Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Splinter Cell

A short while ago, a friend (and respected rival) spent the night at my house, and over a couple Pacificos and a shot of tequila we started discussing the "future of the sport."

"What place do you think tournament parties have in the future of college ultimate," he asked me.

"What tournament parties?"

When I started playing, every college tournament had a party. At 2000 college natties, Wisconsin ended the night naked in a pool with ladies from various teams. The following year saw the Doubletree Hotel in Boston host a wedding reception in one hall and the natties party in the other, ending with Bruss apologetically being carted away by the cops, Fortunat behind bars when he tried to bail out some Oregon guys from jail and discovered he had a warrant out for his own arrest, and a few very satisfied bridesmaids.

At Terminus the Hodags would often dominate pool play, dominate the party, then make a quick and deserved exit in quarterfinals Sunday morning, usually with several players groaning in blankets from the sideline. I was at a tourney party at a hotel sharing space with a Bar Mitzvah when some Metro East team performed back-to-back landsharks and land-porpoises(do this year's freshmen even know what that is?). As I mingled near the lobby, police shuttering the doors and herding everyone to their rooms, a group of 12 year old girls commiserated on a couch.

"I saw it! It was this big!" Giggles.

"Ewwwww!" It wasn't hard to guess what they were talking about.

Now, college natties doesn't even have a tourney party, having supplanted it with the All-Star game that, with my participation in it this year, must have lost some stock. Some people stay and mingle, waiting for the Callahan ceremony. Most do not; there's no free booze any more. The liability is too great, the stakes too high.

Unlike other major sports, there is no distinction currently between teams that are playing socially and those playing with title aspirations. Thus the Hodags romp through their section wearing outlandish costumes and child-sized football helmets and still shut out most teams they play. Little Jimmy SmallU pays their UPA dues so they can go to sectionals, play three games, and get waxed by teams that actually practice. In return they get a magazine that's two months outdated and increasingly irrelevant in the surge of blogs about the sport, thanks for your dues and you're welcome. Most probably don't give a shit who wins nationals; their play is an extension of hanging out on campus, relaxing and throwing the fris' around.

Thing is, for all the gigantic growth the college division has had in the 10 seasons that have passed since I played my first, most of the growth has come in the form of teams run by Jimmy SmallU and Sarah Liberal-Arts, tiny teams consisting of people that got exposure to Ultimate through the UPA's extensive juniors efforts but having no real desire to commit the whole of their college experience to this sport. They like to play, but they also like to do other things, too (near blasphemy for players from 'programs'). But with the diminishing parties at tournaments, one of their main draws, what is the UPA providing for them?

A splinter cell is coming. Tiered playing levels are an inevitability, and if they're not - for the future of the UPA - they had better be. You can't offer the same product to two wholly different groups and expect them both to be satisfied. And there are people and groups that would more than love to capitalize on that discrepancy, looking for ways to fill the niche. You need to market to both groups with different strategies or risk alienating everyone by trying to water down to the middle.

I wonder, how long before college ultimate supports a full season, with games that carry meaning and consequence, leading up to a championship between everyone who has struggled for an entire school year to be the best? And when will the the bawdy hedonism of yesteryear's ultimate parties find a comfortable in-season home for those teams that pick up a disc primarily so they can drink from it and be merry?

Of course, tournaments like Potlatch, Mars and Poultry Days will always be about the social aspect of our sport, about building community and fucking good players in their tents and getting housed on box wine and Sparks (but even now, it seems like these bastions of play-to-party have gotten out of hand, with rampant vandalism and reduced sizes due to fights and defecation on public land). But the phylogenetic tree is branching, and serious college athletes are heading down a very different path from the pure social lepidoptera, each group wanting very different things. If their divergent needs aren't met however, the only group facing extinction will be the UPA.

Let's hope they evolve.


Handy said...

(but even now, it seems like these bastions of play-to-party have gotten out of hand, with rampant vandalism and reduced sizes due to fights and defecation on public land...)

