Monday, December 04, 2006

Imitate or Differentiate

One of the interesting components of this conference I am working on ( is the panel discussion that Tiina and I are planning. The topic is "What is the future of Ultimate? Where should we go and how should we get there?” I think this topic (Tiina's idea) is timely and relevant. It happens to sit well with the UPA's Strategic Initiative, "Ultimate Revolution". I did do the survey. Maybe I will win the iPod. This post will be an introduction to a series of posts that will attempt to provide my views on developing a context for thinking about the future of Ultimate. Perhaps this will help in focusing our concerns at the panel discussion at the UCPC.

The purpose of this introduction is to try to lay out my perspective on defining how to think about our sport in terms of proceeding out into the future. I think there are two basic approaches to considering what our problems are, what our strengths are, and how we should move ourselves forward. These approaches are: imitation and differentiation. Practically speaking, these two approaches exist on a non-mutually exclusive continuum, and, as a result, any policy or opinion about the future of Ultimate will exist as a combination, or amalgam, of these two opposing methods. I will discuss each as a separate entity for this post, but it is important to keep in mind that both can come into play.

Imitation could also be described as "modeling". Clearly, any vision of the future of Ultimate should incorporate the lessons learned by other organizations. There are constant discussions about how Ultimate compares to other sports. How do our athletes compare? How do we get sponsored and how have other sports attracted sponsors? Is Ultimate a good name for the sport? Why is poker on ESPN and Ultimate is nowhere to be found? Here is a big one: does the lack of refs in Ultimate hold us back from legitimacy? In the discussions I have read or participated in, the participants frequently cite examples of what other sports have done to become successful. It is hard to see, though, the down side of the cost of legitimacy. We see and covet what other have. I have one quick example that does not claim to indict imitation. It just speaks how a story has many sides to it. A few moths ago, I was at practice with the Whiptails when I noticed a woman standing on our sideline watching us. As is my custom whenever I see a parent, I go over and introduce myself and I did so in this case. When I asked if she was a parent, she said, "No, I am the AD for Wellesley". Now, like many schools, Wellesley's Ultimate team is a club team (like the debate team) and exists outside the realm of the athletics dept. We do not have access to trainers or support services that the varsity sports are entitled to. This does make sense to a large degree as there are the obvious liability concerns, etc. I think my girls would love just a bit of the support that the varsity teams receive. I had a very interesting conversation with the AD. She was very interested in how hard my girls worked, and she was very respectful of our efforts. She also indicated that she was working on ways to get the club sports access to the Wellesley trainers. She was quite surprised and impressed by the fact that we practice three times a week the entire school year. Then she made the point of this story. She asked me if I realized that if the Whips became a Varsity sport that they would only be able to practice 19 weeks a year (as opposed to 38), due to NCAA Div 3 regulations. My girls benefit greatly from having the freedom to practice all year long. I am sure that for every story like this that there is a contradicting example of how being like other sports would have nice perks. The point really is, though, that imitation, or modeling, takes an external point of view of our sport. While this can be positive, it is also important to realize the costs of success. I think another example is TV. I have said it before in this blog. Watching a televised football game live is like watching ice melt. The sport is so tailored for the TV experience that the "real" game, meaning the one occurring on the field, suffers in my opinion.

On the other hand, we have differentiation. While again an external point of view, differentiation seeks to examine and promote what makes our sport different from other sports. It can be hard to have confidence that non-participants will respond to the things that set us apart and that we won't just crash and burn in a failed social experiment. Clearly, though, this last sentence is overly dramatic. There is no end point in my opinion, worst case scenario is that things continue as they are now. Over the next few weeks, I will discuss some of the things that I think could potentially differentiate Ultimate. Essentially, what our "assets" are.

The discussion of the future of Ultimate incorporates assumptions about what legitimacy is and that our collective definition of legitimacy is something that we want. The purpose of this (and the following posts) does not attempt to impart my vision of legitimacy. It just seeks to identify possible tools that take us on different paths. Clearly growing our sport and making it "legitimate" (what ever that means) is a difficult task. As I have said before, when I started playing in the 70's, folks were convinced that Ultimate would be an Olympic sport "in 20 years". Well, "20 years from now" was 10 years ago and from my seat, it does not seem we are much closer. The idea of a definition of legitimacy is important because if we say that legitimacy is TV exposure then that limits us to roughly 5 sports all invented in the late 19th century when it comes to imitation. There are basically no role models for what Ultimate is trying to do (popularize a team sport invented in the late 20th century). As such, the primary focus of my subsequent posts will our differentiating assets as carving our own path might be the only choice handed to us.


Adam said...

