Over Memorial Day weekend, ESPN3 had live streaming coverage of the USA Ultimate College Championships (which looks like it will continue to be available Eventuallon replay for 30 days). ESPNU later rebroadcast the championship games for their television subscribers.
As far as I know, this is the first time that any USA Ultimate (nee: UPA) tournament was ever broadcast by a major network (I don’t think you count, CBS College Sports), so that alone made the broadcast a big deal. But the more I thought about it, the crazier and more unlikely it was. You see, ultimate isn’t an officially sanctioned sport at any university. Although this may be the highest level ultimate you’ll find at the college ranks, ESPN was televising a club sport. That kind of blows my mind.
Eventually, I think schools will sponsor varsity ultimate teams, at which point ultimate will lose some of the colorful team names. Pitt’s men’s team will no longer be “En Sabah Nur”, they’ll be the “Panthers”. Oregon’s men and women will no longer be “Ego” and “Fugue”, they’ll both be “Ducks”. In fact, a careful observer may have noted this change already taking place on the jerseys. I’m not sure how well ultimate’s passionate and free-spirited player base will mesh with NCAA regulations (which some other college sports may be looking to move away from), but if the schools are throwing cash at teams, I’m sure we’ll find out.
Changes are afoot outside of the college ranks as well. Between the inception of professional ultimate leagues like the AUDL and MLU and the development of USA Ultimate’s Triple Crown tour and the Nexgen tour, there are a lot of people trying out a lot of different formats, rules and regulations. Some of these changes do address real problems in the ultimate world; fostering additional competition between high-level teams is one worthwhile endeavor.
However, some of these changes strike me as gimmicks intended to manufacture excitement or to make ultimate more accessible to the general populace by making it more like other sports. These types of changes are the ones that annoy me, mostly because they’re completely unnecessary. Over the last several years, ultimate has grown to the point where ESPN is broadcasting its premier events. It has grown to this point not because it’s just like football or basketball or soccer, but because of ultimate’s unique culture, excitement and philosophy.
All the ingredients that the sport needs to succeed are already baked in. Instead of changing ultimate to make it more in line with the expectations of outsiders, the ultimate world should be promoting what’s great about the sport as it is, with some of those differences being selling points, not unconforming defects to be fixed.