October 29 was a pretty big day in the world of semi-pro ultimate. Not only did the MLU announce a couple cross divisional games for the 2016 season, the AUDL announced that the Rochester Dragons won’t be returning next year.
Cross divisional play is an interesting step for the MLU in 2016. The MLU is entering its fourth year of existence, and in its four years it has maintained the same exact eight teams across two divisions. So those eight teams have been playing the same three teams 3-4 times a year for the last three seasons. In contrast, the AUDL has been adding new teams every year, and every division will have at least six teams in 2016. Why does that matter? Because players think it matters. One of the big reasons that Markham Shofner and Alan Kolick named in switching from the Current in the MLU to the Breeze in the AUDL was that they would be able to play a greater variety of teams.
So is cross divisional play a game changer? Can this provide some sort of momentum shift, if momentum even exists between fledgling semi professional ultimate leagues? I wouldn’t count on it. During the 2016 regular season, there will be a total of two cross divisional games in the MLU. New York is traveling to San Francisco for a game and Portland is traveling to Boston. So if you’re an MLU player in DC, your schedule looks just like it did last year. And while the Boston-Portland game will no doubt be the most compelling game of the MLU regular season, it’s not really clear what benefit two cross divisional games will bring the league. Given how stagnant the 2015 MLU season felt though, mixing it up a bit can’t be that bad an idea. Maybe attendance is great and they expand it forward. Maybe it just ends up being money spent unnecessarily. But the MLU is right in thinking that they need to be trying new and different things. Mere recognition of that reality is important to the league moving forward.
Of course, the league that I’d like to see cross divisional games the most from is the AUDL. They’d be more compelling games, and more of the teams would be able to play them without paying an arm and a leg. Now, the AUDL doesn’t have the need to play cross divisional games the same way the MLU does. There are more teams in each division and the league has more compelling teams. And it’d be foolish for the AUDL to chase after cross divisional play just because the MLU went down the road. Plus, with franchise ownership rather than central league control, owners would need to approve something that would cost a lot for some teams but not others, without any apparent immediate benefit. Given all that I don’t expect the AUDL to go there anytime soon.
But….. the Dragons were just contracted and the Lions aren’t coming back, which means the AUDL is at an even 26 teams. So if the league wanted to, it could introduce cross divisional play for every team. Now with the caveat that it’s not going to happen this year, here’s how it could be done. Every team would play a cross divisional game, one home and one away against the same opponent. If it’d be easier, a cheaper alternative would be to alternate home and away year by year. So in 2016 Chicago would travel to Toronto, but in 2017 Toronto would travel to Chicago. Here are the matchups that make the most sense:
- San Francisco-Madison
- Los Angeles-Dallas
- San Diego-Jacksonville
- San Jose-Austin
- Pittsburgh-New York
The benefit here is that seven of these thirteen matchups are within driving distance (less than eight hours). Of the twelve remaining teams, nine flew to games (or will be flying to games) already. There are a lot of compelling matchups here. A brand new Austin team plays against the defending champion San Jose Spiders. Chicago and Toronto have each made the playoffs the last three seasons, but have yet to play each other. Tyler DeGirolamo and the Thunderbirds go up against a gritty New York Empire team. I don’t know about you, but I’m making sure my non existent AUDL league pass is tuned into those games.
One downside to this approach (in addition to cost) is that it leads to an inherently unbalanced schedule. Fans that are tuning into ESPN3 may be happy to see Austin play San Jose during the regular season, but San Jose probably wouldn’t be thrilled about another couple tough games in their push to finish first in the West.
The truth of it is though, the AUDL schedule is already unbalanced. San Francisco had to play San Jose five times last season. Pittsburgh played Cincinnati and Detroit (the two worst teams in the Midwest) three times each last season. The Thunderbirds didn’t have to play any other opponent more than twice. Under this proposed scenario, teams in the Midwest and South would play each of their divisional opponents twice, and their cross divisional opponent twice. This year it’d be a bit of a break for Atlanta, who gets Cincinnati twice. Next year, maybe they have to play Indianapolis or DC instead. It’s not ideal, but it would provide an opportunity for teams to play new opponents and fans to see new teams come to town, all without breaking the bank.
Again, the AUDL has a good thing going and there’s no need to throw money at something like this. Especially considering that cross divisional games wouldn’t necessarily be that much bigger a draw in the stands than your standard divisional opponent. But it is fun to think about. And frankly, it makes more sense for the AUDL to do it than the MLU, given the geography of the league. This isn’t going to happen in 2016 for the AUDL, but it could down the road. Some owners are already in favor of it. It probably will happen eventually, but the truth of it is, it’s more important to players and devoted fans than it is most owners.
One thing that could change that is that if these two cross divisional MLU games draw significantly larger crowds than other home games. If there’s a potential financial incentive, it could get the attention of more hesitant owners in the AUDL. I don’t foresee a huge crowd showing up in San Francisco just because the New York Rumble are in town, but it can’t be ruled out. And the MLU taking the first step allows the AUDL to sit back and see whether or not something like this is worth it in 2017 or 2018. Watching the success of the MLU in 2013 and trying to emulate it played a big role in the AUDL becoming a stronger league in following years. Maybe history will repeat itself again. Probably not, but you never know.