Ultimate Fans

by | May 21, 2014, 8:31am 0

Kevin Leclaire - UltiPhotos.com

Fans… an essential part of sports. Or are they?

Spectators are the way conventional sports make money. People come to watch games, or they watch at home via lucrative TV deals; they buy gear, food, alcohol, they become obsessed with regional teams, they create massive communities of support. Most of all, their eyes are blasted with the millions of advertisements associated with athletic competitions.

But the sport of ultimate has an interesting relationship with its fans. The majority of spectators at most tournaments are simply players, who are not currently involved in a game, or have driven to see a particular tournament. The at-home fanbase is the same; most people who watch NGN, Ultivillage, or the sport on ESPN are players in some form or another, and the same goes for the audience of ultimate magazine or blog readers.

And yet, there are people out there that watch the sport, who have never played and who have no intention of ever giving it a try. There are people that enjoy watching ultimate, who travel to see games, to support teams, and who spend their money on jerseys, food, or tickets and their vision on advertisements. Sometimes, these fans, just like players, have complaints about the way ultimate related events are run or set up, especially in comparison to other sports. For a sport that often lacks spectators, the casual fan can feel a large lack of amenities (seating, food options, clear information, and more).

Most ultimate tournaments don’t have concessions and aren’t inside of major population centers, due to the massive amount of space needed for a tournament. While a fan can watch from just about anywhere (on the ground or with a lawnchair) bleachers or seats aren’t often provided. A lack of scoreboards and a lack of refs make it hard for some people to follow, especially when points drag or disputes or stoppages ensue. And there has been a great deal of complaint over the shift to a “Follow the Action” page on the USAU website. The old score reporter was slow and often disorganized, but it at least had concrete dates and maps. The new pages are disliked by many because of the, the lack of information for spectators (such as where or when these contests are held), and the difficulty to navigate and find information on the page itself.

Players or coaches usually can figure it all out and deal with any lack of nicety, although they may grumble along the way. But fans are used to being treated, to being the guests, to have an easier way to watch, enjoy, and understand the sport. They are the ones who need to be catered to, to won over, to be drawn in.

Are these people (these fans) overlooked? Does ultimate do little for the casual fan? And is that a good or bad thing? There are some who say the sport is changing and that it is only becoming better  for the spectator…. and there are those who say ultimate is on the verge of driving every fan away.

Michelle Swiatek is the mother of five children, four of whom play ultimate. She is what comes to mind when many people imagine fans at tournaments; she is there to watch one of her children play, but she is also a fan of the game.

Kevin Leclaire - UltiPhotos.com

Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com

“I love ultimate! Not just because my kids play, but because it is exciting, fast paced, and self-officiated,” Michelle says. “ I love that it is as much about spirit as the score. I love that all you need is a field, some cones and a frisbee.I love that it is as much about girls in the sport as it is the boys. Ultimate is the ultimate sport!”

Michelle first got involved watching her son Evan, who now captains Marquette. In many ways, she is the definition of a great ultimate parent. “We try and support him and his team by getting to as many tournaments as possible,” Michelle explains. “We even host his whole team every year for the Chicago Invite tournament. I love the high level of play at the college level, but am often disappointed by the lack of spectators at that level.”

However, Michelle also has children playing in high school and middle school. For the middle school program, she even serves as the Program Director. “If you were to see me on the sidelines at a game you might see me sunscreening the kids, reminding them to hydrate, and ultimately cheering on the game!” Michelle says. “ I tweet scores for the parents at home and I have even been known to ride a bus full of very loud middle schoolers/high schoolers to a tournament as a chaperone. I do all of this because I love the game. Ultimate offers kids a sport that they can excel at when soccer, football, or baseball isn’t their passion. Ultimate is the ultimate sport and I guess you might say that I am a very involved Ultimate Mom.”

Michelle is a great ultimate mom. But, even though she is involved because of her children, she also enjoys watching the game in her free time. “Absolutely I am a fan of ultimate!” Michelle proclaims. “I follow tweets, I watch youtube videos, and I watch streaming of the Chicago Wildfire whenever I can. Not only that, but I am a spectator at a tournament almost every weekend from March to June.”

