Monday, June 15, 2009

Grow HS Ultimate in the US: Organize

A note: consider this my aria and culmination of more than 4 years following and reporting on high school ultimate in the United States - it's long, and wonky, but I think it could provide a decent starting base for a serious, focused, and measurable result-driven discussion on the future of high school ultimate.

The UPA has made strides in the past few years.

The maps posted the other day show that HS Ultimate in the US is indeed reaching its tentacles out into the inner reaches of the country, however, there are still communities and states that have no high school ultimate presences.

It doesn't have to be this way. The plan and model I propose could create active leagues in all 50 states within the next 3 years if implemented effectively. Further, It would nearly (if not entirely) pay for itself (assuming successful execution) and would provide the UPA with much steadier financial standing in the years to come.

The model is community organizing. Paid staff individuals working on the grassroots level to create and sustain leagues as an occupation.

The Need for Change:
Too often leagues only exist where an individual has decided to give up his or her time of their own volition. This is a model, to be sure, but it slows growth, it puts the burden on individuals who in all likelihood are not going to be able to continue doing this forever. And undeniably, someone who is able to commit to league and team creation with 100% of their time will be able to have better results than someone who can only work in the hours remaining after work and on weekends.

States and areas without competition are essentially at the mercy of a college player who might move to town, or a retired club player who would like to start a local league. Its entirely up to chance and not sustainable - if that player burns out, or moves away it is possible for these leagues to fall apart if someone doesn't step up.

The passive approach must go, the purpose of a national organization is to aggressively promote and expand the sport. This is how other sporting organizations work (e.g., lacrosse, bowling etc), not only as a tournament "sanctioner" but active promoters of the sport. It is what is done between publishes of the newsletter and between the competition UPA series that will determine the future of this sport, whether it hangs on the fringes or whether athletes nationwide will at least have the chance and the choice to play.

The Model:
Similar to union organizing, or more notably and recently the Obama presidential campaign, the UPA should begin to hire statewide organizers. They would fill the role of the already created "State Youth Coordinator" but they would be compensated based on specific and challenging goals.

These state youth coordinators (organizers) would start in the population centers to help foster the creation of teams. Predominantly this would mean recruiting and retaining volunteer coaches and assistant coaches to help start teams at individual schools. For areas without any presence whatsoever this might mean organizing an initial pickup game, or doing demos during gym classes and school assemblies. The organizers would be required to report back daily (or weekly) on their progress - teams started, players involved, games played, next steps etc . This is important: there would be quantifiable and definite metrics to judge progress and to base goals on.

These organizers would be directed by regional coordinators (maybe based on the new UPA competition structure) who would also in turn have specific goals and would report to the UPA headquarters.

Salaries would have a base amount but would also have incentives built in for effective organizing - percentage increase in teams created perhaps, or games played.

To fund these new positions the $20 UPA dues and player fee would be collected from each player on ALL teams (this is already the standard charge, one could argue the cost could be raised without much detriment but we'll base our model on that number). As opposed to only the players who end up playing in state championships or other UPA sanctioned tournaments. This would make all of these leagues "UPA Sanctioned" (read: insured), and all in all just make it more professional. A $20 fee is next to nothing when it comes to youth sports. I can't ever remember playing T-Ball even for a fee like that. In the real world this level of monetary commitment is not hard to collect - especially if done in a clearly delineated manner: there are deadlines and you must pay to play before the season starts... as in every other sports league ever. Contrasts with the current model which sometimes collects the $20 at the tournament site on the first day of the state champs. While this might cause some growing pains at first the benefits long term will be many times the hardship.

Pittsburgh's PHUL is a great example of this: every individual player must register online and pay the fee before the start of the season. Sounds logical doesn't it?

Keep in mind also that these are community organizing positions, not Wall Street jobs. What I am proposing is done under the assumption that those who would take the positions would be doing so for love of the sport and an interest in the outcome, as opposed to money. The salaries just make it financially feasible.

