April 11, 2023
Welcome to the Winter 2023 edition of the Aii Newsletter, a periodic review of Aii projects and diversity and inclusion updates from around the league.
The 2023 AUDL season has finally arrived! Our teams are in final preparations for a competitive 12-game regular season culminating in 2023 Championship Weekend at the Minnesota Vikings’ TCO Stadium. Our players are also embarking on more initiatives off the field than ever before, celebrating diversity in communities, working with a groundbreaking new partner, and sharing the joy of ultimate around the world.
The AUDL Inclusion Initiative has welcomed BE Ultimate as the league’s new apparel partner, but also as an official collaborator on diversity and inclusion projects. We are excited to expand our merchandise options through a socially and environmentally conscious organization, as well as leverage new opportunities to raise the voices of players from every background.
Leading our impact on critical issues are veteran players like Joe “Smash” Anderson, our 2022 Community Engagement Award winner, and the league’s Senior Director of Marketing & Sponsorships, Alexia Walker. Both embody the conscious connections we make between our sport and the positive initiatives that make the AUDL meaningful not only in the United States, but throughout the world.
And that’s where you’ll also find Houston Havoc coach AJ Beard and player Munis Thahir. Their work in regions such as Tanzania and India bring our game and values to children of all backgrounds. Their stories represent the best of the AUDL and I am excited to share our sport as we continue to grow. Thank you for supporting the Aii and here’s to a tremendous 2023 season!
CEO & Commissioner
2022 COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT RECAP
The AUDL Community Engagement Award is given to a player who has an outstanding positive impact in their local community beyond the lines of the field. From a large pool of submissions, one person stood out in 2022 for the impact they are making. For Joe “Smash” Anderson of the Colorado Summit, winning the award is a symbol of the larger change that he is trying to facilitate.
Spearheading the Summit’s community engagement initiatives, Smash helped the organization achieve 99 percent participation among its roster. When speaking with Smash, it immediately becomes clear how personable he is and how inspiring he can be. His energy and positivity are contagious, with a smile that rivals his wide wingspan. “My biggest superpower is that I can make you smile and make you feel good about yourself. I help people feel empowered that they can do things that are positive,” he says.
Select formal events were held, such as the YOS Clinic. Other involvement ranged from helping youth clinics to volunteering time to coach high school and YCC teams and mentor athletes to assisting events like the WUL All-Star Game. Showing up in both competitive and non-competitive formats was key to the success of the team’s outreach. “My goal was to show up authentically as a team by attending local pick-ups and league events to show visibility as professionals and love for the game,” he said.
So what was the secret to his strategy? As Smash puts it, “I’ve been explaining to people that I just got out of the way.” His approach was simply asking players to do something positive for their community and then encouraging them to find opportunities that were meaningful to them. He insists, “That’s where the power really lies—that the players feel motivated to do it themselves. Setting an expectation to engage while allowing the freedom to choose how to engage was critical as a first-year team.”
More than participating, Smash also wanted to make sure that the players were prepared to engage in meaningful conversations as true ambassadors of the Summit and champions of the team’s mission of inclusion, diversity, and respect.
The first step was establishing an ambassador program and then facilitating open and honest conversations. “Working with Seth Faris and Mark Donohue, those guys are amazing. They took on the challenge of hearing me talk about the socio-political environment and what all of this means,” he said. “That’s where the power is, teaching players how to have these conversations before they come up and give the illusion that other perspectives are more important than yours. As a predominantly cis-white organization, that’s where we can make an impact. Words matter now more than ever before.”
To Smash, the ambassador program is a reflection of what he wants to see more of in our sport. “I’m pushing for people to have real-speak and talk in-person and have meaningful conversations. That’s what I’m trying to perpetuate: getting back to talking, as opposed to just shouting at each other on social media.”
