Writer: Robert Dover
Extra Feedback: Si East
Editor: Harry Mason (he/him)
With the pandemic disrupting how we've normally organised Frisbee, there's a chance to try out some new approaches. For example, we've seen the UKU try out some different formats with their League and Cup structure. But it's worth remembering that organising Ultimate is not the exclusive domain of the UKU - there's plenty of opportunities to get Ultimate going in the local community too! I recently ran a Hat league in North London for the first time (LUSH - London Ultimate Summer Hat), and learned a lot about how to organise local frisbee in the process. In this article, I'm going to run through some of the things I learned to think about running a league. You can find Part 1 of this series here.
What sort of things should I be thinking about when planning my league?
If you've never run a league before, it can potentially be quite daunting! There's a lot of things to think about. I thought it might be helpful to come up with a list of the things we found we needed to consider when running LUSH (not all of which we realised when we started!). It may feel like quite a long list, but don't take it too seriously! The main thing is to get the pitches and the pricing sorted - all the extra stuff is useful and might help your league run more smoothly if you think about it up front, but you can probably cobble something together on the fly if you need to. Throughout I'll be illustrating the various points with what we ended up doing in LUSH in case to give you some ideas.
Obviously in order to play you need an appropriate space. If you're doing this in the summertime, hopefully there's a park or outdoor space you can use! In the Winter time you'll either need to find somewhere with floodlights or indoors. Finding a good venue can be tough! You're competing with all sorts of other sports for space, some of which will be much more established. Ideally you find somewhere you can book, so you don't have to worry about turning up one night and finding it full of people. It's not necessary to have proper lines down, but if you can get them it tends to make people feel like what you're doing is more official somehow. In some areas, your local council might be willing to paint some lines for you if you're playing on public land - it's worth reaching out to them to see if they have a scheme you can make use of.
Sadly we weren't able to convince our local council to put down lines in the town park where we were playing, so we went for a fallback option and bought a kit with tapes to put our own lines down! We bought a kit from Quick Pitch and set it up in the park each night we were playing. It was a bit of a faff to put down, but the players really appreciated having some proper lines to play with and feedback was generally very positive about it.
How much do you charge people to play in your league? It's a thorny question! If you're hiring a venue, you will need to recoup your costs from the participants. And even if you aren't, making it more expensive than free will help with convincing people to keep coming back each week. That being said, you never want the cost to put people off playing, especially if you're looking to try and spread the game to newer players. It's a difficult balance, particularly if you don't know how many players you're going to get signing up.
The first thing you want to do is figure out how many people/teams you can theoretically accommodate to play in your league. If you've got an indoor venue, for example, you might only have space for a certain number of people per night, and that's going to impact the maximum size of your league. For outdoor leagues this is less of an issue as you can generally have more players per team, but you'll probably still have caps on the number of teams you can fit in. In our case, we reckoned we could play two games per night over two nights of the week, so we were probably limited to 8 teams. We estimated having squads of 15-18 people per team would hopefully lead to 10-12 people showing up each evening. That led to a maximum capacity of 144 people.
Once you've got that number of players, you can calibrate your prices according to how many you expect to turn up. My advice would be to set your prices conservatively the first time you run the league - maybe aim to break even at somewhere around 30-50% of your max capacity. Then once you have a better idea of what to expect you can tweak this in subsequent years. Hopefully you'll beat 30% easily and then you'll have some money left over to figure out what to do with (more on that later!).
If you want people to sign up for your league, they have to know about it first! The UK Ultimate community is fragmented across a lot of different communications platforms, so this isn't always as easy as it could be. My advice is to put up stuff about it everywhere you can think of - hopefully your city has somewhere to talk about Ultimate that it would make sense to advertise. In particular, make sure to contact all the local teams and pickup groups you're aware of explicitly so they know it's happening. Also make sure there's as long a signup window as possible. If you don't give people enough notice they won't sign up in time!
A few general places to advertise that might be useful:
Depending on the focus of your league, you may want to put some time and energy into making sure you get beginners involved. A few ideas about how to do this:
- Advertise outside of the traditional Ultimate channels mentioned above. Beginners aren't going to be looking there! The specifics will depend on your city, but options include putting up posters (physical advertising will reach demographics you don't necessarily expect!), posting in non-Ultimate sports community groups, or (if you're feeling adventurous) diving into the unpredictable world of paid Facebook advertising.
- Run some kind of taster session(s) before the signup deadline so that new players can have some idea of what to expect.
- Set expectations for the participants in the league that they should be understanding of newer players and be ready to help them learn the ropes.
- Make sure to communicate to team captains who the beginners on their team are (if they don't know already).
- Let people know there will be a Most Improved Player prize for each team to get people thinking about using the league to get better.