Amy Kersten is another example of an ultimate mom who has taken her dedication to the next level. She started as a casual spectator because of her son, but has become extremely involved in the University of Iowa program, now serving on their Board of Directors, acting as website and fan/ parent coordinator, and providing a great deal of support at tournaments. “ I try to provide healthy food and drinks so they can maintain their level of play throughout a tournament,” says Kersten, who has been known to carry several food-filled coolers to Iowa games. “I’ve brought tarps to cover gear and first aid supplies – whatever I can do so the players can focus on the game. And, I yell . . . a lot.”

Amy also loves watching ultimate just for the virtues of the game. “Ultimate requires such athleticism and skill,” she says. “I am constantly amazed when someone threads a disc between defenders or lays out for a D or leaps vertically over several other players to come down with the disc. Plus ultimate teams have some of the most creative names and sideline cheers I’ve ever heard.” Her husband has also been a great boon to Iowa’s program, helping out in physical therapy with his company, and giving his time to the tournaments they attend.

These kind of amazing parents are becoming more and more common as ultimate fans. They are doing wonders for the game and its support. But both Michelle and Amy believe the sport needs more exposure and a few tweaks to help make the spectating experience better.

“Ultimate is very fan-friendly!” Michelle explains. “All you need is a folding chair to watch…and not even that if you pace the sideline as I often do! However, if there is one area of improvement, it is absolutely broadening the reach and the audience. The more exposure that people have to the sport, the more fans it will gain. If you get people to watch one game they are hooked! A second improvement area is to educate people about ultimate. The rules are short and simple, but most people don’t know them. I find that I am often explaining the rules to other spectators when I am on the sidelines. Like any other sport, understanding the rules of the game enhances the experience for the spectator!”

Amy Kersten agrees that people are often hooked on the game quickly, especially after observing spirit of the game at work; however, she too has ideas for improvement. “To help current fans and build a fan base, just a few simple things can make a huge difference – fan FAQ sections on team websites, readable scoreboards on the sidelines, directions to field locations, and knowledgeable fans willing to answer questions for newbies.”

Both women represent ultimate parents, who are most often seen in college and club circles. However, new avenues are opening up in the sport and with them come major changes- to rules, format, and spirit of the game- much of it in the name of bringing more people, more fans, into the sport.

Professional leagues are beginning, in direct contrast with USA Ultimate, and these teams also aim to be more fan friendly, with easy-to-navigate web pages with set rosters and scheduled games. The competition also comes in a single-game format, largely based around urban centers, which can be more similar to what some fans are used to. Referees, rule changes, and clocks are further changes to make the sport more accessible. The pro movements especially hope to draw fans from outside the immediate family and bring the mainstream public to the table.

On the flip side, USA Ultimate is doing much to widen the appeal of the sport with an ESPN alliance and the Triple Crown Tour. There has been a great amount of criticism over the tour format, with “major” tournaments scheduled months in advance and coordinated specifically to draw fans in, and this has only given fuel to the pro movements.

Jonathan “Goose” Helton, a player on Windy City Wildfire and a prominent member of the AUDL, believes fans are absolutely critical for the pro leagues. “We need spectators for ticket sales a merchandise,” he says. “And correspondingly, corporate sponsors are only interested in involvement with activities that can boost their own business.  In other words, without eyes watching our sport, sponsors, which are critical to financially legitimize Pro-Ultimate’s existence, won’t see any appeal.  They won’t see potential customers.”

Helton also describes that fans help the players, not only to further enjoy themselves, but also as motivation and energy during points. He, just like most high-level athletes, want the audience to grow, so they can keep playing for that audience.

Goose, from his perspective as an elite player on both club and pro teams, views the AUDL as a more fan-friendly entity for disc sports. “I haven’t seen any raw numbers, but it seems to me that the AUDL is showcasing Ultimate to more people each year than the USAU by a considerable margin,” he explains. “It is a do-or-die situation for the AUDL whereas the USAU draws it’s revenue from membership.  Because of this fundamental difference, you see the AUDL and its franchises being very active in generating interest in the sport and events.  They are landing TV and radio spots, newspaper articles, buying print advertising, and maximizing social media.  It is a huge endeavor to pursue participation from the non-ultimate community and it isn’t clear that major success has been achieved.  But progress has been made.”

