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Developing A New Media Model For Ultimate

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Photo: Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com[/caption]

There’s been a lot of talk this summer about the direction ultimate is going in terms of media coverage. In July, USA Ultimate’s Tom Crawford spoke about the goal of getting ultimate on live television in the next ESPN contract. Meanwhile, a group of club players made a statement demanding an update to USAU’s gender equity policy that could impact those very same negotiations.

All of this begs the question of whether broadcast television is even the right goal for ultimate in terms of our aspirations for increased visibility. The trend of US households “cutting the cord” (i.e., not subscribing to pay TV services) has taken off in recent years, with well over half of US households opting for internet-connected televisions. These trends are accelerating as younger demographics, the ones that we presumably want to learn about and play ultimate, are more likely to cut the cord. More Millennials have streaming services than have pay TV. And we should only expect the next generation of US viewers to continue that trend. Google “ESPN Viewership Decline” and you can see that our favored partner is not seeing positive long-term trends.

On top of this loss of cable subscribers, live TV broadcasts are a laborious, expensive affair. Based on conversations I’ve had with live TV producers in the past, the costs of our ESPN3 broadcasts likely run around or over $100,000 for two live games (although I don’t know how much of that is being funded by USAU and how much ESPN is footing).

Meanwhile, the cost of streaming on the internet continues to go down while the quality goes up. Anyone with a cameraphone and a data plan can stream on services like Periscope. Add in a little money and you increase that quality exponentially. The barriers to entry are low and the gatekeepers are few. Between Ultiworld, NGN, Skyd, and Fulcrum, we’ve seen what our endemic producers can provide, even as we’ve made little or no accommodations to tailor the sport for them.

So why are we chasing a dying trend and shaping our sport around it? Why don’t we use our current weakness as a sport — that we’re still underneath the mainstream radar — and make it our biggest strength by building our sport unencumbered by the old-school, expensive, high-barrier-to-entry model of television broadcasting?

What would that even look like?

Well, I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few ideas:

1. Ensure accessibility for live-streaming providers.

USAU should identify the biggest barriers to consistency and quality for low-budget streaming and create/ensure access to overcome those barriers. The two biggest barriers that I can think of are dependable access to internet and a good high angle for the primary camera.

Dependable internet access at all fields (wired or wireless) should be a required criteria for USAU Championship events. From there, USAU should put up scaffolding that provides a good high angle for each field. Weeks or even months before an event, USAU could auction off rights to stream each field or set of fields and access to the scaffolding.

Auctions could start with a very low opening bid ($5 or $10). Participants in the auction would need to meet some basic criteria (e.g., proof of ability to provide a stream) and would be subject to meet certain standards if they won the auction (e.g., must stream every game on the field) or be prohibited from streaming future games. Each field would have a mix of gender divisions to ensure equitable gender coverage. Top auctioned fields would have “premier” games (which could be determined by USAU, the streaming provider, or through some collaborative process). Unauctioned fields would be available to team-designated media for each round for no charge.

In this set-up in the near term, rights to streaming some fields may be purchased by our current top-end endemic streaming providers (Fulcrum, Ultiworld, NGN, Skyd) while on the other end, low tech streamers looking to try their hand at streaming could do so for almost no barrier of entry. ((In talks with Ultiworld’s video team, they prefer exclusive rights as it helps ensure viewership. There is a chance that under this model, until viewership increased or Ultiworld could better monetize streaming, that they may not chose to broadcast games. In that case, the question becomes: “Is high-angle periscoping of multiple games better than one higher quality produced game?”)) Streaming providers would own the live stream and could fund themselves through commercial sales, crowdfunding, or subscriptions.

USAU could host a site that aggregates the live streams for each round, giving viewers the opportunity to watch a selection of games or switch from game to game. Even games that don’t have a livestream could be captured from a high angle by the teams themselves so that the games were recorded for posterity.

As viewership and revenue streams for streaming providers grew, the market for field rights would also grow, generating additional revenue for USAU. Over time, streaming providers would invest more money in production in order to retain and attract viewers—adding more cameras, mics, commentary, instant replay, and more.

This model capitalizes on the lower barrier to entry of streaming on the internet, removes the key remaining barriers and creates a simple market to drive live video coverage of the sport. It removes the gatekeepers and allows more providers in while allowing the best to continue improving video delivery of the sport.

2. Lower Barriers to Entry and Incentivize Highlight Video Production

Pop quiz: Which ultimate video received the most views last year?

Yes, the answer is obvious based on the choices. But what’s crazy is that it’s not even close. Literally 100 times more people watched Nathan Kolakovic’s highlight reel (3.7 million people) than the most-watched of those men’s title games (2015 USAU Club Men’s finals).