Hi George,

Shoot me an E-mail when you get the chance. I want to ask you something regarding the UCPC.


Jeters said...

Looks like you're back on Ultimate Talk...


gapoole said...

I'm interested in what legitimacy would mean for Ultimate. The Board of Governors at Rutgers University decided this year to cut six varsity NCAA sports due to budget limitations, sparking a huge debate for the school community. These six were "legitimate" sports like swimming, fencing, and tennis. Our Ultimate team, as a club sport, was not earmarked for deletion, since it's not under the control of the AD. I like the questions you are asking, and I like the way the UPA is trying to find direction. I'm looking forward to the UCPC.

gcooke said...

Hey Glenn,

I think your comments are very interesting and provide a good example of why legitimacy is something that needs to be looked at.

I think I am going to follow this post with more on your topic.


Beef Stew said...

re: season length.
I understand where you are coming from with the season length. At Hopkins High School, we were looking into getting sanctioned as a varsity sport. This would allow our kids to letter, but it prohibited us from coaching the kids year round, and it did not guarantee any field space (the real kicker).

I think one possible way around this is to propose three seasons for the sport: a fall "Club Season (usually coed), a winter "Indoor Season", and the UPA spring "HS Open/Girls Season" with the HS league & State/Nationals tournaments.

It's a thinly veiled argument, but a possiblilty that could be brought up as a way around the official spring season.

I know that our team would not be nearly as prepared for the spring season if there were no fall or winter practices and tournaments to continue learning and improving.

Coach Jake
Hopkins Hurt

blaine said...

You're conclusion is exactly right: differentiation.

Ultimate is fighting not for sales like many organizations but numbers. The goal of Ultimate organizational analysis should not be looking at organizational models like Target or Wal-Mart, but successful religious organizations that rely on numbers and members to garner strength. However, what Ultimate is selling or the supply of Ultimate is not salvation or election, but a sport. Nothing too transcendental and something only a few people with adequate resources can participate in. Some would argue that that there is a basic demand for religious goods in all cultures. Is there a basic demand for sport in all cultures? Maybe. Basic demand for competition? Maybe. But, the process should be very similar to religious organizations and how they target members.

If the UPA is to succeed it needs to look at "sport" as an economic market as well. Ultimate is selling something that already has a huge supply (baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, lacrosse, track and field, etc.). We are not going to get many numbers from people who already participate, but those who have not chosen which sport to subscribe to. The youth. And the UPA is doing a great job of targeting youth. Our shift to a popular sport (legitimate is not the right word. Legitimacy should only be used in regards to domination and authority) will come through time. Incrementally. Not through mimetically copying other sports models right now and only differentiating ourselves by the object we play with. However, if we want to garner numbers among people who are already consuming a sport, we need to offer something new. Something like the SOTG-hybrid-observer system. A system that keeps the power among the players but will reduce the costs of enforcement (transaction costs) with observers.

Target youth (the demand) and offer a new product (the supply). True, we are not seeing the Olympics right now, but growth within the last 5 years has been startling. No other field sport is seeing such massive growth. Poker is only popular because it involves gambling (something addictive), a fungible incentive (money), and anybody can play it (the disabled, the overweight, people with any physical ability). My thoughts.

gcooke said...


Thanks for that example of having to weigh the cost/benefit of joining the establishment.


gcooke said...


Thanks for your comments.

As I am kind of working this topic out, I will be following up with some specific aspects of the sport and my opinion on where they fall on the I or D continuum. So, while I think that differentiation is a big plus for the sport (and it sounds like that was clear in my posts), I hope to discuss areas in which imitation could also be necessary and positive.

I think the religion analogy has merit, but it makes me distinctly nervous as it sounds like we are a cult (which, perhaps, we are). I prefer the music business analogy (say, Phish(I am not a fan but a good example of differentiation) vs Backstreet Boys(Imitation)), but all analogies have limits.

I do think that breaking down supply and demand makes sense and specifically putting these in context is interesting.

Lastly, I agree that legitimacy is not the right word and I will get into that in my weekly post tomorrow.


Meghann said...

hi, i'm a college player and hear people questioned the legitimacy of the sport often. it's really interesting to see what direction we, as players, are trying to take the sport.

i just wanted to comment on the number of weeks practices can be held for varsity sports. Varsity sports often hold 'captains' practices during the off season- which could allow practices in the fall as well as the spring.

though, i'm not sure if this is the way to go and how greatly it would effect the culture of ultimate.

gcooke said...

Hi Meghann,

Thanks very much for your comments.

I am actually not familiar with the term captains practice. Does that mean that the captains run practices, but the coaches do not? My brother is a college coach (crew) and I believe he has to do something like this due to NCAA Div 1 rules.