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Photo: Jordan Gunselman/Billy Penn Illustration

Inside the surprisingly cutthroat world of professional frisbee in Philly

Making money on the enterprise is, ultimately, pretty complicated.

frisbee-featured
Photo: Jordan Gunselman/Billy Penn Illustration
michaela winberg

This town ain’t big enough for two professional ultimate frisbee teams. But a few years ago, this one guy thought it might be.

There were several elements to the saga of bringing professional ultimate frisbee to Philadelphia. It went like this: The American Ultimate Disc League, the first professional ultimate frisbee league in the country, was founded in 2012 and included a local team called the Philadelphia Spinners. After one season, the Spinners’ owner pulled the team out of that league to start his own, which he called Major League Ultimate, headquartered in Philadelphia. In response, the AUDL formed a new Philly team called the Phoenix.

The two leagues had different coaches, different players and entirely different business models. They coexisted in Philly for four years — but many of the players knew both teams couldn’t last forever.

“It was very awkward,” said Sean Mott, a player for the Phoenix. “It was essentially a power struggle, and it was rough because we had two teams…when we could devote all our time to one team and do amazing.”

“We were both building toward the same goal, and obviously there were two different visions to that goal,” said Samuel Morgan, the assistant coach for the Phoenix.

The Spinners learned the hard way that two professional ultimate frisbee teams can’t both live in Philly. After four seasons, the MLU officially suspended operations last year, and the Spinners were gone for good.

Darryl Stanley, who coached the Phoenix from 2013-15 and then coached the Spinners in 2016, said there was always tension between the teams. When Stanley moved on to the Spinners last year, he convinced some of the best Phoenix players to leave the AUDL and come with him to the MLU — which wiped the Phoenix of some talent and had lasting effects on the franchise.

“And then the Phoenix had their 0-14 season, probably largely because I robbed the coffers,” Stanley said.

“It really was a battle between which pro team was going to make it, which model was better,” said Trey Katzenbach, a former player for the Spinners. “One of them was going to fall [by the] wayside eventually.”

‘By no means was it a money-maker’

Katzenbach said there was an important difference between the way the AUDL and the MLU made money: The AUDL has a decentralized approach that allows individual teams to join the league for about $1,000. This model gives teams more independence under their respective owners, but it often leaves them unprepared to handle the financial challenges that come with owning an ultimate frisbee team with nearly 40 players, like the cost of cross-country travel to away games.

Katzenbach said teams dropped out of the AUDL regularly because they couldn’t keep up with the costs of operation. Since the AUDL’s inception, six of the league’s teams have folded.

The MLU combatted that model directly with centralized management based out of Philadelphia. Every team in the league had an MLU-appointed general manager and drew funds from the same national corporate sponsors, like Comcast, State Farm, Monster and Dave & Buster’s.

“By no means was it a money-maker, but it was run much better,” Katzenbach said. “They were able to centrally use the funds, which were headquartered in Philadelphia, to make sure all the teams were doing well.”

In 2016, the Spinners won the MLU championship. Katzenbach said the Spinners’ home games — which they played at Sweeney Field at St. Joe’s University — drew a crowd of around 750 people on average. Some Spinners games were televised on Comcast and featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter.

Meanwhile, Mott estimated the Phoenix’s home game attendance at A.A. Garthwaite Stadium in Conshohocken averaged around 100 people, and the team didn’t win a single game in the 2016 season.

Before the team folded, the Spinners built up their Facebook profile to more than 15,000 likes — nearly five times the Phoenix’s current 3,000-plus likes.

“From what I saw, [the MLU] had more investors and better sponsors,” Mott said. “A lot of people were thinking it was going to be the AUDL that folded.”

‘The next day it was all gone’

In December 2016, the MLU’s Vice President of Operations David Kucherlapati announced in an email to players that the league was set to fold. He wrote, “Despite our best efforts, and a recent influx of experience and knowledge, we have not succeeded in increasing the revenue to a level that would be adequate to cover the expenses of the League.”

