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Home » RSD » RSD Posts » USAU vs Pro Leagues: Commercializing the Game (Opinion piece on the developing relationship between USAU and Pro Leagues)
USAU vs Pro Leagues: Commercializing the Game [message #139209] Sun, 16 February 2014 15:57 Go to next message
venezuelan808
Messages: 1
Registered: February 2014
Location: United States
Junior Member
The USAU and the pro leagues are finally beginning to hash out what was an inevitable conflict. Over the short history of the AUDL and MLU the relationship between the pro leagues and USAU has been nearly non-existent. The inaugural season of the AUDL was held mostly without conflict to USAU events because it was before the Triple Crown Tour (TCT) and Pro Flight structure had been instituted. The AUDL Championship was held weeks before the USAU Club Championships even began. I think most everybody was simply curious to see how viable a pro Ultimate league could be. The following year was the inaugural season for the MLU and the AUDL's sophomore season and again, there was relatively little conflict between the pro leagues and USAU. There was some grumbling among a few players who had increased conflicts and had to split their time between their club team and their pro team. For the most part though it seems players got by playing both; many of the Dogfish-Whitecap players who faced each other in the MLU championship in Philadelphia were also in attendance a month later at Nationals in Texas.

There has been increased conflict from year one to year two of pro Ultimate between the pro leagues and USAU and that conflict is perceived to only continue growing in the future. The moderate success of both leagues seems to be relatively sustainable and USAU has come to the realization that the pro leagues are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Both sides seem to be gearing up for competition with each other and are taking an adversarial approach. The first real shot was fired in early January 2013 when USAU stopped a sponsorship program that the MLU had started with some college and high school teams. The concept was simple, the MLU would help cover some of the jersey fee in exchange for the teams placing a small MLU logo on the jersey. Once USAU got wind of it they immediately reminded USAU teams that wearing logos of sponsors not approved by USAU was in violation of the rules and that they would not be allowed to wear the jerseys at USAU sanctioned events. To my knowledge this is the first time the USAU even publicly acknowledged the pro leagues and it was not a particularly friendly first impression.

On the surface the pro leagues and USAU are in direct conflict with one another, fighting over air time, major endorsements from ESPN and other networks, merchandising contracts, etc. It is a little sad that the two sides are working against one another instead of cooperating to promote the sport of Ultimate. It's kind of against the "Spirit of the Game" concept that both parties are always preaching about. However, what makes the situation particularly baffling is that cooperation makes sense from a business perspective as well.

And, to be clear, in recent years USAU has been about the business. There has been little restraint in commercializing the game in recent years: seeking deals with ESPN to air Nationals and TCT events, restructuring the club tournament to include the TCT which are money making events in themselves, blocking the MLU from sponsoring uniforms, even the name change from UPA to USAU was made to increase national publicity and marketability. This is coming from a non-profit organization whose mission statement says only "To advance the sport of Ultimate in the United States by promoting Character, Community, and Competition." It's hard to see how not allowing the MLU to subsidize jersey orders is helping to advance the sport of Ultimate. Every one of those teams were likely already paying USAU membership dues, or paying bid fees to be part of the USAU club series, or paying for Discraft discs they saw advertised on the USAU website, or in some way monetarily contributing to the USAU organization.

Even if you accept the notion that it is okay for the USAU to be creating a brand for itself and competing against pro leagues in a for profit market, a large conceptual step on its own, the competition still doesn't make sense from a numbers game.

Who and how are the pro leagues really detracting from USAU? There's only ~600 players in both pro leagues combined, a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of paying USAU members, and most of the pro players are still paying USAU membership dues. In the MLU, many of the fans are Ultimate Frisbee players and are already paying USAU members. Are they going to stop playing Ultimate and paying USAU because pro leagues now exist? That simply doesn't make any sense. The AUDL has put more of an emphasis on trying to bring in new fans who were previously unaware that Ultimate was even a sport. What does USAU lose by allowing the AUDL to engage these fans? They weren't Ultimate fans before and if any of those fans want to seriously take up the game, who are they going to end up paying to be a part of a registered team? USAU.

The pro leagues aren't in the business of membership and developing smaller leagues of their own. Any fans the pro leagues bring in, unless they're going pro themselves, are probably going to end up paying USAU at some point. So the more successful these leagues are the more USAU can potentially profit from that success. The advantage for USAU is that this cash flow is heavily tilted in their favor; not many of their members will become pro ultimate players, but many pro ultimate fans will become USAU members.

