A glorious event transpired last week in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. A mark in the endzone extended his right arm high up into the heavens, blocked the handler’s cross-field high-release backhand, and then magically closed his fingers around the disc. Or maybe he is spiderman disguised as a Middle Tennessee State University MT Ultimate defender and it just stuck to his palm. Who knows how he did it, but it will probably never happen again. Let all bear witness: the holy grail of ultimate, the hand block callahan, has been filmed.
In early 2018, a new professional ultimate league was proposed that would advance gender equity in the sport with great symbolism for youth players. If you’re a coach, parent, or player that would like to explore how professional mixed ultimate could inspire and accelerate youth development, then you should back the United Ultimate League (UUL) Kickstarter — a community fundraiser that is now in its final stages (end of February, 2018).
If you can’t contribute financially (and even if the Kickstarter fails) it’s worth understanding the suite of proposed ideas — many of which have implications for the development of youth ultimate in the United States. This blog post is my attempt to pull together salient details about the proposed league. I hope it will promote discussion of gender equity and professional ultimate, particularly in Seattle where the UUL campaign and ideas seem to have received little attention, possibly because the league proposal has been led by Todd Curran, the CEO of the Savage ultimate apparel company which is based on the East coast.
From my perspective as a youth coach (elementary and middle school) and a father of both a female and male player, the idea of regular, local, high-level mixed ultimate games in major U.S. cities is most attractive for one key reason: the youngest kids learn to play co-ed (in elementary school) and it would be more meaningful if there were both women and men on the field when these youth first watch a professional game. We liked and supported the MLU Rainmakers and we love and support the AUDL Cascades — especially their impressive ramp up of youth-fostering activities over the last couple years. Live-streamed mixed games from USAU club championships are great, too.
But only a mixed professional team could inspire all of our youngest players equally, and rid us of the dissonance we feel when they earnestly ask upon first viewing the professional field “Wait, where are the girls?”
The UUL Kickstarter site makes two good points about additional benefits the new league could offer to youth ultimate:
Why 6v6 and not 8v8?We chose the 6v6 style and slightly smaller Ultimate field to follow with our core values: gender equity and youth development. Having a smaller field means it’s harder to reach top speed. Also with fewer players on the field, it makes “looking off passes” less advantageous. On the youth side, the smaller field allows for two fields to fit on one soccer field. This increases playing opportunities and keeps costs low.
Equal-gender 6-versus-6 format
The UUL proposes 6-person teams (instead of the adult standard of 7) with equal number of players who identify as men or women. (How genderqueer players would/could play hasn’t been specified, as far as I’ve seen.) The Kickstarter site points out that if this format became accepted and popular, youth teams could also convert to 6v6.
In Seattle the elementary league has transitioned to 5v5 over the past two springs, in part because the format generally means more touches per player and less complexity on the field (making it easier to learn to create and take space, and safer by decreasing the odds of a collision). Perhaps middle school leagues could start playing coed 6v6 which would not only match the UUL format, but also provide a transition to learning 7v7 in high school.
Or maybe we would optimize development by staying with 5v5 through middle school and transitioning to 6v6 in high school? As males catch up developmentally with girls in middle and high school, youth players might also benefit from the UUL’s concept of promoting gender equity by using the smaller field dimensions to lower the likelihood of players hitting their top speeds (thereby decreasing the risk of more-injurious collisions and de-emphasizing the speed differentials between genders).
In Seattle, where field access is an on-going and increasing problem, it would be strategic to shift the game to a smaller field (with dimensions that fit twice within a soccer or football footprint). This is part of the reason elementary teams shifted to 5v5. If both middle and high school leagues switched to 6v6, we could effectively double their supply of fields instantly.
The field size is 70×40 yards overall with 20 yard endzones, dimensions which have been tested successfully in flatball, another ultimate variant that has been sponsored by Savage Ultimate. Since the standard soccer field width is 70 yards, a soccer or football pitch could accommodate two of these new ultimate fields, with a generous 10-20 yards for a safe sideline between fields.
Other aspects of the UUL: good, bad, and not yet defined…
The positive implications for youth ultimate I’ve outlined above should be enough to inspire most ultimate community members to back the UUL Kickstarter. There are, however, lots of other interesting ideas that the proposed league has offered for our consideration. And there are some areas of ambiguity where the community has asked for and/or could provide innovative solutions.