Equally important to Smash is showing up authentically. “My claim to fame is authenticity. I did not want to show up to a park, throw discs to a bunch of Black kids, and then leave and never go back. We need more than just a photo shoot. That’s why we made a promise to go back to the YOS facility. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done the first one. This is about authenticity.”
Ticket sales could be a measure of the Summit’s community engagement efforts. Colorado fans in the thousands can be seen cheering on the team during their home-game broadcasts. “It means that I was not only super visible in Colorado, but that the rest of the league also took notice. I helped shape some of the best game experiences in the league, with thousands of fans in the stands. I know that a lot of stadiums cannot do that. The fact that we did means that people care about us and that our visibility as ambassadors and players in the league is working and the positivity is spreading.”
What can teams who want to have more of an impact take from Smash’s example?
Create opportunities while asking players to participate in others that are meaningful to them.
Arm players with the capacity to hold meaningful conversations by training skills like active listening, being open to different perspectives, and always being respectful.
Be authentic in the engagements selected—do it for more than a photo opp; elect to make a lasting impact.
Learn more about Smash winning the Community Engagement Award in the official press release. Watch Smash discuss “Code Switching” at a panel filmed during 2022 AUDL Championship Weekend:
To nominate a player from your team for a future Community Engagement Award, send Ryan Purcell an email here: email@example.com
EXPANDING THE GAME ABROAD
Across the AUDL community efforts are being made to spread the sport beyond the borders of the United States. As with traveling abroad for fun, growing the sport of ultimate frisbee abroad can often happen spontaneously, sometimes with months of planning and preparation, usually with the help of a local organization, and always with a sprinkling of social media coordination. For Houston Havoc coach AJ Beard and Oakland Spiders player Munis Thahir, trips abroad to teach ultimate frisbee included all of these elements and more!
When Coach Beard found out about a Swahili International Beach Tournament hosted by Smile255, a Tanzanian Youth Ultimate Frisbee Program in the fall of 2022, she reached out to the organizer, Mwinyi Omary, to see if it was feasible to attend and “help share ultimate with several schools and youth (Mwinyi) had been working with.” A veteran of the Disc Diversity tour, AJ says she liked that the tournament “focused on finding women and girls chances to play” and was hoping to bring an entire team to the beach tournament. “The trip materialized very quickly,” she noted, and “Because of the fast turnaround from first idea to trip (less than 2 months) I skipped a lot of steps.” Despite the speed in planning, the impact was anything but rushed. Over a period of about a week in the Dar es Salaam region of Tanzania, Coach Beard helped with clinics and teaching engagements at schools in the area.
During the trip, the group presented to school administrators about the game of Ultimate Frisbee and the possibility of holding regularly scheduled programming with the students. They followed it up with clinics at two different schools the next day. At one clinic an estimated 500 students participated, at the other, nearly 200!
For Thahir, the process of connecting with the ultimate community around the world began when he started playing for the Oakland Spiders in 2019, and when the AUDL began broadcasting games in India in 2021. At the time, he was able to connect with the AUDL’s media partner, 91Ultimate, hopping on a podcast to discuss his time in the AUDL and interest in growing the game in India. He said he “spent the next couple years building relationships within the Indian Ultimate community,” and eventually got an “Instagram DM from Benoy Stephen, the director of Y-Ultimate -- a nonprofit whose mission is building social and emotional intelligence in children through ultimate.”
“After months of planning, we partnered with two other nonprofits, Just.Play and Transformational Sports, and led about 25 workshops/clinics to over 250 kids over the course of two weeks. The entire trip culminated in a youth tournament that brought all the communities we worked with in the Delhi area to compete against each other for two days. [...] Players were eager to learn fundamentals around throwing, strategy, and athleticism - but we also learned a lot about the value of each other's community, and how we can help shape better lives through this sport.”
In Munis’ case, the AUDL was able to pitch in to help with the effort. Together, they were able to “donate close to 100 discs to Y-Ultimate, and raise $2,500” to provide participants greater access to upcoming tournaments. There are even talks “to create a set of virtual training resources to help individuals and teams in their development.”
