August 7, 2013 by Charlie Eisenhood in Interview with 17 comments
Yesterday, I spoke with the AUDL’s Tim DeByl, the coach and owner of the Madison Radicals as well as a board member of the league, about the upcoming offseason, the expansion plans, the league’s competition with Major League Ultimate, and more.
This is a partial transcript of our conversation, which you can listen to in full right here.
Ultiworld: I want to think a little bit about where this league is headed. And I guess we should start by talking about expansion. This has really been a big question mark for the AUDL. Where is the league going to expand to? A year ago, it seemed like expansion was limitless and anyone who wanted a team could start one in their city. Is that still the plan going forward or has their been a little bit of thinking about the growth of the league?
Tim DeByl: Well, I’ll tell you that we’re definitely thinking a lot more about it, probably than when just [former owner] Josh [Moore] was running the league. If you remember, the Board took over in January and we already had a lot of franchises sold. We spent a lot of time with those expansion owners during the season and, even in Chicago, we had a nice meet and greet between the current owners and a lot of the expansion owners came in.
Right now we’re looking at maps. We’re looking at how to keep things competitive but also with an eye on the travel expenses. We both know that for this league to succeed, you have to control your travel expenses. I wouldn’t say that there’s anything that’s 100% on the table. I think we definitely want to add some teams next year, and we definitely are going to reshuffle or realign some of the existing teams.
We’re gonna take the next two months or so and basically reevaluate all the existing teams and look at the competitive landscape of those teams and how they fit in with all the other teams. And also maybe look to fill in a few spots that we don’t either have expansion teams in now or are sort of people that we know are on the bubble.
UW: When you talk about reconsidering teams from this season, what exactly does that mean? I think it’s no secret that the AUDL is bipolar, in a way, in the success of its various markets. Obviously you have stars like Toronto, Chicago, and you guys in Madison. But you also have teams, especially on the East Coast, that aren’t pulling more than 100 fans, or even 50 fans a game. It’s hard to see where you go from there, even in cities you would think are key cities to have, like Washington or New York.
How do you deal with the problem of very underwhelming attendance in some of these cities?
TD: We’re basically starting by having one-on-one discussions with the owners to find out where their heads are at for next year. As far as I know, everyone is planning on coming back. But, we’re going to have heart-to-hearts with everybody and see if they still plan on doing that.
As far as attedance goes, the league is going to be in a lot better position next year to maybe help a lot of those places with their marketing efforts. I mean, how many people are in New York City, Charlie?
UW: I mean it’s…eight million in the metro, I think.
TD: So, I mean, we have eight million potential viewers. I think we can probably get more than 100 people to a game next year. We came into this in January — pretty much all the board members were new to it. We were on a pretty big learning curve, too.
You can see the teams that were really engaged and understood a little more on the business side: Madison, Chicago, and Toronto. We all did very well. There’s just no reason we can’t do that in some of those other cities. Those cities were not doing the same thing we were doing. I think that’s pretty clear to anybody on the outside.
So I think were going to try to make sure that those cities are going to follow the models that are working. And we didn’t have, sort of, a working model at the beginning of the season. And we didn’t really understand exactly how we would get fans and what would work and what wouldn’t work. But I think right now we’re in a much better position to help out those franchises.
UW: One of the things about the three cities you just mentioned is that none of them are competing directly with Major League Ultimate. So, this is something that is an additional challenge — and maybe even a greater challenge than just getting fans to the game at all — but having to compete with a rival league. And one that in most of the cities in which the two leagues competed — I guess in all — the MLU outperformed the AUDL both in player talent and in attendance.
What do you do? Obviously this is a broader issue than just these particular cities. Having two professional ultimate leagues is its own sort of crazy thing. It’s my understanding that you guys are headed to the West Coast as well, where you’ll be competing with the MLU out there. What do you do to compete with this upstart league that, in one year, has to many people looked like the better league, and the one with higher attendance, etc.?
