Three months ago, Bleacher Report covered the surprising launch of the world’s first professional ultimate Frisbee league—the AUDL. Though the geographic scope of the league was limited to the northeastern U.S., fans across the country hailed the advent of the league as a dream fulfilled.
That dream is rapidly becoming a nightmare.
Just before the 4th of July holiday, the AUDL league office filed suit against the founding team—the Connecticut Constitution (full text of the suit available on Ultiworld.com), forcing the team to suspend regular-season play as it redirected all its operating funds to retaining legal counsel.
Up to that point, the Constitution was one of only two franchises in the league showing operating profit, and its on-the-field record of 8-2 put it just one game back from the top of its division. So why would the league want to bring the team down?
The answer appears simple: money.
“This dispute is an example of poor management and communication by [the AUDL] and an inherent disconnect between the incentives and motivations of the teams' owners, players and staff and that of the league offices,” wrote John Korber, general manager and head coach of the team, in an email to ultimate frisbee players and organizers received by Bleacher Report.
“Nearly everyone involved with the fledgling professional Ultimate scene has approached it with one motive....\to increase the value of the sport of Ultimate by promotion and development in local markets. The exception to that statement is the management of the AUDL...whose motivation has instead been only to sell more franchises.”
The disconnect Korber mentioned has to do with the structure of AUDL management. Most working professional leagues are established as collaborative cartels, with ownership of each individual team sharing group ownership and direction of the league itself.
In the NBA, the NFL, the NHL and MLB, each team owner is, of course, in it for him or herself, but everyone also has a vote and an ownership stake in the management of the league, thus, ensuring that individual franchise and league incentives are aligned.
The AUDL is not like this. AUDL league management is completely removed and independent from individual team ownership, as reported by Skyd Magazine [sic]—a frisbee-based web periodical. The league managers only make money when they sell more franchises. And that’s where trouble came to pass.
“The AUDL is absolutely wrong, it’s clear cut...there is absolutely no legal room on this.” (Thom Held, owner of AUDL franchise the Indianapolis Alleycats, as quoted on frisbee website Ultiworld.com)
The AUDL launched earlier this year, and in order to save on startup costs, based most of its franchises in midsized cities, among them, Providence, Rhode Island; Columbus, Ohio; and Hartford, Connecticut.
In unveiling its expansion plans for 2013 and 2014, league management indicated that they had sold teams to ownership groups in New York City and Boston, as Skyd Magazine reported earlier.
The only issue is that the birth of these new squads directly violated the AUDL’s geographical non-compete clause, in which existing teams were granted 100-mile buffer zones inside which new franchises could not be launched.
AUDL contemplated new major-market teams and saw dollar signs. The only hurdle? The contracts they’d signed with the Connecticut Constitution and their sister team—the Rhode Island Rampage.
The league’s solution? Sue.
“At the end of the day, the Warriors were not only the best team in the AIF, but one of the best in all of indoor football. It’s too bad the AIF [and league owners and managers] John Morris and Jack Bowman put their personal greed ahead of the fans.” (Ontario Warriors’ website)
Earlier this year, the Ontario Warriors, a franchisee of American Indoor Football, an arena football league based primarily in North Carolina and California, found itself in similar straits.
As originally reported by the Inland Valley (CA) Daily Bulletin, the league office was locked into a contract with the Warriors, a successful independent franchise—the team was winning and making money—but the league office was losing out.
The rest of the AIF’s West Coast teams were floundering, and the AIF office sought a way to exit the West Coast to concentrate on other geographic markets. Thus, using fines and legal threats, the AIF was able to remove the team from its league.
In both of these cases, the root of the problem can be traced to the fact that the franchise model depends on alignment of individual owners and central management. McDonald’s was the first organization to really pioneer the franchise model, and they did it well.
They gave franchisees organizational support in multiple forms, including raw product, marketing muscle, insurance, funding access, training, revenue sharing, shared knowledge and experience, legal support, and of course, real estate rights, among other things.
In return, the franchisees sold their product, and the home office realized real financial returns based on the franchisees’ success. Everybody won. For sports leagues utilizing a franchise model in lieu of the cartel organizational scheme, this is the only way to ensure the continued health and wellness of the league.
The AUDL, however, did not organize its league in this manner. Team owners were granted no management control, and the only way the league offices made money was by selling new franchises, even at the cost of cannibalizing existing ones—as noted in an Ultiworld.com article:
“Most leagues are structured with the team owners or a Board of Directors electing a President or Commissioner to handle front office issues like rules, league expansion, etc. In the AUDL, prospective franchise owners pay the League for the right to play in it, but little else. There have been frequent complaints from players and owners about issues including marketing, sponsorship, profit sharing, insurance, and rule enforcement – the day-to-day operational issues that confront the teams, all of which face tight budgets.”
Thus, as Korber goes on to note in the above article, to the AUDL brass, the product on the field and the health and sustainability of the teams themselves are irrelevant from a financial standpoint.
“The League’s incentive, he claims, is to sell more franchises and not to deal with ‘policies that increase the value of the current teams.’” In other words, AUDL was going door to door selling Avon. And with a rep already in the potentially lucrative New York and Boston markets, the only way to break in was to kick down the doors of existing owners.
When faced with questions regarding league structure, AUDL president Josh Moore disclosed via email that the league itself offers only limited support the franchises.
After paying their fees to join the league, franchise owners themselves are left to their own devices to find and pay for venues, videographers, insurance, corporate sponsors and more (an assertion defended by an UltiNews article discussing team sponsorships and online message board discussions amongst those privy to league operations here, here, here and here).
To that end, it seems they have been quite successful. With countless viral YouTube videos and even a number of nationally televised ESPN SportsCenter highlights, 2012 looked like it might be the year that ultimate Frisbee would graduate from a fringe college campus sport and hit the big time.
Unfortunately, it appears that greed and fingerpointing on the part of AUDL management may have killed this otherwise promising nascent league in the cradle.
A few days ago, Moore offered a public statement on the league website, asserting that the AUDL’s filing was only in response to “threatened legal action against the league.” The action? Teams demanding that Moore and the AUDL adhere to the terms of their own contracts.
Whether or not the AUDL and professional ultimate Frisbee in America can weather these recent storms remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that this kind of mismanagement can only be bad for players and fans—and it may portend a relegation of ultimate frisbee from stadiums and SportsCenter to college seniors tossing on the quad.
UPDATE: According to Skyd Magazine, the Constitution just announced that they will be attempting to resume their regular-season schedule, despite the league’s ongoing litigation against them.