One thing we did that really paid off was to try and make the signup and payment as seamless as we could. Especially if you're running a hat league, you'll need to be taking payments from a large number of people. In my opinion it's worth investing a bit of time to make signup and payment happen as part of the same form. This will make your life as an organiser easier in the long run (no chasing people for money!) and will look swish to people who have only ever seen "fill in this google form and then pay this bank account" type stuff before. It's not *completely* trivial, but we were able to accomplish this via:
(a) setting up a Stripe account and connecting it with your bank account - they give you the ability to do online payments processing.
(b) using some kind of service that lets you integrate payments processing with online forms. For this we used a website called Supersaas. It's fairly straightforward to get something working and you can build forms that integrate with Stripe to let you take card payments as people sign up.
For a Hat League, you'll also need to get people to give you an idea of their level of play and likelihood of being there on any given night to be able to try and create some evenly balanced teams. Be aware that no matter how hard you try to do this, it is not possible to get it exactly right. We found that basically nobody could accurately predict how many matches they were likely to be able to attend, for example. And everyone grades their skill level on a different scale! Try to ask questions that give you a multi-dimensional understanding of player skills if you can - this will help a bit with balance and make it more likely that you can accurately assess levels. So in our case we asked people to rate their throwing ability, level of fitness, level of tactical understanding, amount of frisbee experience and highest level of play.
One way to help teams bond is to give them team names that let them build their own identity. Having a theme can add to the fun! We chose to name teams after things associated with taking a bath (it only seemed appropriate given the tournament shared its name with a company that sells soaps!)
If you're running a league that you want everyone to feel welcome to play in, then it'll be a Mixed League. There is an inherent tension when organising Mixed Ultimate - in the majority of player populations there are likely to be significantly more male-identifying players than female-identifying ones. So do you choose to enforce the standard gender ratios of Mixed Ultimate (in which case you will probably have to turn some men away), or do you relax the gender ratio rules, which will allow everyone to play but might lead to an overly male-dominated game? Bear in mind that for some women a 5-2 or 6-1 gender ratio is a less fun experience than proper Mixed as they feel less able to influence the game. But on the other hand there is an extra administrative burden to keeping track of the gender ratios of the signups, and turning players away can be difficult. You should have a good think about which of these is appropriate for your league!
In LUSH's case we felt we did not want to turn players away, so we made a conscious decision to relax the gender rules. If you do this, I recommend a few policies to try and mitigate issues around gender balance during games:
- You may still want to institute a minimum gender ratio for each game even if you're not playing full mixed.
- If you don't do that, give captains instructions to agree what the gender balance is going to be before each game based on the players available.
- Get captains to agree a gender endzone before the game so that teams can play different numbers of female-identifying players if they prefer.
- Ask that teams try to match gender numbers on the line each point where possible.
Dealing with Pickups
It's inevitable that no matter how well you advertise your league beforehand, there will be people who forget to sign up but then decide they want to play. Depending on the format you have chosen to go with this can be easier or harder to deal with! You don't really want to turn people away if you can help it, so my advice would be to try to accommodate late sign ups wherever possible. If you're running a hat league it's often easier to process new signups in batches (eg. allocate them all to teams once per week). You might also want to think about allocating team sizes assuming that there will be a few new entrants as the league goes on. If you want to incentivise people to sign up on time, then consider having a slightly higher 'Late Signup Fee' and make sure that you let people know they'll have to pay more if they wait!
LUSH had a LOT of late sign ups - there were 90 players signed up before the league started, and then we got another 20 late signups on top of that. In hindsight, we could have anticipated this - we started planning a bit late because of COVID and ended up with a very short signup window. Naturally that meant that a lot of players were a bit late to the party. Have a think about how well you've advertised your event beforehand so you have an idea how many stragglers you might expect (if you've been doing a big advertising blitz with a long signup window maybe you won't have such an issue!).
Spirit of the Game
Spirit is a core part of Ultimate, and in my view it's important to have some kind of spirit scoring system in place at any competition you run. Particularly for players who are new to organised Ultimate it's a great opportunity to teach them about the values of Spirit of the Game. We got a copy of the UKU's standard template for this and it worked pretty well!
These days many venues will require you to have some form of Civil Liability Insurance in order to use their facilities. Civil Liability Insurance covers you in cases where a bystander is injured or property is damaged as a result of what you're doing. It's up to you to decide whether you feel you need it, but if you do, the easiest way to get cover is to require that all participants become members of UK Ultimate. UKU membership comes with Civil Liability Insurance, and that should cover your event without you having to go through the process of sourcing your own Civil Liability policy from somewhere.
Bad Weather Policy
This is (probably!) not going to be a problem for indoors, but it's a fact of life in the UK that if you're organising something outdoors you can't guarantee getting pleasant conditions all the time. Depending on your playing population, turnout to games may be affected by extreme bad weather. (In my experience Ultimate players are a hardy bunch and seem to be willing to put up with pretty miserable conditions, but that may not be universal!) It is worth having a quick think about what should happen if you do have to cancel matches or stop play because the weather takes a turn for the worse.
