On The Brink

Feature photo by Jolie Lang – UltiPhotos.com

I have had the honor and privilege of sitting at the helm of USA Ultimate for four years, a period in which we doubled our budget, more than doubled the size of our staff and greatly expanded our new program offerings. We have also enjoyed and appreciated seeing many of our business partners thrive and grow along with us.  Their financial growth and participation in our programs, along with other new sources of non-membership revenue we have pursued, have allowed us to continue significantly subsidizing the cost of participation in our events, keeping player fees well below actual operating costs.

As we grow and keep moving forward, we will continue on our current course in a thoughtful and strategic manner. We will follow detailed annual operating plans designed to execute against and achieve the goals outlined in our carefully constructed six-year strategic plan.  USA Ultimate is a non-profit, charitable organization and serves as the National Governing Body for the sport of ultimate in the United States.  We take both responsibilities very seriously. They require us to approach our work and this business in a very conscientious and responsible way.  The United States sports landscape is crowded and competitive, and I believe we are at a critical juncture in the history of the ultimate.  The next five years could very well determine whether ultimate’s story is front-page news or simply a footnote in sports history. Here’s why:

For the sport of ultimate to move from the brink of explosive growth to actually taking off, growing and competing successfully with other sports in the United States, we need to build a national infrastructure.  I had the good fortune to work very closely with all United States sports for a decade while at the U.S. Olympic Committee, and one of the first things I noticed about ultimate was that we were not organized nationally in a manner that would allow the sport to successfully increase its scale.  I saw a bunch of independent groups doing their own thing, not collaborating or talking to and learning from each other, as they went in and out of existence.  We need to build a sustainable national infrastructure based on stable and economically viable regional and local ultimate organizations.  These local organizations need sustainable annual revenues and year-round programs that create not only playing and learning opportunities, but also jobs. A big part of this development must focus on youth, and I don’t mean high school and college kids. I mean kids ages 8-14.

The biggest opportunity to grow and build an economy around our sport lies with youth. Parents value good experiences and are willing to pay for that value and what it can provide their children. This youth sport experience is an area where I see us having a huge advantage in the current sports landscape.  We have the coolest sport on the planet. It has everything baked in that parents and kids are looking for: it is wicked fun to play, is relatively safe, is very inexpensive and promotes health and motor skill development. Our new League Affiliate Program is designed to support local ultimate associations and leagues as they build viable, well-organized 501c3s that are able to deliver our sport to the kids, families and other players in their areas. These local programs will generate significant and sustainable revenue year after year, allowing organizations to quickly grow and thrive, thereby justifying the hiring of full-time staff. Many of these new hires can come right from local club and college teams, creating a strong community infrastructure with a built–in fan base, engaged families—from ultimate veterans to moms and dads who have never touched a disc—and lots of experienced players and certified coaches delivering the sport the right way. Increased participation and community buy-in will pressure high schools to support and offer the sport as they are fed more students who are already competing.  As these players graduate from high school, the same pressure will be exerted on colleges, which in turn will provide local club scenes plenty of new talent, likely leading to the formation of new teams. As we successfully build this infrastructure, we’ll also be building the scalability necessary to make ultimate’s long-term story a big story.

Simultaneously, we must continue to increase high-level visibility for the sport.  While many of our community members eat, sleep and breathe ultimate, the vast majority of sports fans and families still don’t know high-level, competitive ultimate exists. There are few regularly scheduled local playing opportunities for kids (not just one-off clinics) to attract broader community recognition, and, until this year, we had never put the sport on a big stage.  The ESPN relationship was a big move for us, as it instantly increased our visibility and created significant credibility for the sport.  We went from being perceived as simply a fun recreational activity to also being a legitimate and serious sport.  This change in perception is a big step; now we have to live up to it, both in how we are organized and how we operate.

Recognition from the International Olympic Committee was another big step, and we worked very closely with WFDF to achieve this huge milestone for the sport.  The importance of IOC recognition for the long-term viability and growth of ultimate cannot be overstated. Again, the recognition reinforced that we are a legitimate sport. Having a multi-year ESPN agreement and WFDF as a partner in the US Open – an internationally televised, high-level international event – was very helpful in this process.  One of the absolute keys to Olympic recognition is economic and commercial viability.  This may leave a bad taste for some, but the IOC and USOC have nurtured and managed amateur sport for a long time. Over the years, it became very clear that for sports to thrive and grow, they needed to be economically viable and stable, just like any other enterprise.  If we succeed in being formally recognized by the US Olympic Committee, an exhaustive and difficult process currently underway, USA Ultimate will become part of the Olympic family and will be recognized as a legitimate sport under the Amateur Sports Act, the federal law governing sports in the United States. Official recognition will go a long way in opening new doors for us at the high school and college levels as well as with many youth-serving organizations such as the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, parks and recreation departments, etc., all of whom are members of the US Olympic Committee under the Amateur Sports Act.

It is important to note that what both the IOC and ESPN responded to, once we met the ‘economically viable’ hurdle, are the unique elements of our sport.  They like the emphasis on Spirit of the Game and the self-officiating/observer model.  They are intrigued by our mixed division and that our biggest stage, the World Games, features mixed teams. They like our gender equality and our youth appeal.  If we looked just like all other sports, we’d likely be failing to attract this respect and attention.  We need to be commercially viable, entertaining and different – particularly when those differences are what make ultimate a better experience!

While we have a good plan and are on our way from ‘the brink’ to possibly truly exploding, we must proceed thoughtfully and strategically.  One concern I have is that the community may be getting ahead of itself in interpreting where we are in the arc of economic viability and growth.  We are still very small in the competitive landscape of sports, with a very small membership and extremely limited resources. To provide some perspective, here are a few examples of how the USA Ultimate budget of $3 million/year compares to the sports we compete against: US Soccer: $53 million; USA Hockey: $35 million; USA Swimming: $30 million; US Lacrosse: $17 million; USA Rugby: $10 million. We need to grow strategically and smartly while making sure we do not overextend by trying to do too much too soon.  Our current dual-track strategy of building a national infrastructure from the bottom up through the League Affiliate Program while gaining high-level visibility and credibility will allow us to compete in the marketplace of sports, but it will take years of disciplined execution.  I look forward to continuing to work with our super smart and courageous board of directors and the hardest-working staff on the planet to maximize the potential of this beautiful sport.

Please visit the USA Ultimate website to view our annual report.

Issue No. 3 | Business

January 6, 2014