We are talking in the $25-$30,000 range per organizer. The hours would be long, of course, but the work would obviously have ebbs and flows depending on the season. In the summer perhaps the best way to help spread the sport in the area is running an ultimate camp, maybe that would be another metric - at least one ultimate camp in every state (can you imagine the repercussions of something like that). In the falls it would be trying to recruit new players and new schools. Maybe winters would be discussing funding with school administrators, and springs would be more tournament organization. To be sure, this would be a year round job.

To reemphasize as well, these organizers would live and work in the communities that they are trying to organize. They would attend the games and go to the PTA meetings, they would be active members of the community. Further they need not only be concerned with formation of high school teams alone, for example they could organize summer camps for middle schoolers at a local park (usually community parks are always looking for activities like this to offer, $50 per week per kid and they get to learn the basics of a new sport).

The job and challenge of these organizers would be to work with whatever infrastructure is already there to improve and connect it. For example, there are colleges nearby - recruiting these players to coach the high school teams. There is a local summer league - working in partnership to help promote the youth league and connect it with the umbrella organization. There is a club team in the area - connect high school coaches with these players to run clinics or practice demos. All of these groups have something to gain from a high school league - whether it be great new recruits in later incoming classes, or more players in the pickup and summer leagues - high school ultimate is the future of the sport. If there is a preexisting league, adapt it to fit the larger goals and expansion of the UPA model.

The Concrete Dollars and Sense:
Ok, so lets put some actual numbers in, A minimalist 50 state strategy would look something like this...

  • $20 income per player
  • Assume an average team size of roughly 12 (a better organized team would have more obviously).
  • Gross income is roughly $240 per team (this is of course before incomes from tournament fees, official UPA merchandise purchases - discs, sweatshirts, official gear from champs, fees from Ultimate camp dues etc; and on the other side before outflows of field reservations etc)
To make it viable there would need to be roughly 100 teams then per organizer. With some of the more established states obviously enabling the newer, less organized states to get off the ground.

To put this in context, Minnesota and Massachussettes both have more than 80 teams on score reporter, PA is somewhere around 75. I am sure in all of these states there are other teams that play who aren't on Score Reporter. In other words, a full time employee could very easily get these states over 100 teams in the first year. And thus a $24,000 salary.

A brief aside: to put these ideas in a bit of context and maye even give them some legitimacy these goals are entirely attainable, I worked for the Obama campaign during the 2008 election and we started with basically no contacts in an area and were expected to develop teams of volunteers to make phone calls and knock on doors. Within 4 months in the small town of Scranton, Pa we had dozens teams with 20 to 30 members each. My point being, working year round with local league and college team resources, using almost identical strategies one could easily make these goals and then some. Further, ultimate is fun, and damn near viral. "Go outside and play" is a much easier sell in a lot of ways than "come to our office and make hundreds of phone calls with people yelling at you".
Keeping the different levels of establishes leagues in mind, it might be a good idea to tier the release of this plan - first to these states which are already set up with 50 teams or more, then to states with 25 or more, then to the blank slates. On the other hand, those states with more players will probably continue to exist no matter what, whereas starting with blank slate states might yield better results in the long term.

Even if the plan did create an initial financial output and net loss from the UPA's budget (which is entirely possible, if not likely) it would be worth it.

There is an exponential return on recruiting athletes to a sport at a younger age - irrespective of the altruistic motives of spreading the sport. From a purely utilitarian and financial perspective if a person starts as a UPA member in college and pays an average $30 dues for the next 20 years you are gaining around $600 in fees. If you can get that same player when they are 13 or 14 that figure turns into closer to $700. Nothing to scoff at when you consider the scalability.

It is in line with these same principles of consumer behaviors that McDonald's has play places and Happy Meals at their restaurants - if you recruit patrons or participants earlier they will have more time, money, and energy to devote to your cause.

