December 18, 2013 by Charlie Eisenhood in Interview, News with 7 comments
Charlie Eisenhood: I’m speaking now with the Commissioner of Major League Ultimate, Jeff Snader, who is now in the first true offseason of the league and getting ready for the second season of competition. Hi Jeff.
Jeff Snader: Hi Charlie, how are you?
I’m doing very well, how are you?
I’m doing very well myself, no complaints.
Really glad you could come on the show. How is the off-season going so far? You have had a lot more time this year to get ready for things than you did last year and I’m wondering how things are going?
This is the first off-season we’ve had that, like you said, is a real off-season with so few distractions. so it’s been kind of wild to get through it. And it’s been enlightening how busy it is as compared to last season. I think we thought maybe it would be less busy, but even in some way it seems to be more busy, just without all the rewards of having games.
But as we work on all the things that we did last year, when we compare them — at this point I don’t even think we had team websites last year. We’ve got our schedule, we’re looking our stadiums and were aligning with sponsors and partners so I definitely think that it is going well so far.
I think one of the big things that’s going to be very interesting to follow in the MLU and across pro ultimate is how are things going to change from year to year, because it’s so new still that everyone is still experimenting with things. What’s going to be different this year than last year? What did you learn from last season and what are you changing for this year that’s going to be implemented in terms of game day experience?
There are some things that you want to change and some things we want to stay the same. That’s something that hasn’t happened yet – just having a second season. And saying, okay I’m used to this and this is great, I get to be the first. So in a lot of ways we want to keep a lot of stuff the same in terms of the experience and what we did.
But in terms of what I think we are focusing on doing better is our live streams and the coverage of that. In the beginning of last season we were struggling pretty, pretty roughly with getting online streams and consistently getting them out in even 720p, let alone 1080p, and having nice HD streams. We finally seemed to figure that out at the end of the season. So we made a couple partnerships already to help with that, to make sure that our streams are top notch just like they were last season.
I would say number two is the fan experience. We learned a lot about how to put on a good game even more, and we want to make sure that people that are coming out are having as much fun as possible with their family and friends and kids, so that the experience is a leg up and they can go and tell everybody else that they are going to see an MLU game was a great experience.
When I talked to Nic Darling, the vice president of the league, last year around the same time — this is when you guys were really just starting to launch your main website, the countdown clock had ended, and we were starting to talk about the new league. One of the things I asked Nic was ‘what is your goal for this league’ and he said – and this is not verbatim — we feel that this is the next big American sport, that we can really be the next thing that is important in the sports landscape. I’m wondering how you are feeling about that today, and what your goals are for maybe five years from now? Are you still feeling like their target for five years is beyond, say, Major League Lacrosse, which averages around 6000 fans per game? Or do you have more modest goals for the five year window?
Nothing has changed at all in terms of our vision of ultimate Frisbee and MLU and how popular it can be and its wonderful accessibility and how easy it is to teach people to play. So nothing has changed about that. I think we have only become more motivated by our first season and what were able to accomplish.
I think you have a good point; we have a five-year plan and we have one year through. And that first year was very much a development year where we lay the groundwork and test a lot of the things were doing. We consider the second year the final testing year in many ways. And then you note years three, four, and five as kind of our growth and expansion years of all the ideas and all things we’ve put through.
Our big goal is in 2018 that we want to have a steady 5000 person fan base for each team. That’s really our growth or breakeven point. If we can get get that fan base out there and supporting, that’s when we become a league that would be viable to many things and sustainable to many things in many ways. And that’s with our eyes on the prize.
You brought up Major League Lacrosse, which I’m a huge fan of, if we were at their level in five years, that would be I would be quite an accomplishment, undoubtedly nothing to frown at. So that certainly would be something I’d be happy to be at. But even if we were close, that would still be something I would be very pleased with.
One of the big questions I think is where is the league headed outside of the eight cities that it is already in. And I want to talk a little bit more about expansion in our especially in comparison to what the AUDL is doing. I know you guys had a plan to move into the Midwest for this upcoming season but then decided that, for various reasons, you wanted to stay in the eight places that you already developed.
