February 5, 2014 by Alexander Palmer in Opinion with 90 comments
On the surface, USA Ultimate’s recent decision to block the MLU as a jersey sponsor for Championship events is unremarkable. It looks like a simple marketing decision. After all, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the MLU won’t be allowed to promote at USAU functions, especially those that will be broadcast on ESPN 3. The ban is already beginning to seem like old news.
Don’t be mistaken.
The decision to ban MLU-sponsored jerseys is the first overt act of suppression we’ve seen from USA Ultimate towards one of the semi-professional leagues. Please don’t take that word at face value: I don’t intend it to carry the standard negative connotations. USA Ultimate is well within its rights and is arguably making a good marketing decision. It isn’t wantonly trampling anyone’s freedoms. However, suppression is the opposite of promotion, and USA Ultimate certainly isn’t promoting anything by banning MLU-sponsored PGP jerseys.
Up until this point, USAU, MLU, and the AUDL have taken the position that there are enough seats at the table, denying that there is any need for confrontation. Whatever conflict there is has largely been characterized by competitive promotion. The each league has focused mostly on building up more goodwill and brand recognition than their competitors without interference. As such, this flare-up over the PGP is atypical.
It’s especially uncharacteristic of USA Ultimate. Professional leagues are expected to be aggressive. We know that they must be willing to fight tooth and nail with the other organization. They’re in a battle for profits, plain and simple. However, USA Ultimate is not a for-profit entity. Because of their non-profit status, the ban might come as something of a surprise.
Such a change in USA Ultimate’s pattern of action should lead us to ask why they feel the need to ban MLU-sponsored jerseys. The MLU is not cutting into the USAU revenue stream by advertising at their events. USA Ultimate doesn’t sell apparel. The Pro Gear Program isn’t at all likely to limit participation in USAU tournaments, from which the pay-to-play organization makes money.
The clause that USA Ultimate invoked implies that the MLU brand “hinder[s] the mission of the [USAU] organization or the goals of a specific USAU event.” As defined by its bylaws, “USA Ultimate shall be operated for charitable and educational purposes and it shall also have as its purpose to foster national and International Amateur Sports Competition in the sport of ultimate.”
It’s hard to see how the MLU putting their logos on jerseys conflicts with any charitable or educational purposes. It’s also unclear how the MLU advertising prevents “national and International Amateur Sports Competition”, as the MLU aspires to be a professional league.
But this decision isn’t about players. It’s about viewers.
USA Ultimate doesn’t seem to think the PGP is so harmless. They think it’s enough of a problem to risk alienating college players by forcing them to buy new — or at least more expensive — jerseys. This represents a shift in USAU attitudes towards valuing viewership over player experience.
Up until this point, the conflict between the pro leagues and USAU has primarily been a battle over the allegiances of top players. However, the PGP is aimed at younger players, many of whom are unlikely to ever play for an MLU team. The MLU isn’t courting them as potential employees, but as viewers.
Expect to see more of this. Not only because viewership is increasingly important to USA Ultimate, but because the pro leagues have nothing to lose. If USAU relents or relaxes, the MLU gets to advertise at USAU events. If the ban is strictly enforced, USA Ultimate risks looking like a bully that wants to make life harder for college students. Either way, the pro leagues get to build goodwill and brand recognition among younger players by offering cheap apparel. Because similar tactics are unlikely to hurt the pro leagues, we can expect them to push USA Ultimate harder in the future. Whether USAU chooses to suppress or allow their expansions will say a lot about how the organization sees itself.
As this goes on, it’s important to remember that USA Ultimate isn’t a playground bully that gets a kick out of throwing its weight around. It’s a company that is increasingly embroiled in a marketing conflict that grows more complicated every year. The people who run the organization have good intentions and don’t want to make life worse for their players. That being said, USA Ultimate needs to figure out what it actually is.
What makes the PGP friction important is that USA Ultimate has found itself in the throes of an identity crisis. It’s a governing body for “amateur” competition that is trying to outcompete two organizations that aspire to be professional leagues. It’s a charitable body that feels the need to suppress the spread of a for-profit league. It’s a player-funded company that is beginning to fight over viewers.
The decision to ban MLU-sponsored jerseys at USAU events is merely the latest salvo in a contest that is likely to continue for years to come. It presages a shift in USA Ultimate’s identity. It’s unclear whether USAU sees viewers or players as more important and whether it wants to be a purely promotional body or a competitive one. It’s not yet evident what balance is possible. The competition over the PGP and any coming conflicts will not only reveal the future of USA Ultimate, they will decide it.