Since the sources of information and discussion about the league are pretty spread out, below I’ve distilled the ones I found most helpful in answering questions I had after reading through the Kickstarter site.
Resources, interviews, discussions
- Jan 15 announcement
- Jan 15 Skyd Magazine Q&A interview with Todd Curran
- Jan 15 Ultiworld article
- Deep look podcast:
More links to explore:
Two notable new discs flew into my coaching bag in 2017: the Aria Ultimate (175 gram) disc as a reward from the Aria Kickstarter and a soft version of the Jstar (145 gram) disc being tested against the USAU disc standards. Both offer some exciting advantages for youth ultimate players. After throwing them alongside our teams’ standard quiver here are my initial impressions.
Softer, more flexible plastic
Both are remarkably sticky and pliable in comparison to the discs that I’ve used in coaching for past 5 years (Discraft Ultrastars and Jstars). This means that they are easier to grip and much less painful when they hit you in the face. Both benefits are a big deal in elementary ultimate. On a cold day the stiffer, more slippery Ultrastars or earlier-model Jstars can be tough for 3rd or small fourth graders to grip and throw. And kids will REALLY appreciate the softer, more-rubbery material of the Aria or flexi-Jstar when they happen to D a fast throw with their lip or ear on a cold day (a common, tearful occurrence — even with fewer players on the field in the 5v5 games we’ve adopted in Seattle).
To give you a strong impression of how much softer these discs are than the current standard, I had my 14 year-old handler-son throw our whole quiver, one-by-one GENTLY at face level. I could not will myself to take a hit from an Ultrastar, but I toughened up for an Aria hit. It was still painful, but MUCH less than the hits I’ve taken from Ultrastars (mostly during middle school practice, and mostly involving a lot of blood or muffled cursing). The Jstars offered a better comparison. There’s a very obvious difference in the pain levels that you’re likely to experience from a facial hit by the old, harder Jstars and the new, flexi-Jstar. I think you’d need to pay me somewhere between $1 and $5 to put my face in front of the old Jstar, but I’m willing to demonstrate a hit from the flexi-Jstar anytime for free!
The softer plastic seems to come with one possible cost for youth players, though. It seems to be a little harder to catch, possibly because it tends to bounce a bit as it hits your palm. So if you don’t close your fingers on it quickly, the more rubbery material may cause you to drop the pass. This cost to the receiver may be outweighed by the disc not hurting as much when catching a hard throw on a cold day. In any case, it will be interesting to test these new materials during play in the colder Seattle winters, as well as the hottest summer days on a turf field…
You’d think that the softer material would also come with an aerodynamic cost. Yet both discs fly extremely well! Both the Aria technology innovators and the Discraft engineers seem to have found an youth ultimate optimum between aerodynamics, grip, and safety. The flexi-Jstar flies remarkably straight, whereas many adults and youth have noted that the old Jstars tend to fall off as they lose speed, causing curved, less-predictable flights — especially on windy days. The Aria also flies great; both my son and I were able to throw the Aria and Ultrastar similar distances with similar accuracy.
Both of the softer discs feel novel in the hand. It’s both strange to be able to deform the disc with your standard grip strength and satisfying to feel the extra spin you can get with the stickier plastic.
Implications for youth ultimate
Overall, I think the Aria and flexi-Jstar will be great additions to the equipment from which youth coaches and players can choose. If they were both available now in the bulk quantities of discs typically needed by youth ultimate teams in Seattle, I’d upgrade my Ultrastar/Jstar inventory immediately. The gain or no-net-difference in aerodynamic performance is already compelling, but the potential of these new discs to improve throwing mechanics and reduce injuries for our youngest players make these discs a very exciting development.
As of September, 2017, Aria is offering a handful of fun prints for $12 per disc. It’s unclear what their bulk pricing will look like (I’m inquiring), but the Aria FAQ says they do offer some sort of deal. A coup would be if Discraft produced the flexi-Jstar with an option for custom printing. My kids are getting tired of the red, white, blue/gray options in the old Jstars…
Aria approved for highest levels of play
The reviews of the Aria disc by USAU must have been consistent with our positive experience, because on Aug 29, 2017, USAU announced that the Aria disc is approved for Champion level play in USAU competitions. This means it is also approved by WFDF for approved for elite ultimate play worldwide.
