Looking Back at "Looking Ahead"

Posted: January 30, 2014 03:29 PM

Back in 2005, Will Deaver (then UPA Director of Championships) and Kyle Weisbrod (then UPA Director of Youth Development) co-wrote a piece outlining their vision for the next 10-15 years of the sport.  This piece was originally published in Ultimate: The First Four Decades (pg. 167-169)

LookingBack DeaverWeisbrod

Looking Ahead

More than three decades ago at least 1,000 fans and a TV news crew witnessed the first college Ultimate game ever played: Rutgers versus Princeton. When that match received tremendous media attention, including a report in the New York Times, Rutgers’ stars Irv Kalb and Dan "Stork" Roddick believed that they might be on the threshold of something as big as "Monday Night Ultimate."

Thirty years later, "Monday Night Ultimate" is nowhere in sight, but the UPA College Championships shown on television and the game is undergoing tremendous growth and change. What does all this mean for the sport? And can Ultimate maintain its unique character amidst this change? Or as Dan Roddick asked in the Foreword, can Ultimate "survive its own success"?  As we attempt to glimpse into the future, it is hard to know exactly what to expect for the game that germinated in the Columbia High School parking lot. However, what follows is what we think is likely to happen.

Growth will be the most rapid at the youth level—primarily high school and middle school—and the number of younger players may quickly overtake the College and Club divisions in the UPA. Beginning in 2001, the UPA’s youth membership has almost doubled in size each year. As more instructional materials are created and distributed through physical education (PE) conferences, more students will be taught how to play Ultimate in class.  Young athletes will have the opportunity to play Ultimate with their high school team during one season, and then turn around and play on their youth club team during the summer. As a result of this growth, Ultimate at the high school level will be faced with decisions about involvement with state athletic associations and other organizational entities.

In college, currently the UPA’s largest division, we will see increased financial support by alumni of the teams like we are already seeing at some schools, such as the University of Colorado, Stanford and Brown. More young players will choose schools based on Ultimate. 

At the club level, where growth has slowed, we may see the emergence of multiple divisions, separated by skill levels that create more opportunities for participation and balanced competition. As is the case with European soccer, successful teams may move up a division, while others could get relegated. 

The sheer number of players—combined with the increased diversity of skill levels—makes this path almost inevitable. There is a certain Hoosier-like charm to saying every team has a shot at the championship, and that the Colorado College B-team can compete with Johnny Bravo. But the reality is that blowouts are commonplace and organizers have to come up with complicated formats and more field space to accommodate increasingly large tournaments with wide ranges of players.  

As players mature with the game, we’re going to see divisions grow and diversify into sub-divisions based on age and gender categories.  Already the Masters bracket at the UPA Club Championships has become more competitive than just a few years before, and the idea of a Grand Masters Division is taking form. It won’t be long before the density of players makes it a viable option.

As the number of players grows, non-player groups such as coaches, parents, observers, media, administrators and organizers—even spectators and sponsors—will begin to exert more influence on the sport. The domain once occupied solely by the players will have to be shared with non-players. 

Fifteen years from now we’ll probably see observers at most college and elite club games, as well as at high school state championships. The player-coach role will begin to fade, as most high school, college and some club teams will have non-playing coaches. Administrators and organizers, both from inside (UPA, leagues) and outside of the sport (schools, recreation departments) will start to structure games and events based on concerns external to the game, such as liability, spectators and sponsors. Parents will be lining the sidelines (literally and figuratively), providing much needed financial, logistical and moral support for their kids, teams and leagues. Media coverage and sponsors may increasingly provide exposure and financial support for players, teams and organizations. For a while, most of these "non-player" groups will most likely be made up of players or ex-players. It’ll be Jim Parinella watching his kids play; Melissa Proctor observing a few games on the weekends; and various alumni coaching at their alma maters.