Further, from a financial point of view the investment in youth ultimate has a ripple effect down the line. Look at literally all of growth in ultimate so far - it all traced a single point Columbia High School's parking lot. Those students went to college and spread the sport and the rest is history. I'd wager that for every dollar invested in recruiting high school players you get it back 3-4 fold when they go to play in colleges and recruit their friends to their teams. God knows freshman year I went door to door in Pitt's dorms trying to convince my new neighbors to come out and play with us.

On an entirely different thought track, investing in these organizers also gives the local leagues an incentive to pair up with the UPA. As of right now large leagues like PADA, DiscNW don't have much incentive to partner or be member entities with the UPA, which in turn takes away from the UPA's credibility and weakens their standing. If each league could see that for a $2-3 per person fee in their summer league dues they would not only receive UPA field insurance but also a paid employee that would be working to expand youth ultimate in their area and in turn strengthen and grow their local league it would provide them much more incentive to become affiliated. This in turn would increase the UPAs total membership outside of purely those who play in the series and the ones who pay for the magazine and recruit the more casual or recreational player - the types of individuals that make up the vast majority of ultimate's player base.

This expanding fund base could be used as seed money to employ these organizers to new communities. And so on.

Alternative Revenue Sources
The above so far has strictly relied on player funding, which while very pure might only be part of the solution. Assuming the UPA were able to implement this plan (which they are) instead of having loosely affiliated leagues which come together for a tournament or two a year they will have hundreds to thousands of teams that are playing under their umbrella on a daily basis during the season.

This allows a change in the advertising pitch from "Would you like to sponsor or advertise at our tournament - there are 16 teams per division and two divisions?" To.. "Would you like to advertise on our national official youth disc - it will be printed more than 10,000 times and be in the hands of a target demographic of 14-19 year olds with some level of disposable income."

Also with advertising, you could have a subset of the Ultimate News email newsletter geared specifically towards the youth scene - especially given the thousands of new email addresses you are recruiting with the organizers. This could easily include an ad with identifiable statistics for an advertiser - clicks etc. If you are sending this email out to 10,000+ kids you can suddenly start to generate some revenue and attract larger advertiser range - instead of Discraft or VC Ultimate for a few hundred dollars you could lock in a Powerade or other lower level sports equipment or fitness corporation looking for better brand awareness.

Assuming the level of competition is expanded to this level (hundreds of high school teams in every state) the sport becomes more attractive for media coverage - hell sport stacking gets coverage on ESPN 2, gotta think with 5000 high school teams in the country and growing you could convince the VS network to slide over the 2 am on Sunday morning slot.

My only point with this is that with the growth there are opportunities for even more rapid acceleration - if it is managed proactively and efficiently. It can't be an additional responsibility thrown on an existing staffer you need to bring in an Ad rep or sales representative to market Ultimate to these companies.

The Applicant Pool:
But could you find 50 individuals willing to prolong more lucrative careers to teach and expand ultimate? If only there were close to 800 college ultimate programs graduating students every year... Oh wait! There are. Assuming each school graduates on the low side around 3 seniors, that would mean you would have a pool of roughly 2400 to recruit from per year. Not a bad place to start and certainly not the only pool to draw from, as I'm sure at a least a few of the current SYC, coaches or league organizers might be interested.

The Conclusion:
The point of all this is the following: ultimate is a great game, and there are a ton of people already playing, but it deserves the widespread recognition and access that any other major sport has. It is a great activity for high school students to get involved in, for all the reasons you all already know. Kids everywhere should have an opportunity to play in an organized league, and it shouldn't be fate or someone else's work schedule that decides if they ever get that chance.

To be sure the organic grassroots growth of the sport will continue, every time an errant disc is thrown in a park and lands at the feet of a spectator ultimate reaches out to another potential player and possibility. But there is so much more that could be done.

The UPA has as its mission to advance the sport of ultimate in the United States. It is time to start actively doing this. It is time to set up a network and support structure of paid personnel around the country to advance the sport of ultimate at a grassroots level. The UPA has this capacity right now, and within 3 to 4 years organized high school ultimate leagues with more than 100 teams in all 50 states can become a reality.

Have different ideas? Put 'em in the comments.

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