A Conversation with Thunderbirds Owner Dr. Tracy Neuendorf

Interview and write-up by Larry Snyder: (topoftheinclinesports.com)

Pittsburgh, Pa. - The Pittsburgh Thunderbirds took the field for the first time Saturday, April 11, 2015, against the Indianapolis AlleyCats in the American Ultimate Disc League. The T-birds claimed a 28-20 victory on the road, and they finished the season with a 12-2 record in the Midwest Division.

It was Dr. Tracy Neuendorf and his wife, Amy, who brought the AUDL to the City of Bridges. This season the Black and Gold are 4-3 and in the playoff hunt in the Midwest Division. They are on a four-game winning streak coming out of the All-Star break and face the 2018 defending AUDL champions, the Madison Radicals (4-3) on Saturday, June 22, at JC Stone Field at 7:00 p.m. 

From left to right: Captain David Vatz, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, 2017 Captain Ethan Beardsley, Thunderbirds Owner Dr. Tracy Neuendorf

I had the exclusive opportunity this week to talk to Dr. Neuendorf about the Thunderbirds and the AUDL past and present.

Larry Snyder: Back in 2015 you and your wife Amy brought the American Ultimate Disc League to Pittsburgh with the Thunderbirds. What drew you to this sport and getting into the ownership of a team?

Dr. Tracy Neuendorf: First ... we loved watching our son Andrew [Gardner] play Ultimate in college at Miami University. We would come down for tournaments and found everyone surrounding the sport were great people and very athletic. When Andrew graduated from college, The AUDL was looking for an owner in the Pittsburgh area, Andrew loved Ultimate, so we thought this would be a perfect fit for all of us.

We have 2 daughters, one  was enrolled at Point Park University and the other was enrolled at Duquesne Pharmacy school, so we already spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh. So the timing was great.

The model of ownership appealed to Amy and myself as the AUDL let each city run their franchise independently. Although the AUDL obviously sets the policies for the league, each team could then focus on branding.   For us that meant Pittsburgh pride, black and yellow, City of CHAMPIONS! How could we say no?

#7 Mark Fedorenko celebrates in 2016 after the Thunderbirds clinched a home playoff game.

LS: What has been the Thunderbirds approach in building the roster of players for the season? Have the league owners ever talked about holding a draft to help with the distribution of talent?

DTN: The Pittsburgh area gets 90% of its pool of players from the Universities and Club teams already established here in Pittsburgh.  We have had players from Ohio, for the University of Akron has a strong ultimate presence and the closest professional team for them is Pittsburgh.  Almost all of the other out of state players have had ties to Pittsburgh and or the players, but their current circumstances prevent them from living in Pittsburgh.   

As for the draft, this has been discussed several times at ownership meetings. The AUDL wants the best of the best playing in our league regardless of geography or cultural background or gender. The challenge for our sport at the professional level is that all of the players must work to support themselves. The teams cannot afford to pay the players very much, let alone a living wage. So players and coaches often go where their careers take them. 

We are proud that our sport involves a huge percentage of college graduates. Unfortunately this does lead to some migration of talented players. The AUDL recognizes that as the competition grows we need to be watching how parity in our league can be sustained. If you look at the AUDL champions, there has only been one two-time champion so we do see some much appreciated diversity of talent and success from year to year. I do believe at some point a draft-like mechanism will be in order for the AUDL but at this time it seems impractical.

LS: Max Sheppard was Pittsburgh's representative to the inaugural AUDL All-Star Game two weeks ago in Madison, Wisconsin and he came away with the MVP Award. Could we see this event come here in the future?

DTN: We are so proud of Max Sheppard! He has been a great member of the T-birds team! He proved just how much talent we have here in town.  He was surrounded by the best talent in the entire world of Ultimate and was magnificent! By the way, it is interesting to note, the AUDL is growing in recognition in Japan. Max now has a following and name recognition in Japan! How cool is that? 

Max Sheppard representing the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds in the first ever AUDL All-Star game​

We are open to hosting an All-Star Game here in Pittsburgh or perhaps even an AUDL Championship weekend in the future. It depends a lot on our local fan base and having the right venue, resources here in Pittsburgh to make it happen. We feel Pittsburgh checks all those boxes. We have had great encouragement from Mayor Peduto as well. He would like to see us grow and become a part of the great sports history here in Pittsburgh. Lets keep our fingers crossed that we can make that happen in the near future!

LS: The league is at 21 teams and playing a 12 game regular season schedule. Has there been any talk about either increasing the number of squads or contests?

DTN: The AUDL went thru a rapid growth phase over the last couple of years. That has been great, however, in reality as a young professional sport, it is challenging for each franchise to have the financial support that can last, and a management team that it takes to put this sport in a great spotlight.

#8 Thomas Edmonds boxes out his Minnesota WindChill defender for the score in a victory on May 25th, 2019 at JC Stone Field

Many cities and owners have the love and the heart to want to make it happen but in the real world money somehow always gets in the way. This has lead to the AUDL being a bit more cautious about growth recently. There are target cities the AUDL is actively trying to recruit ownership in, Boston is on their radar for it is already has a very strong ultimate community. The AUDL is trying to find that right balance that is fiscally responsible and makes for exciting Ultimate!

LS: The sports landscape across the Pittsburgh area continues to change. How do you measure the success of ultimate disc and the Thunderbirds in this crowded marketplace? What is the next step the T-birds can take?

DTN: The AUDL is such a young league. Although club ultimate has been around for over 25 years, professional ultimate is only 8 years old. We have taken the long term approach of trying to reach out to not just those in Pittsburgh that know the sport but to those who might find it fun to watch and experience something new. In that regard, we have moved our home field around the city almost each year to expose as many communities as we can to the AUDL. We have made it part of our mission to reach out to the youth in our city to let young fans experience the sport of Ultimate. 

JC Stone Field the home venue of the 2019 Pittsburgh Thunderbirds, located in Allison Park, Pennsylvania (North Park)

Our players and staff are eager to run clinics and after games greet our fans to show their sincere appreciation for their support. However, this is a process that takes years to develop. We measure our success not just by attendance, but by social recognition in a social media age, sponsorship support, local recognition on sports media, expansion of ultimate to a varsity sport in all high schools and colleges, youth development, etc. We are fortunate to have  wonderful foundation for this sport here in Pittsburgh: The Community of Pittsburgh Ultimate/CPU and the college level of talent (the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University). Their success and networking support was already established and we were happy to add another level of the sport for players and fans.

In reality, our next step is to find our home so to speak, where fans can recognize and identify with our team and sport. Everyone in Pittsburgh knows where Heinz Field is, where PNC Park is.  And they know who plays there and what sport it is. That recognition is what is the next big step for the AUDL in Pittsburgh. We have spoken to the city about this and they are eager to help. So we will keep working at it and with dedication from the great sports Pittsburgh community and entire T-Birds organization we hope to make it a reality!

Ultimate Clipboard: Get your tickets for this week's exciting showdown with the Madison Radicals online at the Pittsburgh website. 

If you are unable to get to the North Park complex this Saturday, the next best way to follow the Black and Gold is to catch the voice of the Thunderbirds, Matt Weiss, as he broadcasts all home games on AUDL.TV (subscription service).