Future of the AUDL and MLU

It sounds absurd when you explain it to outsiders. You tell them that yes, there is a pro league for Ultimate. Well actually, there are two. Most of the time the response I get goes something like this,

“What? Two pro frisbee leagues? I didn’t even know that it was a sport! There’s no way that lasts.”

And they’re right, there’s very little chance that both the AUDL and MLU will be around in ten years, or even five years. But they both will probably be around next year, and both the AUDL and MLU have announced aggressive expansion plans. The AUDL will most likely only expand to markets where they can get buyers, but it seems like both leagues want us to think they don’t even consider the other when putting together their future plans. I hope that even if they don’t want to give off the perception of considering the other league, they still do. Because frankly, some of their expansion plans make absolutely no sense. Expansion so quickly for economically unstable organizations is very dangerous. If the AUDL and MLU feel like they have to expand, hopefully they do it smartly. One idea that’s been proposed by some is a promotion/relegation system like European Soccer Leagues. However geographically it makes no sense. You could have Portland demoted into a Midwestern Conference, while Chicago has to compete against West Coast teams. Here are a few ideas that I think do make sense, factoring in geography, the Ultimate talent pool, individual market size and if they’re likely to work for Ultimate teams.

Right now the MLU is on the West Coast, the AUDL is in the Midwest, and both are in the Northeast. Instead of trying to take over the others territory, where they’ll hurt both leagues chances of survival, they should find their own markets. The MLU originally had plans to add a “Midwestern” Conference of Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis, Toronto, and Pittsburgh. That is a terrible plan. That conference covers way too much territory, the Denver team would have to fly to every game, and the remaining four teams would only have one non flight game. Yes, some teams in the Western Conference of the MLU already fly to games, but not with such regularity. Flights have to be one of the most costly expenses in the MLU, and if possible they should be avoided. Plus, the AUDL franchises already have a foothold in Chicago, Toronto, and the Twin Cities. If the MLU hasn’t already scrapped those expansion plans, they should. Instead they should focus on expanding the conferences they already do have, since they only have four teams in each anyhow. Adding San Jose to the Western Conference makes sense if the MLU thinks both San Jose and San Francisco are capable of supporting separate teams. I doubt there’s a large contingent of San Jose citizens traveling to Dogfish games, so it should work. Yes, San Jose doesn’t have a very strong Ultimate scene independent of San Francisco, but San Francisco has enough players to commute to San Jose to put together a still talented San Jose team. Plus, teams flying to San Francisco could also play San Jose that same weekend, cutting down on flight costs. If the MLU wanted to add even more teams to the Western Conference, Los Angeles and San Diego seem like obvious choices. Teams from the Northwest flying to LA could also get a game in San Diego in, since the two cities are only two hours (not counting traffic) away. The four California teams would also have the option of driving to in state games. Los Angeles doesn’t have a great Ultimate history, but without a franchise in Santa Barbara would probably be able to attract top talent from the Condors.

In the Eastern Conference I think it’s best that the MLU ignore Toronto. The Rush are a very well run organization, and there’s no sense in competing against them when the MLU doesn’t have to. If they want to expand Pittsburgh seems like it could fit into the Eastern Conference. There is a strong Ultimate scene in Pittsburgh, and it has a large enough population to support a team. We know that MLU likes Pittsburgh as an expansion location, since they originally targeted it for their 2014 Midwestern Conference. Apart from Pittsburgh, it is more difficult to find workable expansion cities in the Eastern Conference. If they wanted a six team conference, I think Cleveland makes the most sense. It is a ten hour drive from Boston, but within 7.5 hours for the rest of the franchises. Plus, the schedule could be worked for teams to play at Pittsburgh and Cleveland on the same weekend. You may not consider the Ultimate in Cleveland high level enough, which is a fair criticism. Cleveland doesn’t have nearly as strong a youth Ultimate scene as Cincinnati does. However the most recent results from their best Club Open team, Lake Effect,  show that they can’t be written off entirely. They beat Florida United at the Ultimate Invite Championships, and consistently beat second tier teams (Haymaker, Climax, Space City Eclipse) from Ultimate hotbeds. In the end though it doesn’t make sense to have 7 franchises in one conference and six in the other. And given the potential issues in Cleveland and Los Angeles it would probably be best for the MLU to stick with five team conferences for the time being. An Eastern Conference of DC, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, and a Western Conference, of Portland, Vancouver, Seattle, San Jose, and San Francisco is sustainable.

In the AUDL the picture is a little less clear. They badly want to expand to the West Coast, and probably feel like the MLU has an advantage because of the talent on that coast. But frankly, I think that’s too insider baseball, and since the MLU is already there they’re not likely to pry Beau, Mac, Oscar, Cody, Timmy, Chicken, or Moses from the MLU teams they’re already committed to anyhow. The AUDL teams started in 2014 would be less established and behind the curve on the west coast, so I say forget about it. Already AUDL teams are drawing less than their MLU counterparts in DC and New York, (I have no idea about the Phoenix’s attendance numbers) so I don’t know why they’d want to extend that losing battle. AUDL teams in their own markets (Toronto, Madison, Chicago) have shown they can be successful in attendance numbers and on the field. So the AUDL should focus its expansion plans where the MLU isn’t, in the Southeast. A Southeastern division of Jacksonville, Atlanta, Raleigh, Nashville, and Charlotte makes a lot of sense. The longest trip would be from Jacksonville to Nashville, which is still less than nine hours. There’s undoubtedly enough talent in Raleigh and Atlanta to support teams, and North Carolina has enough talent to support a team in Charlotte too. Nashville has Tanasi, a team that has qualified for Nationals in the past, and several high school teams, which the Minnesota Wind Chill have quickly discovered can be a great driver of attendance. Jacksonville doesn’t have a great Ultimate scene, Jacks on Jill, a mixed team that has finished near the bottom at Nationals, is the strongest team in town. But without any other teams in Florida a Jacksonville team would draw from other cities in the state as well. Plus, they could probably get a certain former Florida Gator to play for them. Geographically Jacksonville makes the most sense given that it’s in northern Florida, and it is the largest city in Florida as well.

