The MLU top brass was candid in a Reddit Q&A this week.
December 5, 2014 by Charlie Eisenhood in Interview with 65 comments
Major League Ultimate founders Jeff Snader and Nic Darling held an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on Reddit’s r/ultimate yesterday. Here is a selection of some of the best questions and answers. There are many more comments and longer threads with replies in the full AMA.
Answers from Snader are marked JS; answers from Darling are marked ND.
What’s your opinion about an eventual merger of some sort between the two professional leagues? Do you think it would be in the best interest of the sport for long term growth?
History tells us that there will eventually be some sort of reckoning between the leagues. Whether that takes the form of a merger or a buyout or simply a formalization of some kind of hierarchy (majors/minors) is up for debate. Currently, a merger is far from likely as the AUDL approach doesn’t resonate with our sponsors or investors.
Regardless, the existence of the two leagues in their current state is good for the sport. It creates a tension and energy through which growth and innovation develop. -ND
What about the AUDL approach doesn’t resonate with your sponsors and investors?
The rapid expansion model has generally been enough to explain to our investors (current and potential) why the AUDL approach is flawed. The amount of risk involved in the AUDL model is off-putting and the lack of precedence for success (no league has succeeded with a similar growth model) seems hard to defend. There are also concerns about individual investor solvency given the low barrier to entry and about a lack of noticeable central control.
The latter is a significant concern to sponsors (most of whom have been approached by the AUDL or one of its teams after signing with us).
Several existing sponsors have noted the lack of central brand control and on the ground consistency as a considerable barrier. In it’s current form we would have immense trouble accommodating the liberty given individual owners in the AUDL and the lack of formalized accountability with the kind of deals we have been building with our sponsors.
This is not to say that teams in the AUDL couldn’t build useful deals and activate them. Rather, I am hoping to illustrate a couple of the difficulties a merger would face. Our deals are based on our ability to control our brand and the representation of our sponsors brands across all of our platforms. We don’t see that capability evident in the AUDL structure at this time. -ND
When the MLU split from the AUDL, it seemed like the MLU had a far superior model; centralize ownership and cultivate markets in cities with an actual ultimate fan base. The initial superiority of the MLU could be shown through the majority of high level players in Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco choosing to play in the MLU when both options were available. In the last year it seems that the AUDL has made huge gains on the MLU, at least in terms of player preference.
Most Revolver players have chosen to play for an AUDL franchise where they are paid actual money. It seems likely that a similar transition from the MLU to AUDL will happen with Seattle’s top talent as the Titcombs take over the AUDL franchise up there. (1) Do you think these transitions will negatively effect the MLU’s viability? (2) Does it matter to the league how good the players are on the field? (3) Are there any plans to compete with the AUDL in terms of retaining players or bringing top level players into the MLU?
As far as we are concerned, the best players are the players that play for us. The MLU requires an investment by its players as their work on and off the field directly effects the success of our league. We judge players by a number of criteria with commitment and dedication ranking high among our means of understanding a player’s value, and we make offers and contracts based on that understanding. This is not a short term game. We need the best players to build the best teams over the coming years. The opinions of a small segment of our potential fan base can’t identify these players for us. We have to trust our coaches and GMs to understand our league and our business, on the field and off. -ND
How long before players could earn a living playing Ultimate? It’s my understanding that most players do this for pretty much no pay right now?
Players don’t make a living wage at the moment and we still have a ways to go before they do. That said, we are proud to present an opportunity to play without the burden of cost carried by the top-level club circuit. We believe that this is a huge benefit to many of our players.
With that in mind, we can see the possibility of developing a living for some players over the next few years through a combination of their play on the field, clinics and camps, appearances and endorsements. This will require dedication from a player to their personal brand and an investment by the league insured by that players level of commitment. -ND
The addition of referees to ultimate, rather than it being self-officiated, is a major philosophical change to a relatively young sport. Just to clarify I am NOT arguing for one over the other. You are the leaders who have initiated this change. I’m curious as to what impact, if any, you believe this has had or will have on the reasons for why people choose to play ultimate.
