Thursday, December 21, 2017

Remembering Major League Ultimate

Today (December 21) marks the one year anniversary of Major League Ultimate suspending operations after just four seasons.

History: MLU started on September 28, 2012 with a meeting between Jeff Sander, Nic Darling, Skip Sewell, Marc Stackowski, and Lindi Sadloff. AUDL-Owner/Coach-turned-MLU-Commissioner Jeff Snader began building a 12-team sports league that would rival American Ultimate Disc League. MLU sought to model itself after Major League Soccer's shared revenue model.

Seven months after that initial meeting, MLU's first season would start on April 20, 2013 with a 10-game schedule for 8 teams (eventually dropping San Jose Black Hats and New Jersey Founders) in 2 divisions on the coasts.

"The league contracts the players, the league covers travel costs, the league covers uniforms and equipment, everything."

Logo: What a creatively designed logo by Skip Sewell!

The combination text-based logo with the full company name of the startup league is effective for easy recognition. Major League Ultimate is strong sounding; and inclusionary of teams who are outside of the American headquarters.

Storytelling: MLU did an excellent job of hyping each and every game; providing an instant reaction to each and every game; recapping each and every game. Regardless of record, an MLU team was going to be covered by the MLU. UltiPhotos as the official photographer of Major League Ultimate aided MLU's storytelling with action photos.

MLU's podcasting was another way for MLU to communicate - for better or for worse - about the league. "Cleats" (Nic Darling) & "Cufflinks" (Jeff Snader) debuted on February 2014, changed up in November 2015 after Snader's departure (September 2015), and continued with Dusty Rhodes for the 2016 season.

Cleats & Cufflinks recorded its 50th podcast episode in the summer of 2016.

Stats: Truly a game changer. MLU's box score and interactive data were major improvements to an already robust stats system. Beyond goals and assists, MLU started tracking analytical data for its 2015 season. MLU began using live updates for their stats in 2015. Collected stats were applied to field visuals in 2016 for Week 10 & Week 11. You didn't need to be a stats geek to appreciate the summary of game results. [NOTE: MLU stats were taken offline on May 3rd, 2017 @1:33PM.]

Collected MLU stats were a major source of these yearly snapshots - in 2014 and in 2015.

Another element MLU borrowed from professional sports world was the weekly injury update. Sure, it become a sponsorship opportunity, but the injury update also provided value to the weekend's scheduled games to understand which players would not be playing.

2,200 accounts were created for MLU Fantasy in 2014.

Streaming: MLU Live via YouTube showcased a weekly game from each division in 2013 through 2015. By 2016, MLU boldly attempted to livestream all of its entire 2016 season...for FREE.

MLU Live offered multiple camera angles, instant replays, well-informed broadcasters (Dusty Rhodes, Geoff Poster) plus halftime and postgame interviews. The media arm of MLU provided plenty of eye candy, but was occasionally hamstrung by poor internet service.

Staffing: There was a clear understanding that the success of the league would require local teams to operate successfully. As such, MLU advertised 20+ jobs (paid, unpaid, internships) to support team operations and logistics.

Uniforms: MLU unis brought a sense of distinguished style to the semi-professional sports league.

2013 season: The 3/4 length sleeved jerseys produced by Five Ultimate were especially awesome. They were uniquely tailored and eye-catching.

2014 season: The form-fitting Puma kits.

2015-2016 seasons: The V-neck collar Canterbury kits.

Another distinguishing feature of the players was MLU prohibited players to wear hats.
MLU was all about making things look uniform, hence the potential of a backwards baseball hat ruining that MLU player image was removed.

Player Advisory Committee (PAC), a group of MLU player volunteers that worked with the league to provide input on rules, schedules, contracts and other matters concerned with the MLU's long-term goals.

MLU video game: This was no EA Sports FIFA, though it was a pivot in the right direction as a portal for getting the MLU product, teams and players in front of more faces (and could have been another platform for advertising). 'Championship Ultimate' was one-of-a-kind video game that was a tad clunky in mimicking the real-world action of a frisbee game. Hey, remember there was an option to select a women's squad as your team?

MLU-designed lined field
The decreasing lines beginning at half-field are meant to signify the approach to the end zones.

MLU Executive Vice President Nic Darling: "The overall idea was to create a field with the markings we need within a minimal, open design to highlight the unique flow of ultimate. We wanted the functionality of the yardage markings without the rigidity of football's gridiron."

Half-field pulls
The MLU was willing to bend the rules in the name of competition. MLU played with this new rule impacting the pull in the 2015 season. Instead of pulling 80 yards away from an opponent, the pull was thrown 40 yards away at midfield when the pulling team called a timeout before the point started. The pull from midfield (or half-field pulls) were an exciting addition to the pro game. Teams with the lead used it to keep their pressure; teams that were down utilized the tactic to help with a comeback attempt.

New Ultimate Disc
MLU's business decision to work with Pulsar seemed justified. In college basketball and soccer, using a different brand for the essential equipment piece is commonplace. Alas, the Innova Pulsar may be symbolic of the MLU - it was slightly different, yet people did not buy into it.

In the End:
The business model is at the core of any successful startup, because no matter how cool an idea is or how unique something may seem, a startup must have a viable way of making money that is worthy enough for future investment and to sustain itself.  Like any startup, operations are at the whim of its investors. The MLU completed 4 seasons (2013-2016) and seemingly were on its way to a 5th (2017) until the league's investor's made the decision to suspend operations on December 21, 2016.

[NOTE: Links to Major League Ultimate's website do not work since it was taken offline.]

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