This is more a bit of a ramble aimed as the southerners than fitting into our Brisbane Ultimate remit, but what the heck.
I note with interest that the April Fools 2008 tournament has practically folded due to lack of interest (except from three women’s teams), despite the best efforts of the fine folk of Canberra.
It’s a bit frustrating for me, as it was only 12 months ago that the AFDA Board was taking a heap of flack for the perceived lack of tournaments for Open and Women’s teams.
Fools 2008 was going to be an Open/Women’s tournament which acted as a high level warm-up to Nationals. But it seems nobody wanted to go.
What’s going on?
A bit of history first. Back in the day April Fools in Canberra, along with Seeds of Doom in Sydney and the Border Classic at Albury, were the key tournaments of the Open/Women’s season leading up to the climax of Nationals.
Back in 2004, 13 Open and 12 Women’s teams attended April Fools.
Two obvious and two less obvious things have happened since then.
First obvious – NUFL. A few years ago the elite end of Ultimate got big and hairy enough to come up with the idea of getting just the cream together to play hard and fast – NUFL 2005, NUFL 2006 and NUFL 2007 have been the result. For various reasons, these tournaments have been held during the January-April time period, and the drawing away of the top 200 or so men and women from other teams lessened interest in organising and attending the traditional tournaments.
Second obvious – Regionals. Around the same time Nationals started to grow beyond its capacity and so Regionals were introduced in 2005. Back in the day if you wanted to go to Nationals, your attendance at Nationals was assured, so warm up tournaments could happen right up to the weekend before Nats. But with the need for an organised qualification process and the uncertainty of not qualifying, Regionals has taken up centre space six weeks from Nats. Other nearby events of seeming lesser importance have withered.
Before going further, I should note that I (and I think most people) reckon these two things are excellent. NUFL and Regionals have really cemented themselves as great elements of the Australian Ultimate scene. Regionals I think will keep growing and establish a strong history and brand and it won’t be long before we see more teams not qualify for Nats than do qualify, and more teams going to Regionals with no real intention of going to Nationals. Regionals will be the climax of the Open and Women's seasons for many people.
But I wanted to also note two less obvious things that have happened.
First – training. With the need to qualify for Nationals and the growing formal coaching scene within the sport, teams and clubs are now training much harder and better and more regularly. I suspect the top ten clubs in each division at Nats this year will have had periods when they’ve trained twice a week for a few hours a go, with a proper session schedule and such, going back to at least November last year, in addition to multiple opportunities for local league play.
It wasn’t that long ago that training for Nats involved a few disorganised sessions in December-February, plus maybe weekly session for the six to eight weeks before Nats. In some ways, in the past, people just wouldn’t really turn up regularly to training. A few years later, I think a lot of people are enjoying training. I think this is where warmup tournaments came in. The players then preferred “to play” rather than “to train”. Training used to be what you did until someone insisted “let’s just play a game”. So to get ready for Nats you got everyone to a warmup tournament and played together.
Today you’re already spending heaps of your time training at home, and the training is so good, so why travel to a tournament? So where you’d think people from Sydney and Melbourne and surrounds would be queuing up for April Fools, instead they’re thinking that they’re already doing heaps of prep for Nationals, so why bother with all that getting organised to travel stuff.
Second – growth. All this comes together when you think about how much Ultimate has grown in the last few years. Intuitively perhaps you’d think with heaps more people playing Ultimate, there’d be heaps more and heaps bigger tournaments. And yes there are in some ways. But if you think about it, tournaments are what sports have when they don’t have enough local legs to play regularly at home – so you have to travel to find quality opposition. Martial arts, horse-sports – stuff like that. Ultimate used to be like that. Back when there was only a thousand or so people playing regularly in Australia, maybe a hundred in your local area and maybe only a dozen or so in your skill range, you were really keen to play with some different people, and the only way to do that was to travel and have tournaments.
Today there’s multiple leagues in most capital cities with lots of people you don’t know, and an increasing number of people at each skill level. Open players in Brisbane get a cracking run every Thursday, plus opportunities to play Mondays and Wednesdays and train in addition. Why go to Sydney or Canberra or Melbourne then?
So April Fools couldn’t garner the interest in my mind for a few reasons, nothing to do with the fine Canberra folk. Because people are already training hard and enjoying that training – they don’t need a warm-up tournament. Because they have access to heaps more Ultimate than they once did, and the elite players also have NUFL - they don't need it. And Clubs focus on Regionals instead because its about qualification these days.
So what’s the future for tournaments?
Really good actually. Tournaments still have one great thing going for them. FUN.
And this is where, while perhaps Open and Women’s tournaments have dried up over the last few years, the University and Mixed seasons are the ones getting more and bigger tournaments.
Aussie Ultimate players like their fun, and at the moment they connect that with Mixed and Uni Ultimate. Tournaments themselves, with the chance to catch up with old mates and make new friends, with the partying and the travel and the mixing of the boys and the girls, will remain popular, and if anything I reckon we’ll soon start to see mixed tournaments leaking into the traditional Open/Women’s season, to fill that space below the elite an the qualifiers.