As these non-playing roles evolve and become an established part of the sport’s culture, they will develop their own priorities and agendas, some of which may create conflicts. While many parents are attracted to the self-officiated aspect of the sport, some administrators and parents, as well as players, will want officials to be involved in games. The UPA’s observer system will establish a structure that allows the oversight some people want, while still letting the players get the unique experience of self-officiated competition. However, its very existence will add another element to organizing play. The authority of coaches in a player-officiated sport also presents unique challenges. The extent to which coaches’ involvement in on-field play is acceptable is currently being worked through and a standard will be set in conjunction with training and certification. All of these groups will have to work together towards a unified vision for Ultimate.

Leagues and local Ultimate organizations will expand and continue to get more sophisticated. In the past, the typical Ultimate organizer was the person who had the cones, knew the local T-shirt guy and talked the loudest. We’re going to see more organizations sharing information, attaining non-profit status, setting up structures for volunteers and even hiring paid staff to run daily operations. Field space will continue to be a contentious issue. Local organizations may invest in their own fields or partner with local governments and other sports to acquire field space. Likewise, local governments will become aware of the economic impact that Ultimate leagues and tournaments can have on an area. Much like soccer over the last 30 years in the US, Ultimate players and organizations will start to have some local clout.

Over the next 15 years, Ultimate will become more accessible to fans. Major UPA events can be held in areas with large populations that include a sizable and active Ultimate community. Placing late rounds of tournaments in small or medium-sized stadiums and advertising these matches locally will increase the number of spectators. Match play (isolated games instead of tournaments) that caters not only to youth play, but also to spectators, will become more prevalent. 

The superficial changes needed to attract fans and the fans themselves may change the sport. If the spectator base grows large enough, cash prizes may become a more viable option for events. And with match play, we may see the evolution of the typical Ultimate athlete from the skinny, long-distance runner toward the more powerful, basketball-player physique.

Now, if you’ve been around Ultimate for long, you’ve undoubtedly heard the "we’re-on-the-brink" bit before. Remember what those Rutgers and Princeton players thought after their first game. So why believe such big changes are on the horizon now? 

Most of the anticipated shift has to do with resources and organization, as well as the strategic use of both. Throughout its first 20 years, the UPA was run largely by volunteers. Since 2001, the UPA staff has gone from two full-time positions to five full-time, one part-time, and three contract positions plus seasonal staff. Two of those positions are devoted to the technology issues faced by the UPA.  During the same time period, the UPA’s operating budget has more than doubled in size and is now more than $1 million. With full-time staff and resources focused on specific programs, a great deal has happened in the last few years that point to big changes for Ultimate. 

The newsletter is now a glossy color magazine. Ultimate-oriented companies have emerged and support events and programs. More disc manufacturers are looking for UPA approval for new Ultimate discs. College Sports Television (CSTV) began its third year of covering the UPA College Ultimate Championships in 2005. According to a survey that the UPA conducted at PE conferences nationwide, more than two-thirds of PE teachers at the high school level currently teach Ultimate. UPA-approved Wham-O Frisbees that come with a UPA membership form and instructional DVD can now be found in sporting goods stores and major general retailers around the country. In 2004, the UPA held its first league conference to bring together Ultimate organizations from around the continent. These are just a few of the opportunities resulting from increased resources, organization and interest in the sport; they will serve to generate more.

Under any scenario of Ultimate’s growth, the subculture associated with it will likely begin to change. A portion of the sport’s subculture can be attributed to the bond shared by those who play a sport that is unknown and often misunderstood. As more people play and learn about Ultimate that bond may diminish. At the same time, with increased team density, the geographic "range" of a typical player will shrink as more players find more opportunities to play closer to home. Perhaps, as with snowboarding, skateboarding and punk rock, companies might see opportunities to market Ultimate as something cool. The result may be a shift in both the subculture and the mainstream itself. Whether this shift is good, bad or just how it goes is simply a matter of perspective. 

While the culture surrounding the game may change, we hope Ultimate itself will still maintain its spirit. As Ultimate continues its growth and is forced to incorporate the interests of more players and non-players alike, its leaders and players face opportunities and major challenges. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be to make the choices that take advantage of Ultimate’s growing popularity, while remaining true to the sport’s unique and fundamental character that make spreading it worthwhile. 

Have any questions or comments? We welcome community feedback and discussion made in a respectful manner. Please refrain from profanity or personal attacks, as such public comments negatively reflect on our sport and community.