Highlight videos are quick and easy to digest and have the potential to spread virally very quickly. And like streaming, improvements in technology have greatly lowered the barrier to entry to making highlight videos. Also like streaming, USAU can help ultimate capitalize on these trends by further lowering the barrier to entry and creating incentives so that ultimate more quickly adopts this strategy.

For lowering the barriers to entry, USAU could maintain an open source library of games and clips that anyone could access to create highlight videos.

For incentivizing more highlight video production, USAU could host online highlight video competitions with cash prizes. ((board meeting in 2007 and $1,000 was added to the budget for this purpose, but the UPA never executed the idea. VC ULT Camp and Ultiworld also tried something similar but the execution wasn’t great. We’ll likely try again next year. )) Such competitions encourage creation of videos, sharing of videos, and provide a crowd-sourced way to identify the most appealing and viral videos (which USAU can then give an added boost). Who doesn’t want to once and for all determine the best Callahan video (by gender) or the most humorous ultimate video under five minutes? ((Whichever ones were made by Jay Clark and Machine respectively))

Or, USAU can take a page out of Beau Kittredge’s book, and host a highlight competition for a specific topic. If a specific event, division, or topic is failing to get the awareness it needs, USAU can offer prizes for the best highlight reel that captures that topic. I’d love a USAU highlight reel showing the best observer positioning and calls or the most respectful player discussions — topics that aren’t always (or ever) top of mind for highlight makers but demonstrate unique aspects of our sport.

3. Build a Unique Sports Viewing Experience for Ultimate Utilizing the Freedom and Functionality of the Internet

Here’s where things get interesting. Our sport is coming of age at the same time that video on the internet is. Instead of retrofitting our sport to the model of broadcast TV (which has included falling short of gender equity and censoring team names and the words that come out of players’ mouths) and making the sport a one-way consumption experience, let’s free ourselves from those limiting shackles and bake interactivity into the way that we spectate the sport.

There’s two sides to this. On one side, let’s allow ultimate to have freedom of self-expression. Let players and teams be who they are, package and present themselves however they want. Without the gatekeepers of TV, we don’t have to follow others’ norms. This doesn’t prevent us from having ongoing conversations in the community about our goals and what is/is not appropriate language, team names, or behavior to help achieve those goals, but we can do it on our own terms without top down rules driven by our perception of what our external partners want. We can get rid of Technical Misconduct Fouls for language violations. We can relax the standards around team names and uniform guidelines. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t have to compromise our gender equity values because a TV broadcaster does not think it will help them maximize revenue.

On the other side, this means engaging fans and spectators in new and unique ways. Imagine a live streamed broadcast in which there’s a side panel in the video app where fans could vote in real time on contested calls and everyone watching could see what people thought (and if viewer opinions would change with the replay?). Or running Q Scores of players and teams that fans vote on that change when plays, calls, interviews, or discussions happen. After games, players could look back and see where their Q score spiked or dipped. Did fan appreciation of Nathan Kwon and Mark Vandenberg increase during their discussion in the semifinals of College Nationals this year? How did Cam Bailey’s US Open Interview impact fan’s opinion of him or Seattle Mixtape?

This type of spectator engagement then becomes a part of the discussion about what our norms should be, providing data on what people want to see out of the sport and its players. These specific examples also make what some people consider a weakness of spectated ultimate (delays for player-made calls) a potential strength (player personality exposure and opportunities for spectator engagement).

This might seem radical, and it is. But it is radical in line with the transformation that is happening in media and, due to our status as an emerging sport and the values the sport has grown up with, we’re perfectly positioned to make these radical changes and be first-movers in terms of fully actualizing a sport for internet consumption.


It’s 2016 and the discussions and goals around media seem like we are looking at the media landscape of 1955. We’re giving up parts of ourselves to appeal to yesterday’s media gatekeepers. Let’s be the first team sport that realizes the shift in media consumption and interaction that the internet is having. And let’s do it by being ourselves — authentic, real, welcoming, thoughtful, community-based, and with a low barrier to entry. We can be the sport of this century.

Originally published at: https://ultiworld.com/2016/10/20/developing-new-media-model-ultimate/

Excellent forward-looking suggestions from Kyle. Hopefully as others chip in with their thoughts, we can refine these ideas to develop a media plan that supports both the growth and spirit of the sport.

I particular resonated with the suggestion for a repository of footage available for highlight videos. I film a ton of games and have a very efficient method to crank out full game videos, but I have neither the time nor the expertise to make highlight videos. I would be more than happy to make all my raw footage available to whomever wants to take on that task (as I have done multiple times in an informal way), especially if there was an easy way to share.