This is one of the toughest changes for people who have played Ultimate for a long time to accept. I truly understand the emotion behind it, but the simple truth is that referees make the sport better on all levels. While it can be debated for hours with all sorts of anecdotal evidence from all sides there’s a few important things that must be accounted for:
Varsity Sports – Schools and athletics programs will not allow a self-officiating game as a varsity sport. It presents too much liability for the school and the lack of an official at a game is not an option. I believe this is one of the issues that has held Ultimate back all these years from being incorporated into high schools. We’re not seeing a major shift in this since in the last year.
Observers – Observers are referees with a name change and a few rule differences. Observers make many active calls but allow a few to be called by the players. This system is not self-officiated. This system is referee officiated while being player activated.
Ultimate is filled with outstanding people. That’s what makes the culture so great. The rules and refs have nothing to do with it. -JS
How is it possible that referees make the sport better on all levels? How about the character building and conflict resolution opportunity they take away from the players? How about they way in which sports are taught differently with a referee in mind? Flopping and aggressive fouling are not random and only based on the individual, they are brought out of people by the system that is in place.
I would contend that everything you mentioned above is the result of great coaching. Great coaches teach you how to manage your emotions, perform under pressure, work hard, work smart, etc. A poor coach could teach their athletes to use the self-officiated system in a completely poor spirited way. The rules don’t make people great. It’s the people who make the rules great. -JS
Do you look to try and secure a tv/streaming deal with a more main stream service ala AUDL’s deal with ESPN. I dont know too much about it but could there be a possibility of a deal of some kind with a Fox Sports or CBS Sports in the future?
AUDL doesn’t have a “deal” with ESPN. They have booked time on ESPN3, an opportunity we ourselves turned down. While the ESPN name carries some weight, the ESPN3 deal didn’t fit with what we are trying to do. We also worried that it would alienate our fans outside the US, particularly in Canada since the service is unavailable there.
That said, we have built local deals with Comcast in Philadelphia, the Mid-Atlantic and the Pacific NW and these deals have provided us some excellent reach and sponsorship activation opportunities. We also continue to pursue other deals but we are careful about the control of our brand and the ROI of the deals as we evaluate them. There are plenty of possibilities and as our content and delivery improve we will definitely make headway with the larger networks. -ND
What did you guys think about Tina Booth’s article on Ultiworld about finding a compromise between USAU and the pro leagues? Also do you think that the pro leagues being men only at the moment is hindering the growth of women’s ultimate? Do you guys see the MLU working to further youth girls and boys ultimate as a big part of your future?
I thought Tiina’s article was very well-written. It prompted me to write an email to Tom Crawford and Mike Payne. I’ll keep everyone posted when I get a response. Hopefully they read it as well and felt the same.
There’s a correction to be made. The MLU is not an all male league. Not at the executive level (CFO is a woman), the management level (three GMs are women), the coaching level or the playing level. It is a fact that only men have qualified to make the teams, but women are in no way prohibited or discouraged from try outs.
I have two daughters and I am very proud of the growth of women’s sports and the overall increase in recognition of female athletes. I know that in my lifetime I will see women break into the top-level sports leagues and I’m excited for that. I will do whatever I can to aid and promote the growth of women’s sports and female athletes. I look forward to the day when a female earns her spot on an MLU team. It could be much sooner than most people think. The MLU playing field doesn’t care about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or anything else. The only thing it cares about if your character and your skill.
We are set to run over 250 clinics this year. We will be teaching young boys and girls all about Ultimate Frisbee, sportsmanship and what it takes to be a good leader. The biggest thing I want to teach young women is that there is NOTHING they are not capable of. Anything is achievable and there is absolutely no truth that women are lesser athletes than men. Men have gotten much more access and promotion over the years and women have been taught, from a very early age, that they are not capable in the sports arena. Now that women are starting to get their fair share of access, belief and recognition we are seeing the rise of the female athlete. I’m excited about this for all females, Ultimate Frisbee and for my daughters. -JS