A Southeastern Division could be great for the AUDL. They do still have problems in the Northeast though. The DC Breeze have struggled with attendance numbers, I doubt drawing 100 fans a game is sustainable. The Empire have struggled in getting a good venue to draw fans for, though to be fair the same is true of the Rumble. I don’t know how the Phoenix have drawn (anyone want to help me there?) but the Spinners have drawn significantly fewer fans this year than last. Part of that is that they have a less central location, I believe the venue move was cost motivated. But the Phoenix also being in town can’t help the Spinners numbers. For now it probably makes sense to keep the Phoenix and Empire, given how successful they have been on the field and the size of those markets. New Jersey and Rochester don’t have MLU competitors in town, Toronto is the most successful organization in the AUDL, and arguably in all of semi pro Ultimate. It’s more difficult to contract teams in the AUDL than MLU given the individual owner approach, but it probably makes sense to get rid of either the Phoenix, Empire, or Breeze. Given that the Phoenix and Empire are both likely playoff teams, I’d say the Breeze should get the short end of the stick. Some sort of settlement could be reached with the owner. This way the five teams in the Northeast match the five teams in the Southeast.

Which also means you’d need to cut a team from the Midwest. This is a pretty easy one. The Detroit Mechanix are playing in a terrible venue, so they’re not drawing well at all. Which is a shame since their owner is clearly committed to running a successful franchise. He brought in Ken Porter to coach, the Mechanix are one of only two AUDL teams to have live streaming available for each home game, and have put a decent product on the field despite some initial skepticism. But with Detroit so far out of the way for the rest of the Midwest, and their difficulty putting fans in the stands, I don’t see another option. Unless they get a more central venue, there’s little reason to think the Mechanix would catch on. Even in the Silverdome last year they never drew very well, and only a couple hundred fans made it to the AUDL championship game there.

If the AUDL is averse to having 15 teams in three divisions, which admittedly isn’t a great structure to set up for a fair playoff system, they could add a Texas centric division. That would include Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, and New Orleans. But I don’t think those markets are likely to work for Ultimate teams. Talent isn’t the issue. Between Doublewide, Space City, Plex, HIP, and Cosa Nostra there is plenty of Ultimate talent in Texas. New Orleans wouldn’t be as strong, but between Turbodog, LSU, and Tulane there are enough players to make one competitive team. I just think those markets would have a tough time drawing fans.  The Texas Youth Ultimate scene still has a way to go, and frankly you’re not as likely to find people in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio that’d be open to going to an Ultimate game. So though there is potential in that type of division, I wouldn’t go for it, at least not yet.

Here’s what my proposed 2014 AUDL would look like:

Midwest Division

Windy City Wildfire

Madison Radicals

Minnesota Wind Chill

Indianapolis AlleyCats

Cincinnati Revolution

Northeast Division

Toronto Rush

New York Empire

Philadelphia Phoenix

Rochester Dragons

New Jersey Hammerheads

Southeast Division

Atlanta

Raleigh

Jacksonville

Nashville

Charlotte

It probably makes sense to let eight teams qualify for the playoffs. That is over half, but you want to make sure late season games still have a purpose. It’s not easy with a 15 team league, but you could have the top two teams in each division automatically qualify with two wild cards. Under the proposed plan teams wouldn’t play outside their division until the playoffs. And with only five teams per division it probably makes sense to cut the season down to 12 games, 16 seems a little long anyhow.

My fear is that instead of one rising to the top, the leagues will end up killing each other by competing in the same markets. With this sort of plan that is much less likely. Hopefully both teams expand smartly instead of expand for the sake of expansion’s sake, since we know that has killed burgeoning sports leagues before.

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One comment

  1. greg@plasticworks.ca · · Reply

    MLU certainly should go to Toronto….there is already an MLU team there, they are just playing in the wrong league. In all seriousness, the market there is good and the MLU can put on as good a show as the Rush. Plus, there are suitable (not as nice I’ll admit, but suitable) stadiums reasonably central, so why not? If the members of GOAT that make up most of the AUDL team make the switch, so will the fans. Plus, it adds a team in an existing conference….as I agree that making a midwest conference is a unsustainable idea at the moment for the MLU. The MLU can’t shy away from all the contentious areas if it wants to be the premier league. Sure, it’s putting up a fight in the HQ of the AUDL investors…..but what are they going to do….try to expand even faster?!

    It’s unsustainable for the AUDL too of cource, as are probably most of the franchises, but the financial model of the AUDL allows for a lot more failure than the MLU model does.

    I’m out of Vancouver BC, apparently home of the highest average MLU attendance, and it’ll be very interesting if the AUDL does come to town next year. The MLU experience, given Vancouver seemed to be the last place finalized, was very good.

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