September 19, 2023
Welcome to the Summer 2023 edition of the Aii Newsletter, a periodic review of Aii projects and diversity and inclusion updates from around the league.
What a year! After more than 150 games across North America, we recently crowned our 2023 AUDL Champions New York Empire in Minnesota. We also celebrated all the players who make an indelible impact on their local communities on and off the field. The offseason gives us a chance to reflect on the accomplishments of the AUDL and Aii, as well as plan for exciting new initiatives in 2024 and beyond.
Our 2023 BE The Change award winner, Rafael Castro of the Oakland Spiders, threw the opening pull to kick off the 2023 championship game between the New York Empire and Salt Lake Shred. Along with several Austin Sol and Minnesota Wind Chill players, Castro also helped lead the youth clinic before Saturday’s championship matchup for the 40 elementary school, 30 middle school, and 70 high school ultimate players who attended.
The league recently distributed a survey to all female owners, staff and coaches in our league, and the results have provided a groundbreaking perspective on the AUDL’s strengths as well as areas of growth. In that same lens, we’ve shared a spotlight on the female broadcasters of our sport, along with tremendous insights on how they prepare for exciting matchups every week.
The Aii has also expanded its grant program, providing opportunities to put more discs in the hands of youth across the world. This global impact also extends to many players across the AUDL, where we find fascinating stories of learning our game and developing into premier athletes.
For all the jaw-dropping, high-flying moments between the lines, the AUDL is just as proud of the work we do within our neighborhoods, alongside children and across the landscape of ultimate. As always, thank you for supporting our mission and learning more about the Aii.
CEO & Commissioner
AUDL Women's Survey Recap
For the AUDL, and for most men’s professional sports leagues in the United States, the focus and media attention is largely on men. And that makes sense, the players on the field are men, the coaches are mostly men, and there are women-specific leagues such as the Premier Ultimate League and National Women's Soccer League. So whether you’re watching the AUDL Championship Weekend or Hard Knocks, the camera is bound to place men center stage. And admittedly, the Aii has primarily focused on diversity and inclusion efforts amongst the players, and therefore mostly men, highlighting the diversity of the league and their off-field accomplishments through the BE The Change Award.
Despite this reality, sports teams are more than just the players on the field. They can be large organizations with complex webs of staff in roles ranging from ownership to coaching to communications, athletic training and medicine, to logistics and game day presentation, and beyond. The AUDL is no different in this regard and it is in these roles that women are leading the charge. And where many other leagues around the country have been maligned in their historic efforts to create a space that is welcoming to women, the leaders of the AUDL are working to create this environment while the league is still young.
Dr. Christina Lee Chung, the AUDL’s Chief Medical Officer and owner of the Philadelphia Phoenix, is part of the group along with Angela Campanella (Philadelphia Phoenix), Alexis Abelove (Chicago Union), and Amanda Myhrberg (Tampa Bay Cannons), that worked on this initiative. Last year, the group created a pilot survey for women involved at the team and league levels aimed at the following objectives:
- Identify what the AUDL/its teams are doing well to create female-friendly workplaces
- Identify challenges for women across the league through a spectrum of areas - travel, time management, juggling families, etc.
- Provide a voice for women in the AUDL to advocate for themselves
- Utilize results to make the AUDL, as it continues to evolve, a pioneer and standard setter for women to succeed in the sports business
Speaking with Dr. Chung recently about the results of the survey, she summed up the idea beyond the survey as a way to compare the experience of working with the AUDL against other industries and to help figure out “how to rewrite the script” that the sports business is for men by “identifying and addressing issues early”. She acknowledged that this was a preliminary step in the process of figuring out what is and isn’t working well for women but that it was encouraging“just to hear thank yous for doing it and for the recognition alone that we want to hear from (women) directly about their feedback”.
The survey reached 40 respondents, across 22 teams, with half of the respondents having worked for the league for over five (5) years. The responses identified that women believe their work environment was accommodating and supportive even in travel situations where the logistics can get complicated and the resources sparse. The women believe players were receptive to their presence and respectful of their authority in leadership roles. The responses also noted seeing women in leadership throughout the league made those roles seem more accessible which was empowering. On the other hand, it was clear that the accessibility at stadiums and practice venues were inconsistent and support for women who were pregnant or breastfeeding could be improved. In this respect, the league also has a responsibility to the fans of the league that are women, to make sure the events are as accessible and friendly as they are for men.
Moving forward, Dr. Chung expressed that the league was working to address the issues highlighted by the survey results and more. “It’s clear that we have some work to do and especially in the sense of mentorship and networking. Everyone can feel like they are on their own island so it’s important to create the sense of community across the league”. To that end, the league will be hosting a networking event for women who work with the AUDL at this year’s Championship Weekend. Just one part of the greater initiative to make the AUDL more inclusive for the women that support it.
A summary of the 2022 Women’s Survey can be found in the image below. For more information contact Christina Chung (firstname.lastname@example.org) and follow along for more content around the leading women of the AUDL.
The Central Division's "Voice Of Ultimate"
You may be familiar with the AUDL national broadcast team, but over the last several seasons, Central Division fans have grown to appreciate a different timbre of voices during games.