In our league we had to stop matches one evening due to nearby lightning strikes! The UKU does have a Lightning Contingency Plan that's worth reading. My suggestion would be to come up with some appropriate areas to take shelter were there to be some lightning (DON'T STAND UNDER TREES!), and decide how long is sensible to wait before starting to play again (the UKU advises 20-30 minutes).
Some people really enjoy planning out a robust tournament structure, and others hate it! The exact structure and schedule will be very dependent on the number of teams, venue, format and so on. But here are a few tips that may be handy:
- In general, people prefer to know in advance when their matches are going to be. If you can plan out the whole schedule in advance and circulate it, that's best. That may not be possible, but remember that the more notice you can give, the better players can organise their lives and actually turn up!
- A round robin is a pretty tried and trusted structure.
- It's probably worth leaving some gaps in the schedule in case Bad Weather (see previous section) or some unforeseen circumstance means a match can't be played in its scheduled slot.
- If you anticipate having teams of wildly differing strengths, it may be worth trying to split teams into divisions.
- Having a final is normally appreciated!
Injuries and First Aid
Hopefully it won't happen, but sometimes people do get injured playing Ultimate. You probably should have a First Aid Kit on hand (we put one in the bags that had our pitch kits in), although worth noting that by far the most common thing you'll need from a first aid kit are ice packs. It's not always possible to have someone first-aid trained at every match, but it's worth having a think if that's possible to cover your bases. For example if you’re running a league where players register as individuals, you could have a question on the signup form about whether they have first aid training. If you’re lucky you may find you have enough players with the necessary qualifications to cover the whole tournament!
As an organiser, make sure you get teams to report any significant injuries that happen to you. If you're using the UKU's Civil Liability Insurance you're supposed to fill in an incident report for particularly serious injuries such as head collisions or broken bones.
For LUSH we had some issue with uneven ground, so we put out guidance about where to lay out the pitches to avoid the worst of the potholes. This helped reduce the injury risk somewhat.
As anyone who has been to an Ultimate tournament knows, our players are a forgetful bunch and someone WILL leave something behind! Having a system in place to advertise lost and found is a good idea, otherwise you'll be left with random stuff you picked up from the sidelines (if anyone needs a pair of used cargo shorts someone left behind at LUSH, drop me a message!).
Stats & Fantasy
Whether or not to do statkeeping is an interesting topic! Some players really enjoy the validation of having their actions recorded for posterity and relish the competition of racking up the most goals, assists and Ds. On the other hand, some players really dislike stats - the fact that stats are being kept can add unwanted pressure and it may encourage stathunting behaviour that can sometimes be problematic.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that collecting stats is not an easy task in a league where matches are played over many evenings! You’re going to have to find volunteers to keep track of things, and give them a system that makes it easy to record what happens in the game.
For LUSH we decided against doing statkeeping as we felt it might be daunting to newer players and would have added significantly to the administrative overhead. But in some formats (particularly if you go for a Draft League or a Parity League) it may be worth having a go!
What to do if you make a profit
Hopefully your league will be successful and you'll end up with enough players to make a profit. What should you do with the money? I'd recommend putting some of it towards prizes (see below). But don't feel guilty about running a surplus - you probably put in a bunch of work to make this league happen, and it's only fair that you (or your club) should be compensated for the work you've put in. Use the money to keep your club running, or maybe splurge it all on a big party if that's how you roll!
Prizes and Party
Having some prizes is a good way to make people feel like there's something to play for, especially if you've made a profit on the tournament and want to give some of that back to the participants. But if you're going to give out prizes, you need to find a way to bring everyone together at the end of the league to hand them out! One good way to do this is to organise an end-of-tournament event that you encourage everyone to attend. That way you can get everyone together and have a bit of a prize giving ceremony (and maybe even a post tournament party) to finish the league on a high note.
What we did for LUSH was hold the final of the league on a separate evening, and booked an area at a local pub to go to afterwards. Advertising that you'll put a bit of money behind the bar can do wonders for turnout! We were able to get plenty of people along to watch the final and be there for the prize-giving ceremony!
(Photo Credit: Nel Payne)
No matter how attentively you run your league, there'll be things that don't quite work out perfectly. Finding out what those are is important so you can do it even better next time! I highly recommend sending out a feedback form to your players after the league has finished to get their opinions on how things went. My approach was to give people a bunch of cues for things they might want to give feedback about, and then give them a general text box to write what they want rather than asking a lot of different questions - it's a bit less of a faff to fill in and that means you're more likely to get people taking the time to respond. Here's the form I sent out if you're curious about how it looked.
Despite your best intentions, be prepared that (unless everything goes spectacularly!) you won't get 100% positive feedback. That's actually a good thing! It's important to find out what you can change that will improve the experience, so try and accept any feedback you receive rather than getting defensive about it.