TD: Well, they had an existing model that worked. They took the Spinners model and they applied it to cities that they felt it would work in. And it did work for them. They took existing club teams and they built the MLU franchise around those teams. I think that was a great strategy for them. We didn’t have — I don’t think we had the same chance to do that.
I think we have a different strategy, and I think we’re going to be able to apply that to our new franchises both on the East and on the West coast. And we’re hopeful that we can compete with them.
Personally, I don’t think that the talent level is really — and we’ve talked about this before — at the end of the day the most important thing. There are millions of people in New York City who won’t be able to name a single ultimate player. But those people could still potentially come to the game.
In Madison, what I noticed, was that as the season wore on, we kept seeing more and more new faces in the building because we spent a lot of time marketing to non-ultimate people. Even in Madison, we’re full of ultimate people — [but] you can’t 800-900 people at a game every single week out of that ultimate crowd. You have to reach a broader audience. A much broader audience. I’m shooting for an attendance of 1500 next year and I need to reach way beyond the ultimate crowd.
Yea, the MLU did a really good job of refocusing their energy on the ultimate scene. And I mentioned to you early last season, we were really going to try to branch out and reach a broader audience. I’m not sure that we knew how to do that — I think we do now. And I think we can apply that to our existing franchises.
UW: When you say you know how to do that now, what do you mean?
TD: [Laughs] Well, the [sponsored] article you posted for me during College Nationals sort of spoke to it: basically treating each game more like an event. And making sure there are things to talk about. We had bacon on a stick, we had very popular beer from a local micro brew. We had things, water cooler stuff, that people will talk about the next day.
I went to a game, I had bacon on a stick. They’re not going to talk about this great layout or something like that. That’s just not where the sport is right now. We kind of focused on really making an event that people would talk about and also trying to create a community around it.
We promoted tailgating, we really tried to get our gear in the hands of the fans early in the season through promotions. And I think all that worked. You can’t walk around Madison without seeing somebody in a Radicals shirt. And when I wear any of our Radicals gear, I get a crazy amount of attention from people.
Part of it, I think, is that it’s a little different in Madison. There’s a vibrant downtown that’s very compact and very walkable, so there’s a lot of activity going on all the time there. Basically, just really trying to get outside of posting on Facebook and showing up at ultimate events and trying to get the ultimate players to come out.
UW: One of the things the AUDL has been dealing with since January is a major overhaul in leadership and, in some ways, the business model. You’ve been right there for all of it. You came in when the league was still in a rough spot late in 2012 and you’ve watched this league transition.
How are you feeling about where you guys sit? And are you confident in the new leadership and the direction the league is heading?
TD: Yea, I’m absolutely confident. This season, we didn’t allocate enough resources to some things: to video, to our online presence. We spent a lot of time on the contract side, making sure that we had a strong bond between all the teams and a strong system to get everything in place.
If you saw at our Championship game, I was very hopeful when we ended up with some great sponsors in CDW, Salesforce.com, Ford Motors. These are big name sponsors that are outside anything even USAU has been able to do. And so of course I’m hopeful. Having those sponsors is going to allow us to allocate more funds towards some of our other projects going forward.
I think — and this isn’t a cut at what the MLU is doing — we took a much more pragmatic approach towards our investors’ money. We didn’t want to spend it all this year. We wanted to make sure we understood the business a little bit better before we started plowing money into it.
And I think a lot of people saw that as maybe a weakness for us this year. We didn’t do as much free video, our websites weren’t quite as good, and we didn’t spend as much money on uniforms. But all that said, I think at the end of the day I was extremely happy with how our championship game turned out and how the season turned out.
UW: Can you talk a little bit more about these sponsors? This is something that has developed in the last week or two. Are these companies that just signed on for the Championship event, or is this something that’s going to be a longer term deal?
TD: I can’t really speak to any of the long term side of it. For the Championship event, these guys were great. I personally was working directly with people from CDW, with people from Accenture who were kind of aligned with that, to help both understand how to market within Chicago and a little bit more within social media.
They had a great time. They had a great time doing it. They had a great time at the event. They CDW people were great, I thought the Charles Barkley commercial they gave us to use was pretty fun.
