Our colleague Rick Liebling sheds some light on the growth of a new property.
If you’re a frequent watcher of ESPN, you’ve probably caught a SportsCenter Top 10 featuring the sport of Ultimate. The highlights usually showcase some incredible athlete leaping impossibly high or sprinting 40 yards before going completely horizontal just inches above the ground to make a catch. These highlights are coming from not one, but two professional Ultimate leagues currently operating in the United States – The American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) and Major League Ultimate (MLU)
Once considered a casual game played on college campuses, Ultimate has grown into a game played internationally and was recently recognized by the U.S.O.C . The sport features many aspects loved by the U.S. sports fan, with high scoring, fast paced action and incredible athleticism. Major League Ultimate was formed in 2012 and features eight teams (four on each coast). To find out more about the current and future prospects of the league, I spoke with Nic Darling, Executive Vice President of the MLU.
Rick Liebling: What’s the current state of ultimate in the U.S. in general, and professionally? (players, leagues, youth participations trends, etc.)
Nic Darling: Ultimate is a rapidly growing sport in the US and is gaining momentum around the world. Even now it is a bigger sport than most people realize. Over 5 million people a year play ultimate in some form or other in this country, more than play hockey and lacrosse combined. Of those 5 million, over 20% are “core” players according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, playing regularly throughout the year. The sport was also recently recognized by the International Olympic Committee, a tribute to its global credentials.
People play ultimate frisbee in a wide variety of circumstances. Many play casually, at camp, with friends, or in gym class. An increasing number join the swelling recreational leagues and social sports clubs around the country. Young people are finding growing opportunities to play scholastically with teams in middle and high-schools and are leading an ever increasing push for varsity status. The game continues to be hugely popular at universities and the skill and “seriousness” at that level has developed tremendously.
Beyond scholastic and recreational leagues are the club teams where players compete over a wide range of skill levels with the top teams traveling nationally to large, national tournaments. These club teams are the breeding ground for talent nationally and remain a significant area of top-level ultimate competition. The players on these teams fund their participation largely by themselves, covering travel, insurance, uniforms, training, tournament fees, etc. The play at this level is often sanctioned by USA Ultimate .
The pro teams are a more recent development and have offered players a new way to play the game. Fan-focused and funded, these teams provide a different platform for players and fans of the sport. At Major League Ultimate we pay for player travel, uniforms, injury insurance, training fields, coaching staff, stadiums and so on. We also work hard to put fans in the stands and eyeballs on the content we produce around the game. This gives players a very different experience, playing single games, in stadiums, in front of fans.
RL: Most people don’t realize that there is one, let alone two, professional leagues. Talk about that situation, and also the space that pro ultimate inhabits in relation to high club ultimate.
ND: There are a variety of ways to approach any new idea. Professional ultimate, or fan-based ultimate, was a relatively unexplored opportunity prior to 5 years ago and it is unsurprising that several organizations have taken very different angles on creating professional or professional-like products. Currently, the MLU, AUDL, and to a lesser extent USAU are all working to produce a fan-based ultimate product.
This situation is not uncommon in developing sports. There are often multiple leagues with slightly different approaches to professionalizing the game. In the end, it is likely that the situation will resolve itself through some kind of merger or acquisition scenario. That the game should have a professional version seems obvious now. The question that we continue to answer is what that version should look like.
Major League Ultimate has positioned itself as a league focused on the business of building a sports and entertainment company from the ground up. We prioritize the development of media relationships and corporate partnerships. Branding is paramount, and we believe that our approach will put us in the best position to grow over the coming years and establish ourselves as the premier league to watch and play.
Club ultimate is still a place where most of the top talent plays after the end of their pro seasons. There is no doubt that the talent on club teams is fantastic. Club is in an interesting position though as it tries to balance a desire to promote a high level version of the game for ultimate fans with their stated mission of serving ultimate players of all levels. Their responsibility for growing the game broadly can, at times, seem secondary to the work they do on the small segment of top-level club teams. This is a challenge that their membership has struggled with as the understanding of the need for visibility battles with the desire to grow. The success of the professional game would actually help club ultimate grow in the long run as the professional league takes some of the pressure to build awareness off the club organizers, allowing them to focus on youth development, curriculum, advocacy, international play and all of the other aspects a governing body juggles.
RL: Running a pro sports league is tough, take us through a typical day in the life of Nic Darling
ND: The great thing about this job is that there are no typical days. My primary responsibilities are running the office here in Philadelphia, managing the media side of our business and working with the executive committee to develop long term strategy. Every day these responsibilities take different forms depending on the time of year and current circumstances. This is still a start-up and one has to be prepared to step into whatever role is required.
There are around 14 people working in our Philadelphia headquarters full-time. This includes sales, statistics, design, web development, video production, content and social media. We work a pretty standard 9 to 5 in the office but most of the people working here put in hours of their own time on nights and weekends. The undertaking is pretty massive, and we run lean.
