On Growing Ultimate Down Under

by | March 4, 2014, 1:00pm 0

New Zealand's Aaron Neal (#17) fights for a disc on the 2013 NexGen tour.  Christina Schmidt- UltiPhotos.com

New Zealand’s Aaron Neal (#17) fights for a disc on the 2013 NexGen tour.
Christina Schmidt- UltiPhotos.com

People from Australia and New Zealand have been passionate about sport for almost as long as the countries have existed. New Zealand has rugby and the All Blacks, as well as occasional bursts of excellence in other fields, such as rowing or basketball. Likewise, Australia has rugby, cricket, and of course, Australian rules football. While ultimate is experiencing a period of growth in the region, this growth does not come easy. Ultimate has had to compete with many mainstream sports for not only attention, but resources and players alike. Luckily, there are some clever folks behind the scenes who are beginning to solve these problems.

Traditionally, kids in Australia and New Zealand are brought up in a house that favours one sport more than any other. Whether it’s because a mother or father played that sport when they were younger, or because their parents have been following that sport since they were kids, there is often some predisposition towards a particular sport. When it comes time for said kid to adopt a sport, it’s likely they will choose the one they are already familiar with. By the time they’re attending university, where ultimate traditionally thrives, they’ve probably spent more than 10 years in that chosen sport.

Convincing these people to turn their attention to a new sport, especially one that is so different, can be a rather tough sell. Why give up all their expertise and experience in one sport only to start again in another? It is because of this that the organisers of ultimate in Ballarat (a city of 80,000 in Victoria, Australia) focused on people new to sport entirely. The club is now a thriving community, hosting tournaments and attending national level competitions.

This approach should apply well in larger ultimate communities, such as Europe or North America. The traditional sports in those regions often have a very firm grasp on their players, perhaps even more so than those in Australia and New Zealand. Turning recruitment efforts towards people who don’t already play a regular sport will lead to easy wins and increases in player numbers.

New Zealand has had particular success focusing on youth ultimate, which has seen player numbers jump substantially in recent years. Out of nowhere, they managed to enter a team into the 2012 World Junior Ultimate Championships. New Zealand has also been working to get ultimate included in their high school curriculum, meaning that an increasing number of kids are seeing ultimate first-hand before joining a club.

It is clear from the growth of youth ultimate tournaments that exposing kids to ultimate at an increasingly younger age is working. Countries all over the world are starting to put together Under 17, Under 19, and Under 23 teams and send them to compete in tournaments. There are now national and international competitions at all of these age levels, and the tournaments are growing with every iteration.

Smaller cities present another problem: getting access to facilities and funding. With smaller populations comes smaller amounts of available funding for sport. Available funding is often divided between the more traditional sports, leaving ultimate to fight for funding designated for “fringe” or “upcoming” sports. This is also true for getting access to facilities, such as grounds for training or tournaments. Sports that have been around for a long time and attract a larger crowd usually take priority. This particular issue is a tough one to crack. Some clubs are finding success by establishing ongoing relationships with local organizations, which ensure access to fields, as well as discounts for using them. Unfortunately for the time being, this will be an issue for a lot of clubs.

While it can be hard at times to find players, it is harder still to find people in the community to run the clubs. As a lot of the clubs in Australia and New Zealand are still in their infancy, there is often only a small number of people behind the scenes. This often gives the impression that running a club is a tough job, which drives people away from volunteering. Another issue is that a lot of clubs don’t have people with the experience that would help them in running a club. Ultimate Victoria has introduced an affiliated clubs model to address this. This model involves supporting and educating local club administrators in running a club, which should ensure long-term viability of those clubs.

The rise of social media, online video, and smartphones has been a boon to growing ultimate worldwide. Previously, players had to rely on elevator pitches and hand-drawn diagrams to explain ultimate to newcomers. Nowadays, however, people can be directed to Facebook groups or YouTube videos, which do a much better job of explaining a very visual sport. These tools also help clubs retain players by making it easier to communicate, encourage camaraderie, and exercise bragging rights.

The current state of broadcast ultimate has a few areas for improvement. At present, games recorded by groups like NexGen or Ulti.tv are commentated by players. This often leads to commentary that includes nothing more than narrating what the players are doing and referring to people by nicknames. It seems as if those behind those videos are assuming their entire viewer base will be ultimate players as well. The commentary needs to include a little more explanation of what’s happening on the field to make it more educational for viewers new to the sport.

Ultimate could also learn a trick from the early days of broadcast rugby in Australia. During a penalty in rugby, there would be a pop-up during the game to briefly explain the penalty for people new to the sport. Over time, as more people became familiar with the sport, these were phased out. Utilizing the existing periods of stopped play in ultimate by attempting to explain elements of the game to viewers would see viewer numbers for these videos increase, which would lead to more people giving ultimate a try.

The people of Australia and New Zealand have always been passionate about sport. Despite facing a number of challenges in the region, organisers of ultimate there have been able to achieve a fantastic level of growth. The clubs are coming up with new ways to recruit players and manage their long-term success, and they are learning lessons which could have applications in other parts of the world. New players are increasing in number, and getting younger and younger. More of these players are starting to play at an international level, which is an outcome mirrored in other countries. A player from New Zealand, Aaron Neal, even took out the international spot on the NexGen Tour last year. There have been a number of challenges to growing ultimate in Australia and New Zealand so far, as well as some persistent ones, but the solutions to those challenges have truly global applications as well.

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