American Ultimate Disc League (cont.)
As Moore pulled the final owners into his organization, the AUDL began to take shape: Eight teams in two divisions, with Philadelphia, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Buffalo representing the East and Indianapolis, Kentucky, Columbus and Detroit filling out the West. Each owner is required to buy his own team, and is responsible for its promotion, upkeep and overall revenue.
The Constitution are jointly owned by Bryan Ricci and his 20 year-old son, Joe. Bryan is a CPA based in Bristol, and Joe is a student at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. The elder Ricci first came into contact with Moore on internet boards dealing with startups -- "I'm a businessman first, sports guy second," he notes -- and though he was not looking to get into ultimate frisbee, his interest was piqued. That was in October of 2010, and by April 2011 the Riccis were in posession of Connecticut's first pro ultimate frisbee franchise.
Like every other owner, they were asked to put down their own collateral for the franchise (Joe's contribution is running game day operations, according to Bryan), after which they set about hunting for players, sponsors, and most importantly, fans.
"We thought it was important to create a player base that also has some local interest, which is good for the fans," Ricci says. "We're working for two wins every week. One is a win on the field; one is a win in the stands. So going forward, we're certainly going to take that with us."
The Constitution average about 525 spectators per game, ranking third in the AUDL in attendance, with day-of tickets going for $9 a pop. The Riccis estimate their first game drew a crowd of 800, but are happy with how the numbers have stabilized from there.
The games have a minor league baseball feel that the Ricci's purposefully cultivate, basing their model on the popular New Britain Rock Cats, a Double-A affiliate of the Twins. There is a Huck-a-Disc competition at halftime ($1 per disc), a lax outside food policy, and an amateur PA announcer that exhorts the crowd to cheer on the home team every few minutes or so. It's easy to see why people keep coming to Constitution games: cheap seats, sun and frenetic frisbee action are an easy sell, and the cupcake truck parked outside offers up some pretty delectable snacks to boot.
The crowd at Arute Field is made up of probably 60% friends and family of the players on either team, but there is definitely a smattering of ultimate fans who are affiliated with neither organization and have come to witness the spectacle of ultimate played professionally. Throughout the stands fans sport Constitution tshirts that proclaim "Connecticut Is Ultimate," as well as authentic jerseys from both squads, which can be bought for $79 (Connecticut) or $74.99 (Philadelphia) online.
Bryan and Joe Ricci pace the sideline for the entire game, wearing matching white long-sleeved shirts stitched with Connecticut's logo, red ties, hats and sunglasses. The combination of sun and turf mean it's probably 95 degrees down there, but the Riccis' biggest concern is what's happening in the game: Although the Constitution opened the third quarter with a probing, slicing attack that cut the score to single digits, they're down 23-15 at the end of it. First place in the East Division is on the line, and the Spinners are still breaking down Connecticut's defense with ease.
Because of its newness and lack of any true national reach, the AUDL has no form of revenue sharing among the teams. Rather, each organization is charged with growing and promoting its own brand, and any money that is earned is generally plugged right back into the team to cover expenses such as travel and personnel. The league owners and Moore have a conference call every Tuesday to discuss strategy, but by and large each team has a unique approach to garnering fans.
"Everything comes with time," says Bryan. "We have to create something that people are excited about. So once we do that, then we can go to the sponsors and say this is what we have. We have a lot of Facebook followers, a lot of Twitter followers, a lot of website followers, but it varies from team to team."
The internet based, grassroots marketing campaign has worked for the AUDL so far, as have the three clips that have made it onto SportsCenter's "Top Plays" on ESPN (One got as high as number three, featuring Connecticut's Brent Anderson laying out to make a nearly impossible catch in the end zone against the Spinners in May). Still, the Riccis, Moore and the other owners recognize that the league will need backing from a major company at some point to truly solidify its place as an entity that isn't just a one-and-done.
"We're continuing to work on some national sponsors for the league, which would be helpful," Ricci says, "and it's going to help on a local level once we start knocking those down, because it's easier to go door to door and say, 'Listen, Coke is sponsoring us, why wouldn't you want to too?'"
However, not everything has been positive for the new team's growth. In July, soon after clinching a playoff spot, the team was forced to suspend its operations when the league filed a suit against the Constitution. The necessity to obtain lawyers drained the team's meager funds, and they were forced to forfeit three games, losing their playoff spot.
According to a statement released by Moore, the Riccis and their counterparts on the Rhode Island Rampage were set on blocking the addition of teams in New York and Boston, fearing the new squads would cut into their territory and in spite of the fact that the expansion had been agree upon prior to the season. Although the Constitution resumed play less than a week later, the issue remains unresolved; this issue shows the barometer of the hiccups that growth in a nascent sports organization can produce.
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