On the weekend I had the opportunity to attend the first home game of the Toronto Rush at Varsity Stadium. With a large crowd of 2293 it was the largest crowd at a Professional Ultimate game and amongst the largest at an Ultimate game in recent memory. I have had the opportunity to reflect upon the event as well as speak to many in the community from novice players to veterans. Many of their thoughts are reflected below but they are ones that I share. I shall attempt to approach the event from three perspectives: an Ultimate player, a fan paying for entertainment, and an Ultimate player who’s a fan. Of the three categories I am in the latter but I do see the game from all three perspectives. There are both positives and negatives below and some are mundane but they’re worth mentioning because they play a big part in what’s happening next.
I arrived at the game about 20 minutes before 1900 (7pm) and found a few long lineups. The lines were not as long as I expected and The Rush had sent out plenty of information ahead of timing indicating that the lineups would be there. From all perspectives it was pleasant to see so many people and so many faces that I had not seen before. However, in line, I recognized almost everybody and that points to quite a bit of support from the local community bringing their friends and family to the event. I was fortunate that somebody pointed to a shorter lineup and that there were in fact 4 Will Call windows rather than just the two that most were lined up at. While the first day seemed to be quite busy it would be helpful to have somebody directing the crowds and in general giving me information so I can get to the stands sooner rather than later. The mood was generally excited and it was great to see the faces that I did recognize. Having stepped off of the touring pedal the last few years I don’t get to Toronto as much as I’d like to and it was good catching up with folks.
Once into the stands the game started fairly late, 30 minutes by my account (I sent a tweet to the Rush on that). Generally the crowd was boisterous but I saw more than a few people looking at their watches. Nonetheless, this isn’t an issue as opening day can result in delays. The sheer volume of people that entered after I did (and I was fairly close to game time) must have been massive as it went from ~500 folks to over 2000 in that short period. Not an issue aside from the crowd not kept up to date. Eventually Mark Lloyd appeared to give the go ahead and the opening ceremonies started with the team intros and national anthems. I certainly hope the singer that sang returns as she did a great job and the crowd appreciated it.
Speaking of Mark Lloyd, he had a beast of a game and demonstrated why he’s one of the best players in the world. I am very happy that not only did he hear me heckle (just once) but that he did acknowledge that he heard it to some degree. I had spoken to him a few weeks ago at the Rush Press Conference and he’d indicated that he wasn’t going to be at the game as Team Canada tryouts were happening this past weekend (congrats to Mark for making the team). As a player, fan, and a fan/player I was impressed that he was at the game. Watching him score the first point and bring the crowd to their feet I imagined that must have been one of the best moments in his life; Mark, I hope it was.
After the first few points it was obvious to many that it would be a lopsided game. In general the talent on The Rush draws from a pool where there isn’t competition from others and there’s also great talent in the region. Once Rush had a large lead the crowd started to drift and while there were some exciting plays it was disappointing. There is no doubt that Toronto is the best team in the AUDL (early prediction) and that there is likely to be little resistance in their march towards the championship. That makes for a boring season and that’s where my concern lies. I spoke with a number of young players in the row behind me and they all commented on the sloppy play. They questioned whether the hucks were being thrown simply to create excitement. As an Ultimate player I found the early game to be played well while the later stages were sloppy. As a fan I was confused by the lack of communication surrounding what the referees were calling. As a player/fan I understand and am being patient. I am being patient because I know that first outings are always tough. That the product being presented shall be refined. That everything I’ve said above and more was noted by the Rush management and they’ll be working on it.
There is no doubt that the product shall improve where the staff can make changes. The league shall also improve as the teams understands the atmosphere and fields they’ll be playing on (for instance, the Varsity field is very slippery, turf shoes?). However, will the other teams provide enough competition? Nothing but the best is expected from players each game and there will continue to be lopsided victories. That is perhaps the most pressing issue in my mind and the minds of many. The three perspectives I note above are the three audiences that Toronto needs in order to survive. The Ultimate player itches for excitement but a technically good game. The fan looks for excitement and heroics. I am looking for both.
The team also needs to survive because it’s good for Ultimate in Toronto. TUC was represented at the kick off conference and Jason (TUC GM) stated that anything that helps promote Ultimate helps them. The best way to grow the sport is through visibility and it must be through large events like we saw on Saturday with large crowds that draw more to the sport. By having regular high level games that kids can attend you encourage them to play throughout the week as they want to soar, layout, and huck. We should be confined to parks and fields on weekends where we are watched in passing but rather in the downtown core of one of the largest cities. The Rush is an important part of the fabric of the community even just one game in and their importance cannot and should not be underestimated.
So despite all of the flaws that I have noted and all of the ones that I missed I shall return to watch more games. Partially because I love the game and supporting it, partially because I have always looked to help fund (with what I can) players and friends, partially because I want to see my friends play, but mostly because if I don’t then I am admitting that Ultimate isn’t worth watching. If I’m not there in the seats watching, cheering, heckling, and applauding then how can I expect that of anybody else? Without us being filling the stands it’s just another game of Ultimate being played on a field with strangers glancing over in passing.
So despite the two hour drive (each way), rain or shine, I’ll do my best to be there. Except Gender Blender weekend; you folks pooched the schedule there.