I think that we have an asset in [AUDL owner] Rob Lloyd that a lot of the other — I’ll say the USAU and MLU — don’t have. He creates access for us. If we can prove to those businesses that we’re something that’s worth sponsoring, we’re going to have an advantage.
UW: One of the things that I think everybody in the sport is looking for right now is those outside sponsors, extrinsic sponsors. Not just the jersey companies, not just the various small businesses that have popped up around ultimate in the last five or six years.
Is having Rob Lloyd the ticket here? For those that may not know, Rob Lloyd is the majority owner of the AUDL at this point and he is also a high-level executive at Cisco, a major multinational corporation, and is talked about being next in line for CEO of the company. So he’s a big deal. So here he is, sitting at the top of an ultimate frisbee league (which is crazy enough on its own). Is this the ticket towards success that none of these other organizations have?
TD: I wouldn’t say that. I would say that what Rob gives us is a way in the door. I mean, [league Commissioner] Steve [Gordon] does most of the contact with these companies. He’s very eloquent, he knows his way around business, and he does a good job. And he speaks very well for us.
The combination of them has been very good for us on that side, with Rob opening the door and Steve, sort of — Steve has really embraced the sport. He loves it. And Rob already loved it. Between the two of them, they show the passion for the sport that we all have, and I think it’s been working. I mean, you can see from our sponsorships that it’s working.
UW: When you look at Major League Ultimate, what do you see? I’m wondering if there’s ever been a part of you that’s said, ‘I wish I had gotten involved with Major League Ultimate. I love what they’re doing this season.’
I think, for many people, they look at these two leagues and, if you only follow online, it’s fairly easy to say Major League Ultimate is clearly the more impressive organization right now. They were on ESPN’s SportsCenter a bunch of times and their internet presence, as you’ve already pointed out, looks a lot better. But you mentioned earlier that you have questions about their financing. Is this one year not enough of a sample size to decide between the two leagues?
TD: Well, I don’t have questions about their financing. I don’t know anything about their financing. I was just saying that I know they spent a lot more money than us this year. And it wasn’t as if we didn’t have some funds to spend, I think that we took a more balanced or more pragmatic approach to see where things were going this year. For me, yea, [MLU Commissioner] Jeff [Snader] was in the AUDL during my period in the AUDL. So Jeff and I became pretty close. I still talk to Jeff — it’s not as if we don’t speak.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for what those guys are doing. They put out a great product this year, for sure. And I think it’s good for everybody that they’re doing that. We’re so far from being a primetime sport that anything that anyone does to help move that along is good for all of us.
I was tremendously happy to see USAU pull off that ESPN deal. That is great for us. MLU being on ESPN is great for us. I have nothing but good things to say about that. And that’s totally sincere.
UW: When you talk to USA Ultimate…they don’t believe that the AUDL and MLU — these professional or quasi-professional models — make sense or are right for the sport. And they feel very strongly and are vocal about the fact that they have the best way forward. And they’re simply not supportive of what you or Major League Ultimate is doing. Why do you think that is?
They’re being protective. I don’t know exactly why it is. We’ve had conversations with them where they were cordial, but at the same time, they treat us much more as the enemy than we do them. And I think part of it is that they have had complete control of the sport for a long time. And I think they just feel like we’re doing something to it that is different than what they’re doing. And I think they want to make sure they continue to have the elite players. I think that is mostly a status thing.
I don’t think from a revenue standpoint or an organizational standpoint that any of that really helps them. I think that is much more of a pride issue.
I’ve been a USAU member for a long time an I love the events they put on. It’s frustrating that they have zero support to basically trying to prevent us from being successful in some ways. But there’s no way we can really change that relationships at this point, I think. I think they use the refs as possible sort of a wedge issue. I’m not sure they really feel like refs are going to permeate down through the sport. I think that they just know that amongst a pretty vocal minority, that refs aren’t as popular as observers. Though I find that there’s not much of a difference.
