Brandon Malecek lets loose a flick during a Dallas Roughnecks game in their championship season. Photo by Daniel Thai of UltiPhotos.com.
With two more franchises shutting their doors, not long into the off-season, the AUDL finds itself in a precarious position. The league now has to approach the 2016 offseason with an entirely different approach, navigating months that seemed to be smooth sailing now treads through rougher water.
One parting franchise a founding member of the league [the Cincinnati Revolution], another a recent addition [the Charlotte Express] that seemed to have success both on and off the field. The owners of the Charlotte franchise shifting to Atlanta to take over the Hustle is a plus for the league; they [the league] no longer have to foot the bill for the franchise. This presumably takes league money that was tied up in player compensation and operating costs, and instead allows the league to shift it towards other endeavors that would grow their brand of the sport, their teams, and their players. In a way, it’s also good that Cincinnati would not need this newly freed money to help stay afloat with word of low attendance and struggling financials coming out after the franchise folded. But don’t mistake that with a rosy picture for the overall health of the league. This move, the closing of two franchises, is in all words a bad thing for the league.
Against all odds, the 2016 season looked to be the AUDL’s most successful season yet. The new franchises that were introduced after 2015 were an instant addition to the league in terms of buzz and highlights - two words that have become a tool to measure success in today’s culture. The season featured exciting regular season battles in each of the divisions, that was able to overshadow the lack of success from other, less-notable franchises almost entirely. Then the playoffs came and brought excitement that helped drown out focus on both the insane production lapse in not streaming what was quite possibly the best of the playoff games [Toronto Rush versus DC Breeze], and the growing conversation on unsportsmanlike and non-SOTG focused play that was increasingly being seen by the ultimate community. And finally, when the AUDL’s Championship Weekend arrived, and a chunk of the roster that brought Toronto there was not, it was again made to seem insignificant by the Roughnecks winning the Championship in their first season as a mega-team.
That was exhausting. In the end, 2016 the season goes in the win column for the AUDL.
Now that two teams are leaving the league, that positivity leaves. In the past, I’ve written about the league’s struggles and how it fits into the ebb and flow with their rival semi-professional league, Major League Ultimate. With this successful season, the AUDL’s rivals sunk deeper into their pit of being a lower-league, and for many almost entirely dead and gone. But now… life. As much as the Roughnecks win projected an image of triumph for the league, now they’re forced back again to confront the realities of their quick expansion, the differences in financials among the owners, and everything else 2016 brought out.
If the AUDL wants to resume pushing the MLU to the brink of extinction, they’ll need to devise real solutions to each of those problems instead of the stop-gaps they’ve come up with thus far. Allowing each off-season’s reckoning bell to overshadow their season’s product will not build success in the near or long-term. Building success will mean taking hits more in-stride, and having the foundation among their teams to endure that.
To build that foundation, the league office needs to do more to unify the product their franchises present. Meaning, whatever fans see in Toronto, the fans see in New York, in Nashville, in Madison, in Los Angeles. Meaning whatever amenities are provided to players are provided to players across teams [salary notwithstanding, outside of a standard base]. Meaning communication from the league matches communication from the owners matches communication from the teams. As of today, each of those seems disjointed and because of that the loss of two franchises stings more.
As Charlotte and Cincinnati join the likes of Rochester, Salt Lake City, and on and on, the image they each projected to the league stings as well, simply because they’re leaving. Charlotte at first seemed like a stepping-stool next to the La-Z-Boy in Raleigh but quickly proved themselves otherwise. Although not the same roster of players, the USAU Club team Turbine has risen in prominence alongside the Express. And strong images of protest against North Carolina’s discriminatory laws, and an embrace by Charlotte’s mayor, gave an image of modest success to the franchise even if the win column didn’t always reflect that. Cincinnati meanwhile was not a strong franchise on the field, and this season one of the worst in the league, the team itself seemed to always have its wits about it in a way founding franchises in other major sports do. Pictures of team unity and a desire to keep fighting against the loaded Chicago teams of the past, and the rock-solid Madison teams. Now that each are leaving, choosing teams to fit those archetypes becomes an impossible task, because there aren’t franchises like them in the league now.
Faulting the league for moving on from two franchises that were reportedly not financially viable in the long-term is not what I want this piece to project. Instead, I want to fault the league for not only allowing the situation to arise in the first place, but also for allowing other issues that have been slowly gestating to come again to the forefront with this decision. The 2017 season again becomes another chance for the AUDL to separate itself entirely from Major League Ultimate, instead of a triumphant nail in the coffin the championship ceremony projected it to be.