So, instead of a non-existent typical day, I’ll recount a recent one. I get up at 6am and work with my wife to get the kids out the door. Then I go to the gym because one of the side effects of running a start-up is a terrible diet and a lot of sitting in front of a computer. The gym is just fending off the inevitable. By 8:30 I am in the office. The first hour or so is email answering. I get an absurd amount of email. Then, on this particular day, I meet with Scott Helm, our Creative Director, to go over the most recent round of merchandise design iterations. After that I sit down with Matt Gray, our Director of Video Production, to work through our production goals for this year’s Championship Game. Then I prepare my presentation on a 2017 structural shift for the Executive Committee meeting in the afternoon. Next, a little task that I just don’t have anyone else to do right now — I design a quick flyer for the Eastern Conference Championship Game that will go on top of pizza boxes in the area. I follow that up with a call to Comcast to discuss distribution of the Championship Game. Then we head to Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania for a stadium tour. After that, the Executive Committee call and then I finish my regular workday with a meeting with our outside social media advisor. Later, I’ll spend a couple of pre-bed hours answering all the emails I filed as non-urgent in the morning.
Some days are lighter. Some are heavier. But, all of them are interesting. Despite the stress and adversity, this is a fantastic job.
RL: What’s the hook for sponsors who might be interested in partnering with the MLU?
ND: We have a great demographic and we can reach them at their point of passion. Ultimate people are very passionate about ultimate. Frisbee leans millennial and brands are trying to figure out how to talk to that audience. They know they need an access point and engaging content to work with. We have both of those things.
The MLU has been designed to work with corporate partners. We have strong brand control across the company and that is immensely important to the brands we are looking to work with. The first step to believing that they can trust you with their brand is how you care for yours. We own all the teams centrally and are able to assure consistent presentation across all the MLU platforms. That has been a huge selling point over the last few years.
We also have a strong creative team and have the ability to build campaigns and activations internally. This assures an authenticity to the campaigns and provides a higher value return than we might be able to offer by bringing in outside help. We regularly have opportunities to develop specific ideas that match a company’s brand and it’s goals, and we continue to improve as these conversations become more frequent.
Lastly, we have a talented sales and account management team. This team is able to find the place where our capabilities and the goals of the brands we are talking with intersect. They are also great at building and maintaining relationships which is probably the most important part of this part of the business. We are a young and still relatively unknown entity. It is the relationships we are growing which offer us access to the next level.
RL: What needs to happen for ultimate in the U.S. in general, and the MLU in particular, to go to the next level?
ND: There are several things that probably need to happen to move the game and the MLU to the next level.
- We need to continue to develop our sponsorship efforts to the point where we can create large, long-term relationships with non-endemic brands. We have made progress here, but the next level is 10x what we have managed so far. The good news is that this is happening. We have learned enough and have identified the gaps in our abilities and filled those.
- We need clarity in the space and the player buy-in that goes with it. I recently read an article on the WNBA and on how important the hard work of the players was to the league’s early survival. We have seen that as well. Players are key to building this league and the game, and while we have been fortunate to have some great support from players, the multiple entities means we aren’t all on the the same page with the same mission. The MLU needs to find a way to unite ultimate or at least to be a strong part of that unification.
- We need more TV. Digital media is the future. We all know this, and we are investing in that space heavily. However, traditional media, particularly television, is not dead. Sports still perform very well on television and to build the awareness of the game and attract the kind of partners we talked about above we need relationships with traditional media outlets as well as newer digital entities. These traditional outlets are also improving their digital reach and we need to be a part of that. Fortunately we have started to make those inroads. We have a good deal with Comcast RSNs in Philadelphia and the Mid-Atlantic. We will probably be able to expand that deal next year. This is great, but it isn’t enough. Ultimate needs and deserves a national reach that can lead to discovery by those who would otherwise be unlikely to find it.
- We need more investment in the sport and in the MLU. We have done a lot with relatively little by the standards of more established sports. I’m glad we have because it has allowed us to explore, make mistakes, learn and grow through sweat. We are better for it. That said, to get to the next level we will need to attract more investment. This will allow us to scale what we do, to acquire more properties, to lock down talent on and off the field, to attract bigger brands and build more revenue streams.
RL: Finally, can you share with me a link to a video that you think people should watch if they don’t know about elite level ultimate? Describe what people are going to see in the video.
ND: The best way to understand the game is to watch it. But a two hour game probably isn’t practical here. Instead I am going to offer a very basic highlight reel. Nothing flashy or distracting here. Just a string of plays which show the games athleticism and excitement. That show the beauty of the flying disc.
The Major League Ultimate 2016 Championship will be played on July 16th at The University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field. Click here for more information
Rick Liebling is an independent sports marketing professional based in the New York area. You can follow him on Twitter @RickLiebling .