I am of the opinion that the American Ultimate Disc League should stop all of this expansion.
Nine teams have been added this off-season so far; Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Diego, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Raleigh. There are also two teams coming in Texas (Dallas and Austin), a team coming to Denver (thanks @richdana44) and a team to Boston in future seasons. Those nine teams, plus the 17 teams that already made up the league, make for a total of 26 teams in the league currently.
A quick comparison then: the AUDL has 26 teams. Their semi-professional rival, Major League Ultimate, still holds their 8 franchises. There are 32 in the NFL, 30 in the NHL, and 20 in Major League Soccer. Don’t worry, the AUDL can soon catch up to the big leagues; remember, more teams are joining the south division soon.
Some of the markets chosen beg the question, how the hell are they choosing their markets? Expanding into the deep ultimate scenes of San Francisco (with two franchises) and Seattle last season, and adding on Pittsburgh and Raleigh this season, makes sense. Anyone that has followed ultimate can tell you how strong those areas are within the sport, either on the rec-league, college or club levels. But if you ask about areas such as Nashville, Detroit or Salt Lake, a lot less is known about those markets. Detroit made the big splash their first year by bringing in Ken Porter from North Carolina, but outside of that, they have been without a major star. I don’t believe you need a star to succeed in the league. For a while, albeit two seasons ago, the Rochester Dragons were making due without one, but the quick success of the San Jose Spiders and league-domination by the Toronto Rush suggests otherwise. All the while, the AUDL is failing to expand into other well-known ultimate markets, such as Texas, Colorado, or Massachusetts. That is what makes these market choices that much more confusing; there were other options available for the league to look towards for expansion.
It also begs asking, how does the AUDL measure the success of their markets? The weaker markets in the league (Rochester, Detroit, and Salt Lake) have reported attendance averaging somewhere around 300-400 people at the highest. Compare that to the numbers of a franchise like the Toronto Rush (who push 1k for most of their games), and you have a lop-sided league. The model that the AUDL has chosen is based off of each individual team finding success with their fans. For those teams that aren’t finding success on the field, argued in part because of their market choice not having a strong ultimate-base, how much longer can they sustain the low-hundreds in average fan attendance that they’ve had thus far? One more season, maybe two?
Something that is extremely unclear within the AUDL is, if a big market team has more money to spend than a small market team and can therefore afford to sign an out-of-town star player to come play with them hundreds of miles away, can the league do anything to bring about a competitive balance of some sort? Or will the small market teams without a star player and no cash to bring one in, always be held back competitively?
Take a quick look at Major League Soccer on Wikipedia. When the league first started, they were a rapidly expanding sports league. Now this was for a sport with a much larger base to start with (how many ultimate players were in a youth soccer league growing up), and much more public traction to gain fans and support (first through the Atlanta Olympics, than 1999 Women’s World Cup Final, and even to today with Team USA on an International stage). At first, according to the Wikipedia entry, the league struggled financially as it lost millions of dollars and had to end up folding its franchises. Eventually, attendance surged as the teams moved to sport-specific stadiums, exceeding the NBA and NHL average fan attendance leading to major TV-contracts, but not before the league spent time actually losing a large amount of money. Currently, none of those goals seem to be attainable for the AUDL. While Forbes is listed on the entry as proof that the league is making a profit now, the league recently claimed they had lost upwards of $100 million this season (though that is in dispute by some as a CBA tactic). Ultimate isn’t soccer. I don’t think the league is losing a large amount of money currently, but they are most likely taking into account the expansion revenues as a positive to their league economics – possibly helping the lower-performing teams break even.
The success of the top teams within the AUDL, both on the field and off the field, has shown that their model isn’t necessarily bad. There are major sponsors, including a telecom company, a hedge fund, and other ‘big’ names. Some of the people who have chosen to invest in the league, recently the founders of ultimate clothing company Five Ultimate, suggest that the business model behind the scenes is sound. But in the recent AMA on reddit’s r/ultimate with MLU founders Jeff Snader and Nic Darling, a question was asked about how their sponsors see the AUDL approach – granted, the response should be taken with a grain of salt because of who it’s coming from (their rival), it is interesting. Darling writes that their sponsors have been turned off by the lack of brand control, a perceived lack of accountability, and the growth-model that the AUDL has chosen (which Darling states is done for the influx of cash). Again grain of salt, but if any of it is true, that’s a big blow to the AUDL, as sponsors sign with the rival league instead of their own. Plus if the new franchises are merely being added for their influx of cash, and not because of their strong market potential, ability to pick up advertisers, etc., it doesn’t bode well for the future of those franchise’s or the league itself.
Sludge Output, a great blog for ultimate, also points out that three of the AUDL’s franchises have had a crowd-funding campaign. The latest to join that group was the recently announced LA Aviators. It can’t be good that the newly formed team is already looking for a way to generate revenue, before the season even begins and as tryouts are taking place. As Sludge writes, “The plea for money from professional ultimate teams smells of desperation. As if the team owner(s) bought a team yet cannot afford to properly run the team without additional funds.”
Bama Secs also pointed out with the newest Atlanta franchise that the league owns the team. Why does the league own the team? Because no one would buy the franchise. What an interesting move out of the league that is.
Maybe the AUDL needs to stop expanding, and focus on growing the teams they already have. So they don’t need to run crowd-funding campaigns. So they can’t focus on expansion costs as a source of league-revenue, and instead build legitimate roads of revenue. So they can break back any negative perception potential sponsors may have about their brand control or accountability. So they can get back to having us focus on the ultimate, and not the money involved.