It seems like the lack of parties at other tournaments or at least the increased level of seriousness results in more pressure on those "fun events" to be ridiculous. As the sport moves away from its more hedonist roots, the fun tournaments become a challenge to how much insanity can be fit in a single weekend as it is no longer just a bigger fun tournament, but one of the few party tournaments.

Hh said...

Yes Handy, that was my thought exactly. They're serving as nearly-unsafe pressure valves for the rest of the competitive year.
And, of course, people are acting like irresponsible douchebags.

Anonymous said...

vote todd leber for board and it will(evolve). or at least will a helluva lot faster.

Rich said...

You should move to Maine and play for Red Tide. The last great party squad in the modern UPA.

Wait for it, you'll see how many people pass the Clambake test this weekend!!

Gambler said...

I would bet that the decline of the college tournament party has been influenced (in part, at least) by a general crackdown of underage drinking by most college campuses around the country. It has probably been harder for teams to find good venues to host parties that won't get a team in trouble.

I definitely agree with your call for tiers. The same issue of trying to fit the same shoe on different sized feet applies to the club division too.

achew1000 said...

I don't know, Gwen. They were 'cracking down' on college drinking when I graduated in '91.

Pete Jones said...

I played for just such a small liberal arts school. While we attended sectionals once or twice, the season primarily consisted of tournaments within 5 hours driving distance held by similar small schools/teams. Because we were all small schools, we couldn't field full mens/womens teams, so most of the tournaments were mixed and this was how we practiced. Most people on our team, especially more recently, did not become members of the UPA (those of us who did, did so because Summer/Winter League required it).

A similar "splinter cell" is the recent DIII Nationals event. Because sectionals/regionals is qualification to play, all these teams are UPA members. But if some other qualification was designated- these teams might also fall through the UPA-net.

A way to keep both of these groups within the UPA is to formalize College Mixed as a division- not necessarily at the same site as natties, but probably the same weekend. DIII championship could also gain a closer relationship to the UPA. With the growth of youth ultimate, we'll see a growth of college players and it can only help the UPA to absorb the new population.

david said...

Isn't there something of a debate going on about high school mixed play?
One thing about these smaller school teams - in some regions there really isn't a lot of small college teams (or big teams for that matter) - so you might find a college div 2 with only handful of teams in say the southwest region - and even then the 'div 1' needs these teams to fill out sectionals... even if they are bagel fodder. Maybe the answer then is bigger sections I suppose...

Anonymous said...

I think one of the issues concerning problems at parties is the increasing desire to promote and put on bigger and better tournaments. The bigger the tournament the more problems you will have with idiots doing stupid things. As tournaments grow problems grow. Maybe downsizing tournaments would also promote more localized tournament growth.

Just thinking out loud!


Anonymous said...

hey army....i think out loud all the time. and one of my thoughts as of quite some time ago was that there would eventually be a trend like this downsizing you speak of. I call it, AND have made it part of the platform that i will propose and initiate as a board member, the quality over quantity approach. Less teams, less players, less need for the large amount of resources needed (ie refs/refzervers, quality fields, sufficient field barriers, scoreboards, etc), less overwhelming to potential spectators. BUT same # of games and same amount of pt in the end(due to strict roster limits). There would however be a demand for more events......which would probably be more doable with less field space required. TODD LEBER FOR BOARD!!!

ellsworthless said...

Are there examples of other tourneys besides College Natties that are doing away with their parties?

Does any less partying happen at College Natties? Just curious because of the stories I hear going round.

I think the UPA could probably market to the competitive crowd you speak of, and still retain the 'for-fun' fans. I guess I don't really see many 'for-run' teams at Nationals, or how their experience in Ultimate is actually degraded by the UPA.

Or do you think that the UPA is at risk of alienating the competitive elite?

carney said...

As a rookie, I would like to know what precisely a 'land porpoise' is.