Thursday, September 11, 2008

A new feature to the blog debating issues of the day. Like Tucker Carlson vs. Paul Begala, but without all the douchiness. Various names for this recurring feature were thrown about, but Contested Picks, dubbed by one C. Matthews, was the clear winner.

Match Play

In today's player-funded traveling, heading off across the country to for a weekend packed with matches makes the most economic sense. It's best to maximize your dollar and get as much playing as you can. But the attrition of seven full games over two days is heavy, and teams naturally have adapted to surviving this ecology. Yet I see a future where teams abound, travel fees are non-existent, and the sport settles into a format that will showcase its speed, strength, and athleticism for player and spectator alike. The future of Ultimate competition is match play, a singular evening game under lights against two ready rivals.

Free from the constraints of a physically punishing weekend of play, teams will be able to scale their rosters back significantly, winnowing the chaff that settles into the bottom of even the most elite teams. Smaller rosters will elevate the ceiling in the game between the best teams, and schools will be able to pull from talented farm teams as well as differentiate between those that want to play Ultimate for the competition and those that play for its social benefits, increasing the number of teams and assuring there is a level of play that's just right for everyone, the Goldilocks Principle.

With only one game to worry about, a premium will be placed on explosive athleticism rather than a slower-paced marathon mentality. Without having to save yourself for future games, the pared-down rosters will brim with Beau-esque cutters commanding Parker-quality throws.

The logistical advantages for televising a single game compared to a weekend tournament are obvious. With schedules known in advance and only one field to set up, camera crews can plan their coverage accordingly, picking the most consequential or storied match-ups, the games people want to see. And rather than wondering what will happen if two teams meet, we can discuss it with certainty, making writing about the sport so easy even Match Diesel might get some things right.

Another benefit of match play comes from the logistics of cancellations due to weather. The damage to fields will be mitigated with only one field in use, and in the extreme case of a cancellation, only two teams are affected, rather than 20-30. Destroying field space becomes a smaller issue, as does the danger of heat exhaustion.

With only one game to focus on, every match carries significance, every match-up matters. Smaller rosters lead to great familiarization between the top players, and offenses and defenses will have to elevate with more comprehensive scouting reports.

There's much to do yet, and more evolution before we reach this level, but as Ultimate gains players and popularity, the future of match play in our sport is not a question of if, but when.

Tournament Play

Since the nation-wide expansion of Ultimate in the 1970s & '80s, our sport's venue for competition has largely been one of convenience. There simply aren't enough teams of comparable caliber within driving distance to merit match-play, and even if we move towards that format, tournaments will always have a place in the sport. The weekend-long tournament offers a temporary (if artificial) community of teams isolated to one field site, and the economies of scale lend themselves to this concentration of resources.

Hector argues that known variables like specific match-ups will allow better preparation, media, and televising, but the world is rife with sports that use tournaments as their competitions. Golf, soccer, and tennis are all extremely successful spectator and broadcast sports that feature multiple venues during the tournament and an unknown match-up in the final round. Yet this has not precluded media coverage, ticket sales, or Nielsen ratings bonanzas. NCAA basketball, perhaps the single best-known sports tournament in the U.S., capitalizes on these unknown variables as publicity ploys. Everyone watches because anything can happen.

This festival atmosphere also leads to an exciting spectator experience. As in golf, you do have to pick your athletes to watch, which sometimes means painful choices, but I think fans would rather have a choice at all than be bound to watch one game only.

For the near term, tournaments also offer the best venue for sponsorship. With our nonexistent attendance and respectable participation numbers, we should be looking to increase, not decrease, the exposure a sponsor receives. Bigger events, with more teams from more parts of the country, still beckon bigger sponsorship. Until a majority of the audience is comprised of non-players we'll want to maximize participation.

The most likely scenario I see unfolding is a match-play regular season followed by a culminating tournament. Several high-school leagues use this model and it works well. Teams know that their individual games count but they are working towards a championship. A single game can be taken care of in one night, which is easy, but I would hope that championship events will still arrive in tournament format. Besting multiple teams in variable conditions is a better test of who is champion. Baseball, basketball, and hockey use multi-game formats to determine championships; Ultimate hasn't been different and it won't be down the line.

And even if the day comes when competition is dominated by match-play, tournaments aren't going anywhere. I look forward to a future where the next generation attends Potlatch and Poultry Days, celebrating the often and newly lamented social aspect of the sport. As we accelerate towards showcasing the sport's athleticism and finesse — necessary and welcome steps I will embrace — no one will forget the joy of summer tournaments, where revelry replaces stat-keeping and tents replace Holiday Inns.


Rip said...

You guys should put up a poll to see who your readers agree with more.

edelman said...

you're both right. at the elite level, a true test of who is the best between two teams is a match, a la football, soccer, etc. However, all that match play (aka "regular season") eventually leads up to the final tournament, ie, the playoffs in any sport, world cup, etc. I know that there's no match play now, but I think there should be at least some, and it should be UPA sanctioned, televised, sponsored, with all the trimmings. But ultimate should NEVER move away from the tournament structure. That would be its death.

Good feature. I likey.

Anonymous said...

you guys should ask a bunch of other elite players to write what they think about the idea too.

Will D said...


Did you straight up lift this brilliance from the Future chapter of the Ultimate History book, or were Kyle and I just sitting there in your subconscious, like little birds on your shoulder twittering words of wisdom, guiding your keyboard strokes as you wrote this piece? Genius!

Seriously though, you state the case eloquently, probably better than Kyle and I were able given our word count. And I couldn't agree more that as the density of teams increases, match play will become much more common. I like that in turn you see that change leading to smaller teams, which leads to more teams, which leads to more density, which leads to more match play. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Guess we'll see. (Perhaps roster limits will push that along as well.)

That said, I do agree with Degs that there is something very important, and marketable, about tournament play. In the UPA's strategic planning survey, a lot of people indicated that tournaments were essential to the sport being what it is. Maybe that's speaking to the social aspects, but perhaps they were also thinking about the kind of hybrid athlete (explosiveness + endurance) that Ultimate currently requires.

But while tournaments for other sports may be marketable despite, or perhaps because of, their packed schedules and unknown matchups, most sports that use tournament formats do so while incorporating many characteristics of match play.

For instance, important matches are showcased at specific times in specific venues, while other matches occur on the periphery. Tournament schedules are also set up so that it isn't the war of attrition that Ultimate often becomes when 7-8 games are packed into 2 days. (Think Worlds, where you play 1-2 games/day over a week...or US Open tennis where you play every other day over 2 weeks.)

Economics will of course govern mostly where we go, and how quickly we go there. But I think that where we will end up is that when kids are playing "Little League" Ultimate, it will be mostly match play. But there will still be tournaments, and there will be two kinds: 1) tournaments like we have now where everyone is playing at once and the focus is on the participants and their experience, and 2) tournaments where match play-style games are strung together over the course of a longer period of time, with fewer (higher level) teams, and a larger focus on spectators and presentation.

Guess we'll see. Good stuff.

Will D