What are the expansion plans for the future and, you call this year another developemtn year, what exactly does that mean? Are you going to be doing any kind of testing, then, in new markets, are you thinking about places that you want to go, are you trying to sell new investor groups in cities in the Midwest or wherever they may be?
We really incorrectly communicated our expansion plans when we first announced them. We do have a Midwest division that we have our eye on, but that isn’t until 2017 that were looking to implement that. so I think when it first came out, we improperly made people think we’d have a Midwest division this year, when we were focused on having somewhere between eight and 10 teams when we started this. Certainly because of all the teams that were in the New York area as well as the San Francisco area, we said let’s go ahead and do eight and be safe about this. So that’s what you will have regarding teams for the foreseeable future.
When we talk about expansion there’s really a couple types of expansion, or really three types that we talk about. There is team expansion market expansion, where we add new teams to new cities and in markets that we want to be in. Then there’s season expansion, so adding more games to our season. And then there’s also fan expansion, like market expansion itself in the market. That’s what were focusing on right now – how big can we grow the markets were in right now and get them to be has powerful as possible?
And then after that were going to look to do season expansion, to go from 10 games to 16 games to 24 games. And when we’re at 24 games and running our seasons and we’re doing all things we want to do there, then we are going to attack the market expansion part.
So we’re really focusing on those first two types of expansion, which is expanding our fan base and market and expanding the season that we play in.
One of the things that is sort of an ongoing threat here is sustainability – this is something that I talked to Nic Darling about a number of times over the last year and I think is obviously important for any business at all but particularly in professional sports where you’re spending a lot of money, costs can rise really fast, and it takes time to build that fan base.
What is going in terms of the investing front? When I talked to Nic a year ago, it was all about selling not really ownership stakes in the teams, but ownership stakes in the league with team management rights. Have you sold more ownership shares and/or have you moved to other kinds of investing, whether that’s venture capital or taking on equity investors? What is funding the league right now?
We sold our our team share blocks – we don’t have franchises, we have an investment model that people buy shares in the league with the management rights to a team is the kind of technical term. I think on a high level we got the investments we were seeking and we continue to make connections with other great avenues of investment. We have what we need to move forward with our plan and put the pressure on us. We have what we need in the backend and now the pressures’ on us to to make all this go forward.
Certainly, from from an investment point of view, we’re happy with where we are, we just want to [keep our] chin down, stay focused and do all the work we need to do. Because you bring up a good word, which is sustainability.
For the general public out there – the Frisbee people who really love all the stuff and get into it – sustainability is not for us at 1000 or 1500 fans or even at what we’re doing now, because so many people are working for this that are so underpaid or even volunteers working for free.
Right now in the MLU office full time every day, we have six people in the office that work there. We have six people work out of the office full-time. All in all, we probably have in the 30s of employees, both full and part-time. But if we put all that together, all of them are working for way less than what if the market standard would be, so we really have to get up to a substantial fan base in the 3500 range or so to be a real sustainable league, where people can say ‘this is my full-time job and this pays me a good wage to live and do this.
And that’s where we want to be. You need to raise the funds be able to endure that kind of a journey to get there.
What kinds of attendance targets are you hoping to hit this year? It’s a well-known phenomenon that attendance often takes a little bit of a dip in year two of new sports leagues because in the first year, there’s a bit of the novelty factor. How do you fight through that and what are you hoping to see the league average be?
Sure, so you bring up a good point about the novelty factor, so you have to create another novelty in season that people want to latch onto. You certainly have to put a lot more focus on sales and marketing.
I’m hoping that were in the 950 average – I shouldn’t say hoping, I’m targeting – 950 average paid attendance. And I’d like to see the peak game be over 2000 for each team and that’s gonna be tougher in some markets, but I think if we put together the marketing plan that we have focused on, that it’s doable. Certainly over 1000 for every opening game, and hopefully over 2000 for many of them.
One of the new challenges is the American Ultimate Disc League is now expanding out onto the West Coast into many of the cities which you have teams in now. You guys competed in some cities on the East Coast this past year and I would say that, frankly, it was not very close: MLU dominated in attendance in basically every city in which there were two teams. However, the East Coast also struggled in general with overall attendance. I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head, but New York wasn’t a huge market for the MLU last season. Because of the field situations in Philadelphia and Boston being outside of city, those didn’t do great either.
