’m starting to doubt myself.