American Ultimate Disc League (cont.)
As he explains his duties with the AUDL, it's easy to understand why Brent Steepe is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the league. Speaking with the clipped vowels and cheery demeanor of someone native to the Upper Midwest, Steepe is relentlessly optimistic about his franchise, the Detroit Mechanix, and the league as a whole.
Steepe was first exposed to ultimate while working as a summer camp director and was told about Moore's vision through a friend who, as he tells it, "stated that they were brining this obscure sport to Detroit, and frankly that I was the only one crazy enough to take him up on the offer so I should call him up right away."
Now, the Mechanix play out of the Silverdome in Michigan, have a dance team lent from the Detroit Lions and have a weekly radio show.
"The fact that it was a value conscious choice for good, pro entertainment, it just all fit together," he says. "Like many economies, Detroit is going through an extreme contraction, so you find a need and you create a product to fill that need, and ultimate seemed like kind of the right place, the right time and the right sport. I kind of had a hunch."
Steepe's hunch paid off, and the Mechanix are one of the few teams in the league that are expected to end the season in the black. More importantly, he was offered the sales and marketing job because of his enthusiasm, and now works to recruit and identify potential sponsorship opportunities, as well as to educate and screen potential owners looking to procure a franchise of their own. While Steepe has made progress, the going has not been easy.
"For sponsors, we had to start at the base level of, 'Do you know what ultimate is?'" he says. "It's always, 'It's too late for this year, call us next year,' when the truth is, [potential sponsors are thinking] 'Our product isn't tested yet, and we're not sitting on a pile of money to take a chance.'"
Steepe believes that the AUDL's success in getting financial backing will have to come mainly from people witnessing the game itself and wanting to be a part of the league's evolution.
"People love an American success story, so when you encourage them to become a part of it in a little way or in a gradual way, they're much more receptive than sitting across the table from you and listening to a pitch," he says.
To that end, every team in the AUDL engages in community outreach programs and clinics, as well as sponsoring a charity of their choice. With regard to who he considers the Mechanix's fan base in Detroit to be, Steepe says, "It depends on who's had the opportunity to see us." He explains, "I can speak for the 150 cub scouts that got to play with one of my athletes today. I can speak for the Bruce Collins Elementary School, for 350 kids who lined the sidelines as we played an exhibition game two weeks ago, or the clinic that took place in Grosse Pointe last Saturday. Whoever gets in front of us, loves us."
It's this 'seeing-is-believing' approach that Steepe thinks will transform the AUDL into something more than a niche league. Even before going to a game, he says, both prospective fans and curious individuals alike should take some time to watch ultimate clips online. When asked how one person should try to explain ultimate frisbee to somebody who has never seen it, he responds, "Don't try and tell anybody about ultimate, just show them. They see a couple of plays or highlights, and they get it really fast. To anybody who poses that question," he says, "Tell them nothing, show them everything."
As with many subcultures, ultimate has its own lingo, conventions and ideologies. The frisbee is referred to almost invariably as "the disc," and the throw-off to begin each half and after a score is the "pull." Admiration is reserved for those who can throw the longest and jump the highest, and backwards baseball hats seem to be the fashion du jour on the field. With frisbee's traditions, however, came a backlash against the AUDL as it took its first steps towards legitimacy.
"When I first started introducing the idea to the general public, there was a lot of pushback, people were like 'You can't do this league because it's not done this way'," says Moore.
Some ultimate lifers viewed a profit-making league as running contrary to frisbee's all-inclusive populism, and feared it would tank and give the sport a bad name in the eyes of uneducated observers. Others took issue with the changes made to game: The AUDL features referees -- a first for the sport -- a bigger field and slightly modified rules, all missteps in the eyes of hard-line ultimate conservatives.
"A lot of what's going on in the ultimate community is sort of this weird evolution between ultimate as a player only sport to ultimate as a spectator sport," says John Korber, who, in addition to being one of the more talented players on the team, is Constitution's general manager, coach and head scout rolled into one. "USAU has never cared about it as a spectator sport."
Even with the hesitancy expressed by portions of the ultimate community, Moore, Korber and others knew that the AUDL would still draw plenty of frisbee players to watch the games, if only because nothing like the league had ever been done before. However, as Korber notes, the AUDL will not grow if it only caters to those who are already invested in the sport, which explains the massive outreach efforts on the part of the league as whole as well as the individual organizations.
"We're not trying to find the 2000 people who play ultimate and get them to come to our games," he says. "The model is tapping into tapping into the hundreds of thousands of sports fans in the greater Hartford area and getting them to come to a game every week. The fan base has never been about just the ultimate community. The fan base has always been about the sports fan community. We just want a small piece of that big pie."