Do you do anything differently now that you have competition from from another league on the West Coast?
I think the short answer is no. We can’t always look at what someone else is doing in and then change our plan; you have to have confidence in in your plan and in your marketing abilities. I have a lot of confidence in our team and what we’ve put together, so if we do what we’re supposed to do, regardless of who else is there, we should be able to get the numbers we want to hit.
You bring up a good point about stadiums. That’s the number one thing that we want to improve — the stadiums, their location, what we are able to provide. Hopefully, in many of them, we know our fans like to drink beer, so we can have more beer flowing at games. We really want to make it a leg up in terms of the party that’s to be had at our at our games and that’s the focus right now.
I haven’t seen anything from teams about stadiums. How is that coming?
We have a lot of stadiums ready for booking and we have our schedule, so we have to take the schedule – and Charlie, there is nothing worse than creating a schedule, so I don’t know how any other sports league does it without having people banging their head against the wall. We have our schedule and you have to take that and compare it to all the stadiums. If there are conflicts, you have to switch dates or figure out how to switch times. We’re in the process of doing all that — I’m hoping it’s all done pretty shortly, but really realistically I would say that it will be done in the the first few weeks in January and now that we can get all of our ticket sales for all of our teams up and running.
One of the other things in the AUDL/MLU landscape is competing for players and we saw a big announcement last week from the AUDL that they had signed Beau Kittredge, who is largely considered to be the best, or at least one of the two or three best players in the world, and of course he played for the Dogfish in San Francisco last year.
Beau talked about some tension between him and the front office, and not necessarily enjoying the MLU experience that much. People thought it was a big deal for the AUDL. Does it concern you to lose a player of his stature from one of your teams and what are you doing on the player competition front? Are you trying to make any adjustments because the AUDL is coming after some of your players?
To start off, I’m a huge fan of Beau and, without question, he is one of the best players, and it’s easily, really, to say he is the best deep threat in the game, even though if you watched him at Club Nationals he was back there handling. So he can do whatever he wants; he’s got a lot of confidence and the ability behind it.
The thing that we talk about in our philosophy is that we can pay our players a certain amount and that is not a lot of money, but we spend a lot of the cash that we’re not paying them into promoting them. And we really try to push through that philosophy and look at the long road which is we want to put as much money as possible into making you, you the player, as well-known as possible.
Beau brought up the point about being the big fish in a small pond. We want to spend money making that pond bigger. Things that come with that are not a lot of of pay that goes into the player’s pocket and not a lot of flexibility. We need to stay really focused on that.
If the AUDL comes along and pays more and gives more flexibility, that’s understood. I get it. And if a player wants to choose that, I don’t blame them one bit.
What we can offer here is all the things we’ve done recently that people see, with the exposure most recently on Fox Sports One, and that takes a lot of work, a lot of building.
So to the last piece, that being said, we have in our player contract this year added in more perks and bonuses and every year we have scheduled out more perks and bonuses for our players and I want to see, basically, our player compensation almost double per year to the point where in 2017 or 2018, I’d like to see the average player making $4800 a year playing for us. Actually, I should say a season, not including any of their appearance fees or any of those things. We’re really focused on getting players good compensation and just so you know $4800 would be in line with Arena Football or Major League Lacrosse. Getting up to that level.
So we want to get up there and we want that to happen, but in these young years we wanst as much investment of their faith and trust in the promotion we’re doing, and if they give us that, great. And if they want to go somewhere else in the meantime, that’s their choice.
So I have nothing bad to say about Beau whatsoever for choosing that. I just look forward to getting him back next year.
You tweeted earlier this month that MLU gave $47,240 away in player rewards and donations to charity last season, which I think is outstanding and speaks to the point you just made. I wonder, though, is that a financially sustainable number for you. That’s quite a bit of money to give away in donations and in player fees when the sum total of everything you pay the players isn’t going to be a lot higher than that number.
Is that something you are going to try to continue to do and do you have the budget for that? Certainly a very expensive undertaking last year with travel from San Francisco and renting stadiums last minute. How do you continue to grow that stuff and remain, as we talked a little bit already, financially viable?
