By Grant Boyd, California Ultimate’s Executive Director
Many players have noticed that fees for leagues and tournaments across California have gone up over the last several years. This begs the question: why? First off, from what I’ve heard at national conferences, it’s not an isolated issue to California. Costs are going up throughout the ultimate community for various reasons, but the most bare bones explanation is that there’s more competition (both internally and at field sites with other sports) which means there’s more organization needed… and that’s a good thing. In other words, our sport is growing! Wait a second, if there are more ultimate events, then competition in the marketplace should drive prices down, right? That would be true, except there is a scarcity of raw materials in the form of quality playing fields.
QUALITY PLAYING FIELDS
Up until this year, California has been in a ten-year drought. While many parks, schools, and field sites have transitioned at least in part to turf fields, most ultimate players still prefer playing on grass fields because of the impact, chemicals, heat, and various other reasons. For event organizers, grass fields are also preferred because they’re more flexible in terms of layout; we can frequently run more condensed events that provide a more communal feel. But with the drought, the cost of maintaining grass fields has understandably gone up. Couple rising costs with more and more sites transitioning to turf and the landscape becomes clearer: there are very few large, grass field complexes in California.
On top of the general scarcity of fields, event organizers are also concerned about securing safe, quality fields. Have you ever played on a turf field that skimped on padding, and when you layout it’s a thin layer of turf before your body is “absorbed” by wood or concrete? Or, have you played on a grass field completely ravaged by gophers such that it feels more like a minefield; or on a drought stricken wasteland with no grass in site? These are the types of fields an event organizer tries to avoid. But with quality generally comes dedicated field staff working year round to maintain the right soil balance, grass mixture for the growing seasons, and proper rest between usage. Simply put, quality fields cost more, but also seem justifiable given the increased athleticism of our players and the desire to keep those players healthy and competing.
Unfortunately, ultimate isn’t the only contender for field space. Over the last several years, there have been many articles detailing the huge multi-billion dollar youth sports industry. These other sports – namely soccer and football – have long established roots with many field sites, and their youth seasons also tend to coincide with USA Ultimate’s current club season playoff series which starts when kids are going back to school and back to sports. And soccer and football aren’t the only sports in town, ultimate’s growth is currently being outpaced by both rugby and lacrosse. With outside sports competing for field space, which we know is limited, the question becomes how do we connect with field sites and ensure a home for our events? Here is a short list of possible reasons a field site might choose ultimate (or any other sport for that matter):
- We pay more than others for the fields.
- The venue or locality understand ultimate and want to introduce their community to the values inherent in our sport and embodied in our players.
- The venue is not / will not be abused: fields and bathrooms are kept tidy, and teams and organizers avoid repeated wear patterns.
- We book the fields first.
- We prove to the local government that our community drives in substantial tourist revenue to local businesses (namely hotels, but also restaurants).
- We create relationships with park departments, government agencies, and private field sites ensuring guaranteed revenue over multiple years, as well as community development through youth, equity, and diversity programs.
Without a full breakdown, here is a quick impact and feasibility study on those reasons:
- #1 will likely not be viable for a long time as other sports have very large commercial entities sponsoring and giving back to their youth programs;
- #2-4 are an important part of a pitch to field sites and require a fair amount of planning as well as timely and persuasive communication on behalf of the organizer; and
- #5 & #6 require organization that likely requires someone to dedicate several hours over the course of a year to groom relationships, put together economic impact reports, and plan for 1-3 years in advance.
HUMAN CAPITAL & ORGANIZATION
As ultimate grows and starts to compete with other sports for players and fields, the community needs more organization. And as an emerging sport, human capital is one of our most important resources. We need to protect our volunteers from burnout by empowering them to focus on their passions. This in turn means we need to pay staff for all of the great work they are doing. In fact, this is actually one of the main reasons why USA Ultimate has set aside $1 million dollars (over approximately 10 years) in start-up funding for State-Based Organizations (SBOs) like California Ultimate Association (CUA). By investing in Program Directors, Coaches, Executive Directors, Tournament Directors, and other vital roles, ultimate organizations are investing in the people that are working for you. The people who are tirelessly working to not only create and run the programs you love, but also to dream of and actualize the programs that will grow ultimate into the most inclusive, diverse, robust, and community-driven sport in California and beyond.
Bid fees are going up. And it’s a good thing. Our beloved events have beautiful homes. Our staff is being compensated for superb work. And our irresistible sport is spreading across California. The future of ultimate is strong; we just have to pay a little more for it now in order to stay in the game and ahead of the curve.
If you have thoughts, questions, or reactions, please get in touch with the California Ultimate Association Board by clicking HERE.