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Can you share your efficient method for uploading full games? My college team films all our games, but it’s a long labor intensive process for us to get those games compiled and online. Any tips/advice would be much appreciated!

There’s a lot of great ideas to unpack here, thanks for writing. On the first footnote you have, you mention that opening up all fields to streaming could hinder Ultiworld’s viewership and/or growth. I think that can be mitigated by differentiating between partnerships and the “bidding” you describe in your first idea.

Broadcast partners have access to the schedule before it’s public and pick the games they want, much like we see now. The onus is on the broadcaster to pick games they think will resonate with the viewership, but as they get first pick (and likely premium fieldspace) they have the advantage. This is essentially the ESPN deal extrapolated out.

Adding in bidding for the fields still allows open access and for all divisions to be covered, but in accordance with the price point, the streamer has access to one field all day, take what they get. You can break it down by division or type of game.

TL;DR - Allow for paid options that allow for selective/exclusive streaming (higher paywall) and lower-cost options for genera/ filming access without selectivity. Have elevated vantage points (and their associated liability waivers) everywhere possible.

My method is very simple. I shoot actively (generally handheld from a ladder at midfield), only running camera when there is action on the field. Essentially, my editing is all done as I shoot, so all I have to do when I get home is concatenate the video clips, then add title and scoreboard. It only takes about 15 minutes per game (unless I decide to rewatch the game as I edit), and full games generally run on the order of 30 minutes when uploaded. The downside of my method is that occasionally I miss things which I wish I had captured. You can see lots of examples at https://www.youtube.com/user/HallieDad.

Love this line: “So why are we chasing a dying trend and shaping our sport around it?” I often feel this way about the big push for Olympic inclusion even in the face of the Olympic Organizing Commitee’s poor human rights track record. Keep the good stuff comin Kdub!

Did you miss USA Ultimate’s new job posting? Sounds like all of this is already being addressed.

Part of the job description includes:

“Conceive, produce, edit and distribute original, strategic and high-quality multimedia assets for regular consumption by targeted audiences (including but not limited to: video, infographics, motion graphics, and other engaging and shareable content.)”

“Identify and evaluate trends and insights for emerging digital platforms and technologies. Provide direction, perspective and recommendation for strategic implementation where appropriate.”

We’ve been talking about how TV is a dying model and how we shouldn’t be trying to jump on that sinking boat, but this is the first time I’ve heard any kind of ideas for what future models could look like. Props!

That’s not a new position. USAU has had that position for multiple years.

And the article is about USAU’s (and the rest of the sport’s) larger strategy (not just what one manager at USAU thinks about). It’s clear from the discussions about ESPN, WFDF’s efforts to get on CBS, and the semi pro-leagues pursuit of ESPN and Comcast that live TV is still seen as the goal by pretty much every one of the sport’s largest organizations.

It’s even the number one tactic in USAU’s number one strategy in their current strategic plan “Partner with media to broadcast USA Ultimate’s premier 3-5 events to a mass audience.”

USAU “addressing” this would look significantly different. I hoped to jumpstart that conversation about how it would look different. What are your ideas?

As a point of clarification, this is in fact an entirely new position.

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Thanks for the clarification, Tom. How is it different than what Mathew Bourland was doing (here’s a bio from a few years back: )

“Matthew Bourland is the Manager of New Media at USA Ultimate, and is responsible for managing USA Ultimate’s website and social media strategies.”

I very strongly agree with what you’re saying here.

If we truly believe that Ultimate is a sport that does not have to play by the big boy’s (read: football, baseball, etc) rules in terms of officiation and culture, then why are we pushing ourselves to comply with their barriers for being commodified?

Getting on ESPN and into the Olympics would increase visibility, yes, but why are we striving to partner with groups that are, respectively, perpetuating gender inequality and abusing third world labor laws?

As Kyle lists here, there are plenty of ways to expand into the public consciousness without selling our souls.

Being on the cutting edge is far better than buying a ticket to get onto a sinking ship.

There is a little overlap, in that social media is part of the new position. The new Digital Marketing and Communications Manager position is primarily focused on content creation, analytics, design, and active targeted marketing initiatives. The primary focus is not content management or website maintenance.

With respect to point number 3, there is a solution out there: www.ultiflix.com. In fact, I’m a bit surprised that an article like this doesn’t reference Ultiflix. It’s essentially an internet platform (much like Netflix) that centralizes the enormous amount of publicly posted ultimate material. Videos posted to youtube, vimeo, livestream, are all accessible via public APIs and the team at Ultiflix actively leverages these APIs to curate material to their site. Users can create a profile and add favorite matches to their profile, or suggest match videos to be uploaded (essentially crowd-sourcing their data). They are also looking for interesting ideas to expand the functionality of the product and get more access to more matches.