I loved what we did last year and we certainly wanted to reward players who were making big plays and being a big part of the league, and reward them for that financially even if it was small at the time. And while it added up to a lot of money, I think in the grand scheme, it isn’t that much money, but it was certainly nice to reward them with that. What I like even moe is that every time they got an award, they were able to donate that to a high school program or charity of their choice, so it was it was really great to see what players were doing, donating to high school teams, donating to Ultimate Peace, donating to foundations that meant a lot to them.
I really enjoy that and we want to do the same thing this year, just because it helped everything. It helps reward the players, it helps reward the fans, and it helped bring players closer with fans, so I don’t see anything changing. It was a good model, it was a good thing.
To go back to your Twitter for a second: it’s funny because I don’t think people get access to to you particularly often. Your main outlet for public interaction is your Twitter account. You have over a thousand followers and your very forthcoming on Twitter. How do you use your Twitter account? Often times, I’m hearing about news a couple days early because it comes out on your twitter before it comes out through your main outlet of the website.
I like Twitter because it allows me to reward any fans or people that are following me by giving them some insight or early news into what were doing. I really use it in that mode to give early releases on some stuff.
Also, I’m a coach in many ways and that’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most. And so I I get to outlet a lot of my philosophies or things that I think about in coaching mind, coaching philosophies. Whn I do that I get Tyler Kinley to poke fun at me over once in a while too, so that makes it fun.
You tweeted earlier this month that, “I just had a phone call that changed the future of the MLU.” What phone call was that?
I wish I could tell you. I can’t go into right now but I think the best way to give some hints is: after we were published in the Eonomist, we got a lot of phone calls. And they keep coming in.
One of them really helped us get onto Fox Sports One. So people really started to take notice of what we’ve done and the brand that we’ve created them and that has put us in front of a lot of people in terms of pitching and the next thing that were doing in the next level of exposure.
I look forward to telling everybody about that when I get the chance, but it’s best done well for us and hopefully we can keep using that to get more and more exposure.
One of the things that all sports leagues look for is major sponsorship and TV deals, which tend to be the biggest drivers of revenue once you get to a certain point beyond gate and food sales. Have you made progress on major sponsorship and are there any brands that are coming on board for 2014, maybe thanks to some of the exposure that you have had?
We have a partnership development team, a sales team that we have in-house that are making phone calls and are reaching out to potential sponsors every day. That has been doing well for us and were still in the stage of securing or closing these sponsorships and working out all the details. They certainly have uncovered some nice opportunities and I think it will see some good partnerships and sponsorships. I wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, hold on for Coke to be the title sponsor’ yet. But we’re on the road to that.
One thing people have to understand about sponsors is that they’re paying you money to work. So if they come in and hand you $5000 or $50,000 or $500,00, they’re not just handing it to you and saying, ‘Okay you’re so good that we’re going to give you this money and you will you make us more money.’ They’re saying, ‘I’m going to pay you $50,000 to drive my car onto the field or to make sure that all the players are holding these bottles or doing these five commercials and five ads.’
So they get you to do a lot of work for that money and that takes time to be able to build those those types of relationships and that detail. And we feel good about that. It’s an undertaking. If you want to get real money, if you’re going to get five figures in the $50,000 range, you’ve got to do good work. And if by some chance you do close a sponsor and you don’t do good work, you won’t have them as a sponsor next year. That is not the trajectory you want, so you have to make them happy and have to make sure that they saw the the ROI on what they did.
Hopefully we will get some good people on board and I think you’ll see some announcements that are impressive. And hopefully it really puts us on the stage to get some really good ones in the next couple years. I’m certainly happy about Puma and what we’ve done so far. And I’m really happy with Innova, too. There’s nothing I could say about Innova that wouldn’t be calling them a class act organization. The fact that in one year of our relationship they decided to release their disc into all of the Dick’s stores in the nation certainly shows that we we did our job.
It seems that the deal with Puma is not a pure sponsorship deal, or at least it hasn’t been advertised that way on the website, so what what is the status of that?
When you’re dealing with a company the size of Puma, you have to go through their massive marketing department who is extremely protective of their brand. I would say that we have a really good relationship with them and some of the sales we have done already and just when they saw our jerseys has really even strengthened the relationship. But when you’re going to get accepted by their marketing department which is in Germany, which doesn’t move very quickly, it’s going to take some times.
