Hubris Lost was recently published in The Economist. And very proud they were too. The published version can be found here, though the original draft went as follows…
Ultimate Frisbee joins the big leagues. Businesses are poised to profit.
Spectators pour into Philadelphia’s historic Franklin Field stadium. There’s a tailgate party, a halftime show from a famous local dance troupe, and activities for children – all to accompany the championship game of the inaugural season of Major League Ultimate (MLU). Free programmes explain the rules: games are played seven-a-side on a post-less American Football field, and players score by catching the disc (often with an athletic flourish) in the opponent’s end-zone. Ultimate Frisbee (referred to as ‘ultimate’) can be traced back to the 1960s, though MLU is the sport’s first centrally managed professional league, with carefully managed branding and centralised funding. “We wanted to create a spectator sport from what has largely been a player driven experience,” says Nic Darling, MLU’s Executive Vice President.
USA Ultimate (USAU), ultimate’s governing body in America (with no professional affiliation to MLU), also recognised the need to make the sport more commercially viable. “It was random teams in random cities, no one was ever sure who was going to play” notes USAU’s CEO, Dr Tom Crawford. “It was impossible to sell that.” In response, USAU created the Triple Crown Tour, a centrally organised series of tournaments for elite teams. This restructuring paid off. In March ESPN, a major broadcaster, bought the rights to broadcast the tour in full.
Small businesses are also poised to take advantage of the sport’s growth. Founded in 2006, Five Ultimate, initially run by five siblings out of a Seattle garage, now employs 23 full-time staff. Production of custom uniforms, ordered by hundreds of teams from across the globe, provides the lion’s share of Five’s revenue, though the company aims to make the brand attractive beyond the ultimate community as the sport gains further exposure. Ultiapps, founded by Tushar Singh and Matthew Berg, is a mobile application that allows ultimate coaches to track player performance. Early demand has been encouraging, and Ultiapps-generated data has been used to power MLU’s online fantasy league. Mr Singh is confident that a whole new economy can form around ultimate. “There’s money to be made. People can start making livings as funds are injected at a sponsorship level.” The holy trinity of sport, media, and business certainly has precedent – to this end, USAU sees consolidation of their ESPN deal through a significant commercial partnership as crucial.
Many predict a bright future for ultimate, though few expect instant success. Beyond a hard-core of fans, Mr Darling of MLU concedes that brand associations need to be overcome: “There are no dogs involved.” There is a belief that legitimacy can largely be achieved through sheer exposure. Spots on ESPN touting players’ athleticism have become more frequent, and MLU have undertaken localised PR drives to get bodies through the turnstiles. Mr Darling claims that “conversion rates” of new fans have been high, “If we get people out to games, they enjoy themselves and they come back.” New investors will be approached in the off-season, with increased funds to be spent on, amongst other things, giving players a professional wage.