USAU and the pro leagues are really competing in different markets. USAU is in the business of gaining memberships and using those dues to promote the game of Ultimate. The pro leagues are in the business of putting fans in the stands and selling merchandise to go with it. Right now, they only overlap on some merchandising issues, a handful of events throughout the year, and the "rights" to some of the top players. However, these are relatively minor obstacles.
Making sure the College and Club Series aren't during the AUDL and MLU Championships is a start. If the sides worked together they could surely work out a deal for airtime. Having professional seasons end a little before the USAU series has worked well for both parties in the past. There were a lot of fans that watched both Championships and were only hungry for more. As far as merchandising conflicts, it seems reasonable that SPIN or FIVE or whoever else would be happy to advertise their products at either pro league or USAU venues. They are not concerned with how fans hear about their Ultimate related products; they just want people to buy them.

The real question is, what could be achieved for the sport of Ultimate if USAU and the pro leagues worked together? Their structures are designed to produce a beautifully symbiotic relationship. The USAU could use some of its resources to help get fans out at the pro games; when these fans get hooked on Ultimate the way thousands of us already are, they'll join the USAU as members. So who really loses out when the USAU works against the pro leagues? The pool of potential fans that all three organizations are so concerned about reaching.

Is collaboration only a short-term solution? If the pro leagues get big enough won't they eventually create leagues of their own and run the poor USAU out of business? Maybe. At a certain point in a sport's development it becomes at least partly about the money. There's a reason the NBA and MLB aren't run by non-profit organizations (the NFL and NHL are technically non-profits, but there's some controversy surrounding their legal status)
A lot of people have already written about how that's not what they want Ultimate to become; that "Spirit of the Game" is a sacred concept unique to Ultimate and that any commercialization will somehow tarnish the game. They say that the pro leagues promote a style of play that's not what Ultimate is REALLY about. They might be right. The leagues aren't really about playing barefoot on the lawn or competing your heart out against an opponent but drinking together after the game. They are something else, and while I don't think "Spirit of the Game" is lost I agree that through commercialization you lose something innocent and special and it can be tough to handle. It is similar to the feeling everyone gets when they find out one of their favorite artists doesn't write their own songs.

To these people, I say it's already too late. The USAU isn't making the decision to fight against the commercialization of Ultimate, it's making the decision to try and spear head it. Their intentions don't seem to be any different than those of the pro leagues: spread Ultimate by creating a profitable brand, and raise revenues to continue business operations. What difference does it really make if you're buying FIVE gear you saw advertised on USAU's ESPN broadcast or Friction Gloves you saw on an MLU stream?

The change of the game has begun. Some want to save it from the evils of commercialization and some think the sport isn't worthwhile until it's been commercialized. While everyone can debate the issue it is clear that the governing bodies of Ultimate (AUDL, MLU, and USAU) think the sport is primed to move forward and they are independently putting their resources into that expansion. Those looking for a major organization that isn't about profitable expansion of the game should look elsewhere or start one of their own.
Re: USAU vs Pro Leagues: Commercializing the Game [message #139241 is a reply to message #139209] Mon, 17 February 2014 13:59 Go to previous messageGo to next message
EuhNGroups
Messages: 1020
Registered: August 2011
Senior Member
venezuelan808 wrote on Sun, 16 February 2014 15:57
However, what makes the situation particularly baffling is that cooperation makes sense from a business perspective as well.


You dont really support this claim.
Now that the AUDL has most of the biggest NAMES in ultimate,
MLU will either have to merge with them or prepare for a slow agonizing death.
Re: USAU vs Pro Leagues: Commercializing the Game [message #139242 is a reply to message #139209] Mon, 17 February 2014 17:34 Go to previous messageGo to next message
eddiegelfen
Messages: 43
Registered: September 2008
Member
venezuelan808 wrote on Sun, 16 February 2014 18:57

the TCT which are money making events in themselves


Money-making events? Are you talking big money or little money?

venezuelan808 wrote on Sun, 16 February 2014 18:57
Having professional seasons end a little before the USAU series has worked well for both parties in the past. There were a lot of fans that watched both Championships and were only hungry for more.


A lot? Dozens? Baker's Dozens?! Speaking of hungry...
Re: USAU vs Pro Leagues: Commercializing the Game [message #139323 is a reply to message #139209] Fri, 21 February 2014 14:43 Go to previous message
Jed
Messages: 175
Registered: September 2008
Senior Member
Great post deserves a bump.

USAU wants the revenue more than they want what's best for the game.
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