I think that over the next few months you’re going to see it strengthen even more to where their promotion of us is even more and more apparent. But it’s certainly a good relationship. But we have to work around some words when we’re saying them there, because it’s not a direct sponsorship right now. When they use those words, that’s a big deal. So were working towards those words, and I think we’ll get there sooner than later.
But we have to prove a lot of what we’re doing first and they’ve given us a lot of faith in what we said we can accomplish. Let’s stay posted on that and see what Puma is talking about in the next few months in and through the season.
I think some people are a little bit offput by the fact that you moved towards Puma and away from your jersey manufacturer last year, Five Ultimate, one of the big names in the apparel market for ultimate. Puma, of course, is not known for doing anything for ultimate. Do you have anything to say about that and are you continue to be working with ultimate companies, whether Five or anybody else?
I am a huge fan of Five Ultimate. I didn’t hear anything myself about being put off about that. But I talked with [Five co-owner] Vehro [Titcomb] about the Puma deal and he was nothing but congratulatory. He said, ‘Nice job.’ And I said ‘we still want to work with you on some other things.’
I think that in the apparel business, there is a lot of room for a lot of things. You can just watch in Major League Soccer, they’re wearing Adidas jerseys but they have their Nike cleats or their Nike headband on.
So there’s a lot of of room for apparel and were still going to be using Five for stuff. I think that this is a the type of market where lots of people can do well. I only see it as positive for many things, but there’s no doubt that when someone like Puma comes along for us, we have to listen. But we’ll certainly work with Five and I think a couple more. I know Boston’s working with another ultimate specific apparel company and should work out a deal with them. And we’ll have all sorts of stuff.
One of the interesting business subplots of semi-pro ultimate is that MLU has such a different business model than the AUDL and after the tumultuous first season that you were a part of, the AUDL has undergone a lot of changes, they have new leadership, and they have pretty deep pockets behind them. The owner Rob Lloyd is a big high-powered guy at Cisco. And the team that the Lloyd family ran last year — the Toronto Rush – was arguably the most successful in semi-pro ultimate last year. They hit that 2000 in a single-game mark that you talked about earlier and they won the league etc.
They are moving out to Vancouver as well, which I know is one of if not MLU’s strongest market. Are you at all worried about that? How is Vancouver looking right now? And do you talk with the Lloyds or the brass of the AUDL?
The short answer is no, what what would worrying do for me. Worrying wouldn’t help anything. I just stay faithful in the great organization with Brian Giesel and Andrew Lugsdin and all that they are doing. And ll the great players they have there with Morgan Hibbert and [Andre] Gailitis. I just trust that they’re going to do they have to do. If another team comes along, then it is what it is.
I’ve spoken with Rob Lloyd a few times and I just think that there is not much to be to said at the moment. We just have different ideas of how things should be. I certainly respect the guy a lot and understand that he must be proud. Mark Lloyd is one heck of a player and certainly showcased that last year. It is what it is. I think we have such wildly different opinions in how the sport can grow and how it should be grown that we just have to be on our separate paths for the moment.
What are some things that you really hoping to do differently this year that you learned about from last year, other than getting more centrally located stadiums?
I wouldn’t even say centrally located is our biggest thing. Really, what it came down to was beer and allowing people to have fun and drink and have a good time.
And I get that. If you go out to a sporting event and it’s dry, it’s kind of like going to a party that dry. It can still be fun, but I think we all know it’s a lot more fun to go partying and get a few drinks and have fun with friends. So we really want to enable that and that’s been one of our big things: can we get alcohol at our games so that people can come and enjoy them.
And on the other side, we take every demographic and we say, ‘How can we make their experience better?’ So can we make a kids zone so the kids can have more fun, and can we have beer so the adults can have more fun. And can we have games out there or silly raffles for people who like frisbee but want the whole event to be more entertaining. So we just thought of every demographic and said, ‘What can we do to improve the experience for every demographic?’
Lastly I’ll say we really wanted tailgating too. We want a parking lot where we could have people show up early and have fun, play games, do things, and make it just like every other sporting event. You know when you go to any pro event – I just recently went to a Philadelphia Union game and there were people there like three hours at a time drinking and playing cornhole, throwing a frisbee (which made me laugh). We want the same thing – how can we make it a whole day of fun.