“Everybody in Philly was shocked,” Katzenbach said. “We were all signing players and getting the season ready, and the next day it was all gone.”

“It just kind of came out of nowhere, and it was really just sad,” Stanley said. “I thought the MLU was just top-notch. The whole team, the media team, the executive team, the travel coordination, all of it was just very well done. They took professional ultimate to a new level.”

But as comfortable as the MLU was for teams, Stanley said he thought all along that the AUDL’s business model was more likely to succeed.

“It has survivability because basically, if your franchise ran out of money, and your ownership was no longer able to sustain losses, off you go,” Stanley said. “If you can’t get some other owners in there, the league will fold you up.”

This year, for the first time since the AUDL’s inaugural season, there was only one professional team to accommodate Philadelphia’s robust ultimate frisbee community. And the players (and coaches) from the other team had to go somewhere.

Coming together

In years past, the presence of two professional teams stretched the city thin. Mott said there were too few fans for both teams to make a profit, and they would’ve benefitted from streamlining into one.

Katzenbach, along with about 10 former Spinners, decided to try out for the Phoenix when the MLU folded. Most of the other players decided to abandon the professional scene altogether and play at the club level instead.

“Because a lot of our players appreciated the MLU and what they were doing for ultimate in Philadelphia, they didn’t make the jump over to the AUDL,” Katzenbach said.

The merger (of sorts) between the Phoenix and the Spinners has had its fair share of tension. When Katzenbach transitioned to the AUDL, he said he was “expecting the worst.”

“It’s just not as together as the MLU was,” Katzenbach said. “I would say there’s a step back in professionalism, just kind of how things were run.”

Stanley said the MLU was more of a “cushy experience” than the AUDL. Travel time to away games was shorter and accommodations were standardized. Plus, the MLU received more media attention before it folded than the AUDL did.

“You can see sometimes that there’s just differences between opinions, and it comes from playing in different teams and different systems,” Mott said.

“We really are a mish-mash of the Philly area,” Morgan said. “It’s interesting every season, but in this season in particular, I think the team has come together pretty well.”

‘More butts in the seats’

Since the Spinners folded, Mott has seen more fans turn out at the Phoenix games — he estimates that home game attendance has doubled this season. Fans used to ask him for autographs by yelling out, “Hey, number 81!” But now, many of them call him by his first name.

“It feels a little easier when the fans know who you are, because they’re only rooting for one team,” Mott said. “They get a little more into it.”

“There’s definitely some more butts in the seats,” Morgan said. “The success we’re having this season is building for next year. I’m hoping that whatever evolution occurs next year, it maintains the positive momentum from this season.”

For Katzenbach, it has been frustrating to take a step back from the Spinners’ success. Last season, the Spinners went 9-1. The Phoenix is currently 2-7.

“When we were playing with the Spinners, every year it was building,” Katzenbach said. “We were starting to have more fans, people who were coming back every year. Because that league folded and the Phoenix didn’t have that kind of following, we’re back to maybe year two.”

“I’m hoping that the Phoenix can do what the Spinners were doing before, which was every year building and getting bigger,” Katzenbach added. “It’s getting bigger every game, but it’s still not at the level that the Spinners was.”

When the MLU suspended operations, Stanley moved on to coach the AUDL team in Washington, D.C. His team traveled to Philly this season to play the Phoenix, and he was struck by the amount of people in the stands — he said at least 500 people attended the game.

“That was the first time they ever had to use the away-side stands,” Stanley said. “The league that I’ve returned to this year is so much different and so much better than the one I left in 2015. The competition is really impressive. The depth of talent in the league is getting really high.”

Katzenbach seems happy for now that Philly still has at least one ultimate team. “I’ll continue to play as long as I can, even in front of smaller numbers of fans, because it’s so much fun to see them get excited, get involved and cheer for the sport that I love,” he said. “My hope is that enough fans can come that it becomes solvent.”