In an effort to acquire input from the growing ultimate community across the United States, the national governing body USA Ultimate, is in the middle of their “2017 Vision Tour” in which they are holding meetings at city’s across the nation. They are coming to Seattle next Tuesday (4/4) and your chance to influence the direction of the sport in the U.S. will be from 6-8pm at the new ultimate gym — Ren Fitness (1404 NW 49th St, Seattle, WA 98107). You can pre-register online.
Agenda and attendees
USAU’s CEO and a few members of the board of directors will present something like the following agenda (from the Mar 23 tour stop in Pittsburgh) in effort to hear from Seattle area players, coaches and parents about our region’s hopes and dreams.
- Welcome, brief outline of the evening, goal of the Community Conversations (5 minutes)
- The ultimate community’s hopes and concerns about the future of ultimate (10 minutes)
- A look back: ultimate’s history (5 minutes)
- A look forward: ultimate and USA Ultimate in the wide world of sports (15 minutes)
- Q&A (10 minutes)
- Considering our next steps: Group exercise, facilitated in six small groups. Then, led by facilitator in large group (60 minutes). Topics and facilitators include:
- AUDL: Henry Thorne, USA Ultimate Board Vice President
- Elite Level Play: Josh Murphy, USA Ultimate Director of Member Services & Community Development
- Equity & Diversity: DeAnna Ball, USA Ultimate Board President
- Olympic Dream: Tom Crawford, USA Ultimate Chief Executive Officer
- USA Ultimate Brand: Stacey Waldrup, USA Ultimate Manager of Communications & Publications
- Youth Structure: Kathy Hendrickson, USA Ultimate Board of Directors
- Guest Speakers: (10 minutes)
- Sarah Lemanski: Gender Equity and Disparity
- Marcus Ranii-Dropcho: Club ultimate vs. semi-pro
- Close, Appreciation and Rating the Output (5 minutes).
Last week the lead post on the home page of DiscNW was the announcement that the current Executive Director, William Bartram (aka “Bunny”) will leave the organization and the search is on for a new leader. The announcement (text appended) included a job description (archived PDF) which referenced the 2016 strategic plan (text also appended).
What does this mean for youth ultimate in the greater Seattle area and the Northwest region? I offer a few inferences from materials posted on the DiscNW web site, as well as some historical perspective gleaned from the organization’s annual financial reports (Form 990s for DiscNW, 2002-2014).
Reading through the announcement, job description, and overview of the strategic plan, there’s not a crystal-clear vision for youth ultimate. After all, youth programming is only about 1/3 of DiscNW’s annual efforts.
The documents, however, do contain a few hints about where DiscNW may take youth ultimate in the next few years. The announcement rightly applauds Bunny for increasing “youth participation from about 1000 to 4000” players per year, and for establishing the “Youth Development Fund now in excess of $130,000 annually.” The job announcement seeks candidates who will “direct industry standard youth programming” and “ensure gender equity and accessibility.” I’m not sure if “industry standard” means that the board considers the awesome programs that Bunny has grown to define the industry standard, or if DiscNW intends to emulate some other regional or National programs (e.g. the Canadian LTAD model). It could also be an allusion to the LTAD benchmarks and re-vamped coach development program (CDP) that USA Ultimate has been working on for the last year or two, or to the roll-out of State chapters by the National governing body which began last year… The call for gender equity in both the job description and the strategic plan, combined with the emphasis on promoting gender equity in the recent DiscNW coaching clinics, suggests that the organization may be seeking leadership that could incorporate new structure (e.g. the GUM middle school girls curriculum) into the DiscNW youth programs and coach development.
It’s exciting to consider who will lead DiscNW for the next era, especially when you look back through Bunny’s long run (from ~2004-2017), the evolution of the administration, and even into the early leadership. Here’s a Google spreadsheet that characterizes the history of DiscNW with an emphasis on the organization’s “youth activities.” It’s clear from the associated graphs (below) that DiscNW has grown consistently over the last 15 years, both in total revenues and in its expenditures on “youth activities” (which according to the IRS documents includes youth leagues, tournaments, camps, clinics, and total youth players served).