The future of media for most industries (ultimate is not alone) starts with the death of modern day cable. With the birth of twitter, periscope, Apple TV, Roku, and more, it’s inevitable that the ultimate community will find ultimate-tailored apps on their everyday devices (phone, computer, tablet, etc). It starts with content-providers (Ultiworld, [the late great] Ultivillage) and tech-experts (Ultiflix) to partner and provide the ideal modern media experience for the general user.


Woah, I’ve never seen this site before. Thank you.

Whoever owns ultiflix.com should consider scraping all the great video Hallie’s Dad has put up on youtube. Link above in his posting.

Great discussion here – interesting stuff.

I think there is a lot to say about this piece but I will keep my point to one thing: I largely disagree with the gist of the argument at the core of this piece (and what many others are saying in response).

Big sports media is not dying. What is changing, clearly, is the distribution model that has worked for many years. No longer will bundled cable/satellite packages be the main mechanism for getting subscribers, but don’t think for a second that ESPN is dying or that major networks won’t survive cord-cutting.

As a couple of small points: the NBA just re-signed their deal with ESPN and TNT through the 2024-2025 season for $2.66 billion a year. AT&T just agreed to terms with Time Warner for an $85 billion deal to take over a whole lot of cable network and content platforms. Disney’s 3rd quarter revenue this year on cable TV alone was $2.09 billion (Disney owns ESPN, among other channels).

Obviously, Ultiworld would love, as an endemic streaming provider, to get handsomely funded by USAU to do more, bigger, better broadcasting. And that would be great for existing ultimate fans, too.

But the fact is that USA Ultimate knows that the ticket to more eyeballs is not to invest in production that delivers ultimate content almost exclusively to existing players, their families, and a small number of fans. They need to get onto a TV network that reaches millions of households and pushes the content out in a way that online streaming will never be able to.

I’ve seen some discussion of this article that mentions e-sports. E-sports have been so successful streaming online that…big cable companies are buying the media rights!

While endemic providers will remain an important feature of ultimate for many years to come (especially since the streaming viewership is not strong enough to generate real interest from top sports cable channels), the idea that working to develop relationships with legacy sports networks is a bad deal is faulty if not outright wrong.

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I had no idea there was a No Huck replacement. This is great.

The About Us section lists a Raj Maitra as site creator. Based on your username, that sounds like you. If so, thanks for making the site - I will almost certainly spend some time there in the near future. How often do you refer to yourself in the third person?

I couldn’t agree with Charlie more here. Big sports media is not dying. Powerful sports media conglomerates see the same data Kyle does and are preparing for the cable-cut future. They are implementing changes in a way to plan for the future, but also must remain entrenched to the greater US viewership populace currently… which is still cable for the average American. The numbers may be declining but cable remains king by large margins.

I recently attended a guest lecture here in LA by ESPN’s Jodi Markley (VP of Content Operations and Creative Services) and she discussed how ESPN is building their long-term plans around streaming content and accessibility in the modern age. It’s evident in small changes in improving ESPN3 and adding live-streaming to the ESPN app instead of hosting a separate app (WatchESPN), but the biggest factor at stake with ESPN for our sport, however, is reaching an international audience. The international audience factor is one that Kyle totally overlooks here. This factor is one of the biggest reasons ESPN continues profit big and make these big league deals which Charlie alludes to.

ESPN is implementing their most modern-age media changes (emphasis on streaming services first) in their growth into new markets overseas like South America, India, potentially China, and so on. ESPN content overseas has reach light-years beyond the scope of any of Kyle’s potential media partners or even Ultiworld. Building a partnership with ESPN over time will get us access to international markets which would be monumental for the Sport in the long-term. A lot of ESPN’s fundamental network information can be found here. A little less archaic than a google search…

Following Charlie here with “the idea that working to develop relationships with legacy sports networks is a bad deal is faulty if not outright wrong.” The argument in rejecting legacy sports networks is that at their core they are not gender-equitable, which I’d say is true. They are not. And it is a reasonable argument to make if all we strive for is small-scale viewership growth within our community (which I would say is a goal that aligns with maintaining exclusivity). But of all the large media conglomerates ESPN is arguably pushing the hardest for gender-equality within the scope of maintaining their huge viewership reach both here and internationally (that current viewership reach and potential viewership reach which is so massive that it is worth hosting one less women’s game over a tournament weekend than men’s). It’s evident in their programming from ESPNW, His and Hers, adding female sports anchors, IX for IX for title nine, and so on. It’s evident in looking at their executives list and seeing 24 female Vice Presidents of varying title (multiple senior and executive vps included)

TLDR - ESPN is worth it. Don’t undervalue growing a relationships with them. Between viewership and branding it is worth it.

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