What’s your number one goal for the upcoming season?
That is a good question. I don’t know that I’ve thought about it that way. What I would probably say if I answer right now is to be able to have our vision of our video broadcast be what I want it to be. We were really happy with that the attention we got from ESPN, but I think if we do our job now, we could really impress some people and even our partners in Comcast. And be able to show a lot more Frisbee on local or regional TV, so it’s our video production I would say is our number one goal.
Can you just expand a little bit on that? Do you have deals with local and regional television broadcast studios or are you talking more about improving the quality of the live stream?
I don’t know how many people know about this, but we broadcast seven games last year on Comcast in Philadelphia, so that would reach the greater Philadelphia region so 3.5 million households is what that measures.
When I approached Comcast, they said, ‘Look we’ll put your game on TV and we’ll see if Frisbee has any actual followers.’ And I think that they were skeptical as you would you expect. So I said, ‘what would be your measure of success?’ And he said, ‘To get a Nielsen rating at all.’
Most shows don’t get a Nielsen rating. A rating of 100 would mean in Philadelphia all 3.5 million people were watching and a rating of 1 would be if just over 30,000 watching, and a rating of .1 would be 3000 watching. So football pulls anywhere from a 20 to a 38, the Philadelphia Phillies pull a 17, the Flyers pull a three (which is hockey), and the 76ers pull like a 1.5 on average.
Yeah, the 76ers are pretty bad though.
They are pretty bad.
I shouldn’t talk, though, my New York teams are worse.
Neither of us can talk about our basketball teams.
But that the second-tier sports – your Lacrosse, your arena football, and even in many ways soccer – pulled a .1 or .2. So our goal was: can we get out there and pull a .1?
And in our seven games one time we did not pull a rating. All the other times we pulled a .1 or better, and our best – our peak – was a .5. And I think our Comcast guys, I think that rattled their brain a little bit. Like, how the heck can Frisbee pull a .5, when that’s better or in line with what other organizations that have been around for a long time are pulling? And that was a good thing.
So that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden everyone was jumping up and down and trying to pay us money or anything. It just means that they were open to: can we get more of the games? And we’re trying to parlay that into other networks in other cities, which is not easy.
It takes some money and some organization and we can we try to work those angles, but I would really like to see our productions in more than just Philly this year. They will definitely be on TV in Philly like they were last year and I like to see them at least in one West Coast city, if not two, on each coast.
What about the live stream? When I spoke to Nic last week, we talked about how that was a big focus as well. What are you doing on that front?
I think it’s really going to be the same. Nic has some new ideas that they want to do, but I want it to be clear, high-definition 1080p live streams that kick off without lots of crazy things going on, or things dropping out and freezing, and all the other stuff we put up with early last season. Our goal is to livestream 23 games and the other 20 games we want to make tape delay. So they’ll be filmed by one camera and then released later a few days after the game.
The season starts about three months from today. When’s your opening day this season?
OK, four months. What do you have to do until then? I know it’s a lot, but give us a sense of the things that you guys are working on in the offseason. What’s left to get done?
To give people an idea, like I think I said earlier, there’s six full-time people working in the MLU office and we just expanded it. We had this one floor and we just bought the two floors above us, so we can fit the people that we have. So there’s those six people there working in-house and 12 altogether working full-time. And really it is just gathering all the things that need to be done, like making a marketing plan, booking the stadiums, booking how each games going to go, booking talent for each game, making sure all the players get their gear at the right time with the right stuff on it. There’s just so much. Making sure social media and all that is set up correctly.
I would think about it like throwing a party. You have a party on a day and you the think about the things you need to do to set that up and make sure that it’s fun?
We have to do that for 43 games. And we have to have that pretty much all set up by April 1. It’s certainly way more work than I ever could’ve imagined. I never thought the off-season would be way more hectic than the season itself but it is.
I’ll leave it that I think we are doing well so far, we’re just not getting much sleep at the moment. I don’t know when anybody sleeps these days.
I’m talking with Jeff Snader, the Commissioner of Major League Ultimate. Thanks for your time, Jeff.
Thanks, Charlie, look forward to doing more with you and staying in touch.