This weekend the Seattle Rainmakers thrashed the San Francisco Dogfish 20-14 to get back to .500 on the season. That’s two weeks in a row racking up Ws over the Bay Area’s most-named-after-an-IPA ultimate team. Are we talking playoffs for the Rainmakers? I don’t know. Is this a rivalry to rival the Seahawks and the 49ers? Probably not. But are we talking playoffs? Really, I don’t know.
In addition to premature conversations about playoffs, talking this week with University of Washington Women’s ultimate head coach Kyle Weisbrod helped illuminate both the pros and cons of professionalization in ultimate. The cool thing about being a newcomer to a (relatively) new sport is that there’s so much to learn about. Tactics, skills, politics: it’s all there and it’s all fresh and exciting. Talking to someone who knows the sport’s history and who has opinions about how it’s growing helped me contextualize what I’ve already been learning about the game.
Aside from the potential of income driving top athletes to play frisbee (realistically, that’s probably years, and maybe even decades away) the biggest potential positive from professionalism is tactical innovation. Weisbrod spoke to the culture of consensus that exists within the sport, and while consensus is a great way to bring people into a game, it’s not the best way to get a team to roll out a brand new strategy. If an organization is run by the players as a collective, they’ll have to compromise. Compromise is the enemy of innovation.
Our conversation made me think about Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, the definitive text on the history of tactical innovation in modern soccer. The modern game emerged from a combination of great coaches, changes in equipment, the modification of the offside rule, and brilliant players. Even mature professional sports are constantly changing, and each change that took soccer form a violent medieval game to the (relatively) non-violent game of today was signaled by the implementation of a new formation by one team that then proliferated across the globe. Watching soccer from just a decade ago looks radically different than today’s game, due in large part to what’s happened at FC Barcelona over that time. Barcelona emphasized passing accuracy and maintaining possession, and used their academy to instill this philosophy in its players from the age of seven. Teams can either emulate Barca’s approach or react to it, but either way they exist within the context of Barcelona.
Which is to say that ultimate is ripe for new tactics. I don’t know nearly enough about the game to be able to know what that would look like. But seven people can move a disc down a field a bunch of different ways, and they can also stop the disc a bunch of different ways. Even if the MLU and AUDL don’t survive as the dominant professional leagues for the sport into the future, they could be incubators for new ways to play. They already are changing the size of the field and the weight distribution of the disc. Why not more? I’ve heard that I need to watch the AUDL Seattle Cascades, and my conversation with Weisbrod only made this more clear. Apparently the Cascades are playing a faster game that looks different than what most teams are trying, and yeah, I’ve gotta check that out soon.
The women’s game
While innovation may flourish under a franchised professional model, there remains the question of inclusivity. This weekend saw the first professional appearance for a female ultimate player in the AUDL (Jessi Jones for the Raleigh Flyers, who played on a one-game contract), but there isn’t much in the way of gender parity in the MLU and AUDL. And the American professional sports model doesn’t exactly have a great legacy when it comes to gender.
The closest thing to a success story is the oft-maligned WNBA, which has nowhere near the cultural or financial impact of the men’s pro game. And even the WNBA was only able to emerge due to the largess of an already mature pro league. Would a potentially struggling investor in a nascent professional sporting league be expected to shoulder the burden of a second league? No. So if they’re only supporting the men’s game, what of the women’s?
I’m not the first person to bring this up in this publication. Taylor Kanemori asked these questions a couple years ago. To put my money where my mouth is as it were (my money in this case being my attention), I’m going to check out some of the Women’s College Nationals on ESPN3 this weekend to get a feel for the difference between the men’s and women’s games.