Youth expenditures were less than 10% of revenues when they were first reported separately in the 2004 Form 990, but in the next few years they rose to ~30%. They have remained near 1/3 of total revenues since then, though there was an interesting (yet to be explained) dip in 2012.
Administrative costs (also as a % of total revenue) have also risen. In 2002 when Mike Keran was the E.D., administrative costs (compensation) were about 10% of total revenue. The percentage stayed pretty constant until ~2008, about the time the organization’s staff started to grow. In 2004-2006, the E.D. changed from Mike to Bunny, with Morgan Ahouse serving as an interim E.D. as first Wilma Comenat and then William Bertrand (Bunny) were hired and trained, with paid assistance from Mike for Wilma. Then in 2007, Bunny brought on Frank Nam as the first Youth Director. The next year Wynne Scherf was hired and paid along with Frank (who presumably brought her up to speed). About the same time (2008), Jeff Dairiki began being paid to help maintain the web site which he’s continued to do since, with some help from Mike in 2010-11 and a concerted paid effort (to rebuild the site?) in 2013. Finally, in 2011, Elizabeth Brown was paid as an Operations Manager, a position which switched to Rusty Brown the next year.
The growth in adminstrative staff has brought total compensation to about 20% of total revenue. This seems quite reasonable (for an organization that doesn’t maintain a central office and has staff living in Seattle where expenses are high) but it would be interesting to compare to other comparable regional entitities, to the extent that the exist. Perhaps the Bay Area Disc Association (founded 2008) or Minnesota Youth Ultimate (founded 2003)?
Know of any other organizations that might be comparable? Leave them in the comments!
Archived text of the DiscNW home page announcement:
Message from the DiscNW Board
Our Executive Director (ED), William Bartram, has recently informed us that he will be leaving our organization.
Bunny, as he’s known around the community, has graced us with his leadership for the past 12 years. In an organization like ours, this is a lifetime. Bunny has brought to DiscNW a sense of wisdom, patience, and caring instrumental in helping us grow into the tight-knit community we are now. Under his tenure, DiscNW has experienced extraordinary growth, in many dimensions:
- Increased youth participation from about 1000 to 4000
- Established Youth Development Fund now in excess of $130,000 annually
- Expanded adult league participation by more than 60%
- Led budget growth from $220,000 to more than $1,100,000
- Grew from one employee to four full-time staff, hundreds of volunteers, and several contractors
The board thanks Bunny for his work, love of the sport, and commitment to our community. We are lucky to have a resilient organization with dedicated staff members, who will continue to provide excellent programs to the community as we begin recruitment for a new ED.
The job description is now available and the position is open for applications — please spread the word if you know of a motivated, sport-loving, non-profit leader. Bunny will continue in his position in the interim, and will work with the new ED to transition his responsibilities by early summer. For questions about the position, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
DiscNW will be posting occasional updates on our social media channels about our recruitment process. If you see Bunny on the fields this spring, please thank him for his years of service to our community!
DiscNW Board of Directors
Archived text of the 2016 Strategic Plan
Strengthening Our Community – DiscNW Strategic Plan 2017-2019
In 2016 DiscNW developed a new strategic plan to guide the organization through the next three years. Through this new plan, DiscNW will strive to strengthen our ultimate community. The plan will allow the organization to be more nimble, and it will empower staff to take action. DiscNW will serve as a regional resource by being a model organization and reaffirming our commitment to the Spirit of the Game.
Prioritize building community relationships
- Through improved and strengthened communications to our constituents
- Through outreach to other coordinators and organizers
- Through our business partnerships
- Through messaging, branding, and promotion
Continue improving upon and delivering excellent programs
- By emphasizing Spirit of the Game at the forefront of our decision making
- By ensuring gender equity
- By ensuring accessibility and inclusiveness
- By developing and supporting high quality leadership and coaching
- By continuing to focus on efficient operational procedures and best practice
Devote resources to organizational resilience
- To provide the agility to address rapid changes in our regional Ultimate community
- To grow the sport by more thoughtfully expanding regional services