Goose has several suggestions to increase fans for the game. “I think one of the most important steps is to make broadcast viewership free and accessible for all,” he says. “ If people cannot watch our games with a click of a couple of buttons, then we will have major trouble getting first-time viewers.  Thankfully, the AUDL has made some significant progress here.  How else?  I think attendance needs to be inexpensive for families.  It makes a lot of sense to offer corporate discounting for ticket purchases.  High Schools are ripe with potential fans who are oft looking for alternatives to mainstream sporting venues.  You gotta get them in the door.”

Once fans are present, Goose wants promotional game-day experiences beyond the match itself to help make the day memorable and create an appetite for regular attendance. “It’s a lot like throwing a great party.  There are some critical components, but there is also an art to it.”

Andy Lee, Director of Marketing and Communications for USA Ultimate, tells Skyd about fan importance to their organization. “Fans are incredibly important to the sport of ultimate,” he says, “which is a sentiment that is captured in both our organizational vision and the strategic plan we released two years ago. And making the sport more visible to new fans is a concept that has helped shape some of our decisions, so fans are very important in the sense that we consider them alongside participants when making both high level organizational strategic decisions as well as day-to-day operational ones.”

Lee offers a point of view different than the pro-leagues, arguing that the tournament structure is far more fan-friendly than a single-game format. “Fans can attend a major tournament like a Triple Crown Tour event, the U.S. Open or College Nationals – often for free – and watch several games over the course of a day across all divisions.” At tournaments, fans can wander freely, mingle with athletes, and have a great view, of any of the various games offered, from anywhere they wish to sit on a lawn chair.

And, just like Helton mentioned, USA Ultimate is trying to make the tournament more than just a competition, but also a great all-around experience. “Over the course of the last several years we’ve really converted what used to be ‘tournaments’ to ‘events’, with all sorts of ancillary activities, all designed to attract more fans and give them a true fan experience. The U.S. Open is a great example of this, not only because of the world-class competition, but because of all of the other activities, social events and interactive learning experiences for the community, which is part of the fan base.”

Lee also cites the continued and growing connection to local communities, including major population centers like Raleigh where the U.S. Open was held last year (in connection with a city festival and 4th of July celebration), as well as youth organizations and school districts to help bring the game to a new audience. Lee mentioned that at this year’s U.S. Open, they’ve partnered with Minnesota FC United Soccer Club and the City of Blaine to host a showcase game and tailgate party for an estimated 7,500 soccer fans; this event hopes to showcase ultimate to these new fans as well, who will be present.

There are opposing views for the future, each offering different opinions on what is best for the hot commodity that is the ultimate fan.

As the game of ultimate grows in popularity, and as high-level disc sports are displayed, the audiences should become more and more diverse. Currently, most fans can fall into two categories: Either 1. A player of the game in some form or another who also enjoys watching, or 2. A friend or family member of an ultimate player. Ultimate has yet to reach the popularity to draw in casual viewers who aren’t currently connected to the world of the sport through more direct lines. Still, with more and more coverage, many hope that ultimate fans will grow in number.

Others argue that, with popularity, ultimate will lose much of its value. There has been some criticism of the pro-league movement because it is eliminating many aspects of the game that some treasure (such as spirit of the game or the tournament culture) in favor of bringing in people who are not familiar with the sport. That same argument can be made with USA Ultimate changing the club tournament structure with the Triple Crown Tour and a more official system. The push for the mainstream thus becomes a balancing act, with purists and promoters in a tug of war on either end, a battle for the future, and some would say soul, of the culture.

Regardless, one of the fascinating things about this world is that it is still rapidly changing; the future holds a variety of very interesting possibilities for players, organizers, and yes, especially fans.

This article is dedicated to and inspired by my father, Don Rummelhart, an ultimate “fan”.

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