Outside Edge

Feature photo by Alex Fraser – UltiPhotos.com

Let me first admit that I’m new to ultimate.

It was February 2012.  I had never heard of ultimate when I received a call that changed my life.    I own a marketing firm with an extensive network of contacts and the caller asked if I could present a new professional ultimate league called the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) to a major potential sponsor.  I normally have a fair idea of what is being proposed, but with ultimate, I was on unfamiliar ground.  “Think of ultimate as football with a Frisbee”, said the caller.  “Long hucks, sick layout, amazing D’s”!  I didn’t know what this was, but I was intrigued and had to know more.

I began my research, and what I found was fascinating.  For days, the articles I read and videos I watched had me completely captivated. This sport was exciting, it was unbelievably athletic, and most of all I couldn’t help noticing how respectful the players were of each other.

Then I found Spirit of the Game, and in that moment was hooked.

Here is my story.

It started with Spirit

When I found Spirit, I knew I had not only found an amazing sport, but one with a value set I felt every child in the country deserved.  As a serial entrepreneur whose philanthropic activities have always centered on children, a merged vision was becoming clear.  I wanted to bring this value set to children across the country regardless of social or economic background and in a format that would allow the children to participate at no cost.  I wanted to provide “Spirit-focused” ultimate clinics to children across America.  The seed of what would become the Callahan for Kids Foundation was planted, and I was excited.  It was clear this was not only a new focus for my career: it was a new direction that could quite possibly fulfill a lifelong dream of building something special for children.

Or so I thought…

Becoming a Team Owner

While basking in the excitement of what might be on the horizon for a guy who suspected he had just come across his life’s ambition, a second opportunity presented itself and would further plunge me into the world of ultimate: the Chicago AUDL franchise was available for sale.

My mind was spinning. Mere weeks prior, I was unaware ultimate even existed, but now, ownership of a professional team was at my doorstop.  The question was simple: what do I do?

My professional training told me to conduct proper due diligence, but my gut was telling me to just do this.  Although I was yet to see a game live, I felt aligned with a purpose and was about to go against the most basic of my business tenets.  I threw due diligence out the window and four days later bought the franchise now known as the Chicago Wildfire.  Less than 30 days after learning of ultimate’s existence, I was not only planning a new national non-profit organization, but also was now owner of a professional team.  It had been an amazing month but one thing was clear: it was time to get past my fascination and get to work.

Ultimate Becomes a Business

In any business, there are initial fundamental steps that need to be taken.  Corporate structures need to be formed, proper filings must be submitted, and procedures have to be established.  But in this case, I had to go through these time-consuming steps for two entities.  The enormity of the task at hand began to sink in and I had this sick feeling that I may have taken on more than I was prepared to handle. Still, I couldn’t shake the gut feeling that this was something that was meant to be and could be the most important thing I would ever do.

It quickly became clear that the Wildfire was going to have to be the priority in the short term.  Play would begin in April 2013, and the scheduled games weren’t going to wait for me to be ready.

I was taking comfort in the knowledge that I had a year to prepare when an unexpected concern surfaced.  The league was becoming embroiled in a controversy with two of its member teams that resulted in lawsuits over licensing rights.  As months passed without resolution, other issues surfaced that added to my concern over the direction of the league.  I felt I was at a point in which I had two choices:  I could get out before I got in too deep or I could face these issues head on and as a result, help resolve the existing problems and put the league on solid footing.  The answer was easy: it wasn’t in me to quit, I knew the Wildfire could only succeed if the league did, and above all, I still had this feeling in my gut I was supposed to do this.  Respected advisors were advising otherwise, but I needed to stay and see this through.

Serving as the Commissioner

I discussed my concerns with other team owners who were experiencing similar feelings, and we were ecstatic when one decided to assemble a small investment group to purchase the league from founder Josh Moore. With the league needing new leadership, I was asked to serve as commissioner. I knew I would again be taking on a lot and would face plenty of questions and challenges relating to being so new to the sport, but this felt right. I accepted.

The Challenge Ahead

It’s been an amazing journey over the last 22 months, and one I wouldn’t trade for anything.  It’s been fun, rewarding and at times akin to a roller coaster ride, but none of it compares to what lies ahead.  The challenge is simple:  How does one market and grow a sport at the professional level while celebrating the very “purity” that made it great?  Furthermore, how does one do that if many of the purists have a different point of view?

The answers to these questions will reveal themselves in time, but there are fundamental elements at the heart of the approach.  First, the foundation of Spirit must absolutely be taught and upheld at every level.  In my opinion, this is the bloodline of ultimate.  Second, while I passionately support the traditional game at every other level, I believe the changes made to the professional game are necessary to provide the exposure this sport needs to grow.

The Future

I think ultimate has an unbelievably exciting future. This game is poised to explode in popularity, and that is good for both the game and society as a whole.  I know many within the ultimate community would prefer to keep it quiet in the interest of protecting its sanctity, and while I understand that sentiment, I respectfully disagree.  We don’t just have a great sport; we have a great builder of people.  I believe we have a greater responsibility to build as many as we can.  I also understand objections to changes in the game, but again, respectfully disagree.  The differences between the traditional and professional games should be embraced rather than resisted.  If approached correctly, the professional game does not put the traditional game at risk, but instead celebrates what the traditional game is and the culture it has built, and does so on a big stage that brings exposure we aren’t getting otherwise.  I truly believe any success enjoyed at the professional level is and will continue to be a result of the quality of its people and players that are the very embodiment of the traditional game they grew up playing.  We would be remiss if we tried to change that in any manner.

I believe the activities aimed at growing this sport should start at the grass roots level, which is with children.  Many are already doing this in their communities, and I am sincerely impressed with the level of commitment they exhibit.  Callahan for Kids will do this on a national level while also introducing the game directly in schools.  We will then direct these kids to great programs, such as USAU and countless local organizations that provide youth leagues and tournaments to continue their growth.  These children should then be directed to college programs that provide opportunity to extend their academic educations while furthering their value-centric activities— namely ultimate.

If we can do that, we will have done something truly special.  I’m committed to this endeavor and look forward to the many years of working with all the amazing people that share this vision.

Issue No. 3 | Business

January 6, 2014