UW: The development of the sport has been fascinating to watch unfold…Where do you think Ultimate will be in three years? I want you to focus on two parts: where will the pro leagues be, and how will USA Ultimate look in three years? I’d be interested to hear if you think there will be some sort of merger or if things will continue on sort of more of the status quo.
Well, three years isn’t really that long of a time. I don’t think there will be a merger between the AUDL and MLU — I think that’s probably too short of a time. I don’t see either one of us going under or having issues in that time. I also don’t think that either one of us will have dominated to the point where they’ll be on ESPN. I feel like that number is way beyond three years.
As far as USAU goes, I think they’re going to continue to creep the Series into the summer, compete with us. I think it’s going to cause some real conflicts between club players who want to do both. This year we tried really hard to avoid any USAU conflicts as much as we could — we had U23s, we had Worlds, there was just a ton of stuff going on.
I think what’s going to happen is that the club players are going to be the ones with the most changes happening. I think a lot of them are going to have to decide which way they’re going to go. And I think Tom Crawford alluded to in that [SB] Nation article where he said, ‘You’re going to have to have a choice.’ And I think that choice is going to be because USAU is going to try to move into what we thought was a pretty good time for a pro league which was the end of the college season into mid-summer, sort of a warmup for USAU club.
I think there’s going to be a collision at some point and that’s going to be hard for players. I know for a lot of my players, they had an amazing time. They still want to play [Madison] Club, and most of them are, not all of them but most of them are. And I don’t want to see conflict for them just because USAU wants to leverage them into — I don’t know if they want to put us out of business. With our business model, they’re not going to put us out of business. I think that the MLU might have a little more trouble if they USAU were to drop the club season in the middle of the MLU season, since they’re using, to some extent, existing club teams.
UW: Right, but aren’t your top cities also doing that?
TD: For sure. We had 16 Madison Club players out of 27. I think Toronto had 18. I think Chicago, I don’t know what their exact number was, but almost every player on that team was at one point a Machine player, short of Brodie [Smith]. But I don’t know that that had much to do with the success in the stands. It certainly had to do with the success on the field.
But you could take the example of Indy. I know you have a lot of respect for Thom and Tim Held. I have grown to really respect not only them but the players on Indy. People don’t really know much about that part of the country, but they’ve built a nice AUDL team there. And those guys were super competitive and they gave us some really hard games.
UW: What does the AUDL need to do in the offseason? What are your goals in the next nine months?
TD: I think you can break it down into two things: understand our expansion and understand our existing franchises, and figure out what’s the alignment and how does it work a little bit better than it did this year. We certainly want to make sure that everyone is getting competitive games. I think the Rush suffered a little bit from not having quite as much competition as people would want to see them have.
So we’re looking at some different models to see if we can bring some teams across conferences on occasion, but with an eye on the travel costs.
On the other side, we want to refocus on helping franchises market locally. We think that tickets are still the number one revenue source for this. And if you have good ticket sales, you’re going to survive. But on top of that, we certainly want to do a better job on our online presence, do a little bit better job with video. We obviously aren’t going to go to a free video model anytime soon. We have a little different model than the MLU, and a lot of people feel that that is a bit of a weakness of ours. We might agree with them, but we’re treating the video as a bit of a business and we want to be sure we’re paying for what we’re doing, or at least trying to pay for it.
The production of this stuff is amazingly expensive.
We want to improve upon all that stuff. And I think we’re going to try to create a more central organization to do that.
UW: What are you going to do in cities where you have teams that directly compete with the MLU?
TD: Well, we’re going to try to give them a little more support. But I think this comes back down to what I was alluding to with the eight million people in New York City. We continue to talk about these few thousand players in New York, and fracturing them and having them compete against the Rumble. I don’t think that’s the right conversation to have.
We are going to continue to focus off that group. And we just need to find better ways to do that. We certainly want to compete with the Rumble in New York for players; we want to improve our talent. But what we need to do, and the way we’re going to do that, is to create a very good system in which our franchises are sound. And when we do that, it will be much easier to attract talent.
For the full conversation, listen to the audio interview.