Hailed as “the best game analyst in the AUDL,” and “an incredible student of ultimate and the AUDL,” Emilie “Willie” Willingham and Kelsie Sparks, respectively, are bringing their own unique perspectives and broadcast style to color commentary during AUDL games.
Willingham for the Chicago Union and Sparks for the Indianapolis AlleyCats both leverage successful playing careers and a deep knowledge of the sport to add color and insight to the viewing experience. Outside of the booth, both broadcasters are standout players. Willingham has won championships at several levels of competition, and both she and Sparks continue to compete throughout the year, often concurrently with AUDL weekends. This experience allows them to see what’s happening on the field and translate that into language that ultimate veterans and non-player fans alike can appreciate. In both of their cases, it also makes for an interesting dynamic with their broadcast counterparts, neither of whom have prior playing experience.
Chicago Union play-by-play broadcaster Dennis ‘D-Mic’ Michelsen has been in broadcasting for over 30 years, for everything from auto racing and tractor and truck pulls to baseball and football, and now ultimate. He immediately recognized something special in Willingham. “From the first game I worked with Emilie I realized she could see the field better than most people in ultimate. Her knowledge of the game and anticipating what’s coming next is a huge advantage in the broadcast booth,” he said. “Emilie explains the finer points of the game in a fun and entertaining manner whether you have been playing ultimate all your life or are tuning in for your very first game.”
This unique balance of Michelsen's broadcast experience paired with Willingham ultimate IQ has created a unique and engaging viewing experience for fans. “Dennis didn’t know what a frisbee zone looked like or what the force is or what a handle does or what’s a good looking throw and what's not,” Willingham explained. “We brought viewers along to learn with Dennis and we’ve continued to make ultimate feel more friendly and accessible. His deep broadcast experience without ultimate experience makes for such a charming broadcast, and it’s led to fascinating, engaging, and cute back and forths between us.”
Indianapolis fans are treated to a similar broadcast-veteran-meets-ultimate-expert team in John Herrick and Kelsie Sparks. Both reported being grateful to have a partner in the booth to learn from. “Finding my ‘TV voice’ took longer than I expected it to,” Sparks admitted. “Thankfully, my play-by-play partner, John Herrick, is a true broadcasting pro. He has been incredible to work with and he has coached me through so much of what it means to be a good broadcaster.”
AlleyCats play-by-play announcer John Herrick says that working with Sparks has been one of the great joys of his life. “I've learned so much about ultimate from her and she's made me a better announcer for the Alleycats. We always find ways for the broadcast to be better and she never stops learning, which means I can't get complacent either,” he remarked.
Like most ultimate players, Willingham and Sparks are relentless in the pursuit of honing their craft. What viewers watch during broadcasts represents only a fraction of the several hours that go into preparing for games each week.
The rigors of an AUDL gameday can bring with it a host of hurdles that require nimbleness and poise while broadcasting. Everything from season storylines and individual player backgrounds to offensive, defensive, and game-clock strategy, often in varying weather conditions, are all discussion topics to consider at any given moment during a game. To talk about all of this coherently and in a natural way takes work.
The week before a game might include rewatching away games and trying to identify strategies, problem areas, standout players, and making note of any potential talking points. “I watch film on AUDL.tv, and make sure to print out rosters, stats, and helpful information going in to game day,” Sparks said.
Willingham noted that the AUDL app is a helpful tool for viewing stats and pulling quick info. “I look at turns, red zone turns, hucks, completions, and then think of ways to give them meaning. It’s time well spent but time you need to spend.”
When game day finally comes, their day starts hours before the opening pull. When describing her routine, Sparks explained, “I like to spend my game day mornings at a coffee shop doing some last minute studying and research, checking to see if anyone’s injury status has changed, etc.” Sparks divulged that pre-game interviews and being on the field with the teams before games is her favorite part of the job. “The excitement is palpable every single time,” she said.
Broadcasters often arrive at the field before the teams do in order to complete any pregame media clips, get a sense of the playing conditions, and gather quotes and insights from the coaches and players. “I try to get to the game two hours early so that I’m ready for our camera crews and to do a prerecord of the opener. Normally, I’m waiting for the coaches to get there so I can get info on players, specifically featured players. I do lots of interviewing so that I can represent the people who don’t get the opportunity to speak—on both the home and away teams.”
Willingham takes special care in making sure that both teams are represented equally during her broadcasts, as it’s the away team fans who can’t be at the game in person who are typically watching the live streams. “In broadcast, you have the opportunity to represent a group, and hearing what the coach has to say is such an opportunity for fans to hear what it’s like being on the team and get a sense of the vibe of the team.”
When it comes to both of their broadcast origin storylines, visibility, betting on themselves, and having a mentor for encouragement and support are consistent threads.
“I’m very comfortable saying that I owe the opportunity to Meagles,” Willingham says, “Her recommendation is the reason why I started.” In 2015, Megan “Meagles” Tormey moved from the Chicago broadcast team to work games with the national broadcast crew, leaving an open seat in the booth.