For both Munis and AJ, the experience has clearly had a profound impact on them personally and has expanded their vision for the future of the sport. Coach Beard summed it up simply as, “The favorite parts of my ultimate career. The focus on spirit of the game, building up opportunities for women and girls and playing in the sand [...] those would have been great anywhere, they were even better to experience in Tanzania.” In Munis’ words, “The experience in India has brought me so much personal growth and appreciation for the sport. [...] I'm excited to see the AUDL use its platform to get more involved in the international ultimate community -- I think providing international players with resources to develop their own game will only continue to create more expressions of our sport.”
Find out more about Smile 255 and the fundraiser going on now at this link.
GET TO KNOW
Senior Director of Marketing and Partnerships
Interview: Tell us a bit about where you grew up and what your childhood was like.
Alexia Walker: I grew up in Marietta, GA, which is a suburb of Atlanta. My childhood was amazing, I have 3 older brothers and wonderful parents who I made some great memories with.
IV: When did your interest in sports start? Did you participate in many sports growing up, either formally or informally?
AW: My interest in sports started at a young age. Sports were a way for me to connect with my brothers and dad, who all are huge sports fans. I played sports casually growing up, mainly softball. I was never super athletic, which ultimately led to my decision to work in sports. I love the unscripted magic that sports create and wanted to be an active participant in some way, shape, or form.
IV: Where did you attend college and what degree did you obtain?
AW: I graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, NC with a degree in Sports, Entertainment & Event Management.
IV: What was your first job out of college? How did that experience shape your journey in the sports’ industry?
AW: My first job out of college was a marketing coordinator at UNC Charlotte for the Charlotte 49ers Athletic Department. It was the perfect stepping stone for my career in the sports world. I got exposure to a variety of men’s and women’s collegiate sports and a wide expanse of marketing skills (from grassroots, sponsorship execution, to game day ROS, etc.).
IV: Do you feel any specific pressure or discomfort working as a woman in the sports industry?
AW: I’ve been exposed to a few challenges being a female in the sports industry. It’s been extremely common to find myself as the only female in a room and sometimes have had to prove myself more than my male counterparts just to have my voice be heard. I’ve experienced my fair share of dismissals given my gender, but I let that motivate me versus getting me down. I welcome it as a challenge to overcome and help pave the way with fellow female colleagues in the sports industry. I do feel a sense of pressure to make a positive impact as I hold more than just my own reputation on the line, I feel as if I am representing all women in sports.
IV: How long have you been with the AUDL and what were your first impressions of the league? Of the sport of ultimate?
AW: I’ve been with the league since October of 2022. I was coming from the NASCAR and Olympic/Paralympic space, so I didn’t really know what to expect coming over to the AUDL other than excitement about thinking creatively in a new sports space. My first impression was that the ultimate community is incredible - from the passion to the product. It’s a combination of all the things most people love about sports [...] it’s fast-paced, easy to understand, and incredibly athletic.
IV: What do you hope to see the league achieve? In what ways could the AUDL create a more inclusive space for women in sports?
AW: I hope to see the league achieve many things, the primary one being more awareness for the sport of ultimate, the league, the individual teams, and the players. I hope to support a fast-paced growth for the AUDL and its partners.
I believe the AUDL can help create a more inclusive space for women in sports by continuing to prioritize an equal share of voice, continue to find female representation in employment across all levels of the league (owners, marketing, trainers, coaches, etc.), and providing league support to efforts like the Aii.
IV: I hear you are an avid reader. What are your top 3 books you recommend to those looking for a good read?
AW: Oh, these change by the month! I do love reading, my top 3 recommendations right now would be these:
Atomic Habits by James Clear
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (I love WWII fiction)
101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think by Brianna Wiest
With the upcoming season right around the corner, the Aii is actively 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.