Wednesday, September 17, 2008
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 In return they get a magazine that's two months outdated and increasingly irrelevant in the surge of blogs about the sport, thanks for your dues and you're welcome.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.