Having been club ultimate teammates, Tormey recognized what Willingham could bring to the broadcast and pushed for her to give it a try. “She instilled confidence in me that I could be who I am and succeed,” Willingham said, “‘Be yourself. You know frisbee,’ she told me, and that encouraged me to step up.” Willie has been broadcasting games for Chicago ever since and is now one of the longest-tenured members of the organization.
Sparks’s story follows a similar path in that she stepped up in a time of need. She was familiar with the Indianapolis players and story from attending games since their inaugural season in 2012. In spring of 2021, the Alleycats asked Sparks to be featured in a promo video about ultimate. “The video went pretty well, so we filmed some more,” she said. “After that, they had an open color commentator spot for one of their 2021 games and asked me if I’d be willing to step in. I was pretty nervous, but decided it might be a once in a lifetime opportunity so I made myself say yes. I’m very glad I did!”
Sparks also acknowledged the support she received from Tormey and hopes that she can serve in a similar capacity in the future. “Long-time AUDL broadcaster Megan Tormey took time to hop on a call with me and give me advice before my first broadcast, and I would love to pay it forward and see more awesome women get involved with the AUDL. If you are a woman interested in broadcasting, shoot me a message!”
Each game is different and conditions can present unforeseen challenges (everything from shooting from inside a freezer because of equipment overheating to improvising an entire hour due to a game delay), but one wouldn’t know it because these two broadcasters are true pros. There is an artistry in being able to weave passion and knowledge seamlessly into a live broadcast, and Willingham and Sparks masterfully execute week after week.
To see Willingham and Sparks in action, watch the Chicago Union and Indianapolis AlleyCats on AUDL.tv.
International Player Spotlight
Featuring the perspectives and experiences of AUDL players from abroad.
Andres Rodriguez, Philadelphia Phoenix
Interviewer: When did you start playing ultimate
Andres Rodriguez: I started to play ultimate in March 2012.
IV: How were you introduced to the sport?
AR: I was in the second year of my college, I lived with a couple Colombian friends and one of them invited me to practice with Helio Ultímate Club, it’s an open club from my city, after the first practice it was like love at first sight and that’s how I am here, playing ultimate almost 12 years after.
IV: What are some of your earliest memories playing ultimate?
AR: I don’t have like one specific moment but I have a lot of memories in tournaments with my team, playing in a high level and having a lot of fun with my friends but if I have to choose one of them, I would say when I played the World Championship U-24 in Perth Australia (2017), for sure that tournament helped a lot to build the ultimate player that I am today.
IV: How long have you been in the AUDL?
AR: I have been playing only for one year, this year was my first season as a professional player. Without a doubt now I am a better player, with a different perspective about how to play ultimate, I learned a lot about the dynamic of the game, about resets and how can I be more dangerous for my opponent, this year also helped me improve my self-confidence and believe that I am able to play in the highest level of ultimate.
IV: What went into making you the type of player you are today?
AR: There isn’t one specific moment, I have been doing different sports since I was 5, so, I think the ultimate player that I am today is just the result of many years working in being athletic, stronger, faster, smarter, capable to react when I need, it’s also the result of pushed me to play with a lot of pressure on my back and against people that every single day try very hard to be better than me.
IV: What is your position on the field?
AR: My position in the field is offensive/defensive cutter.
IV: How do you define your role on the field?
AR: I think my role into the team if I am on offense is try to connect the handler space with the end zone with the lower percentage of error. If I am playing defense I think my role is try to bring some break chances for the team and after the turn try to move fast the frisbee to make harder for the opponent stop us.
IV: What have been some of your favorite experiences in the AUDL?
AR: To be honest I lived my dream with the first season as a player in the AUDL, so, everything was memorable for me, since the Philadelphia Phoenix signed me, the pre-season meeting incredible people, learning a lot about how to play ultimate, even my first tough game against NY empire and when I gave some high fives to the fans, until the beautiful victory against Carolina Flyers and the post season dreaming every single day with get better in the 2024 season.
IV: Who is your favorite POC teammate?
AR: My favorite POC player is Nate Little, because he isn’t only an amazing player, with incredible skies, he also is very kind, so funny and I felt he got my back all the season.
IV: What further steps should the league take in terms of racial equity?
AR: To be honest I am still learning about this important topic because when I was in Colombia we didn’t use to emphasize around this, but for me the most important thing that I want to see the league taking the racial equity in regards to the Players Of Color, so that we can have the same opportunities that the other players in the league have. It’s very important that every player can be judge by the team coaches with equity and the color wouldn’t be an item to be evaluated in the tryouts, the only thing that should matter are the physical skills because I am sure that there are a lot of players that can get a spot in a professional team.
With the close of the 2023 AUDL season, the Aii will continue planning initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion in the seasons ahead. Subscribe to receive the Aii Newsletter and keep up with all the news along the way.
To have any actions that you or your team are taking towards diversity and inclusion within your community featured in an upcoming newsletter, please send your information to Matt Smith at: email@example.com.
The Aii is a committee that strives to increase racial and cultural diversity and inclusion throughout the sport of ultimate by providing underserved communities access to an affordable sport whose culture emphasizes healthy living, integrity in athletics, and potential to compete at the junior, collegiate and professional levels.