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February 9th, 2009

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10:34 pm - The Damned United
Young man! There are many things I want to do before I start writing a LJ entry about something new, but sometimes you just have to reorder your priorities and strike while the iron is hot.

Arguably the most interesting thing to happen in English-language sport today (Felipe Sco-who?) is the announcement of firm detail from the fledgling United Football League, an initially US-based competition in professional American Football. Skip the official site, though, and get all your information from UFL Access, a well-informed and very well-written fan site with a vibrant web forum. I'm not normally a big web forum person, but have enjoyed this one.

The inaugural "premiere season" of the UFL is rather smaller in scale than people were hoping. Initial plans for eight (or later six) franchises, each owned externally, have been put off until 2010, with the investors they have attracted concentrating their efforts on a short season with home-and-away fixtures between four teams and an eventual play-off. The official press release names the four teams as Las Vegas/Los Angeles, New York/Hartford, Orlando and San Francisco/Sacramento; it seems likely that the split-site teams will play two of their home matches in one location and a third in another. Adding further cities still is not impossible, though the number of 2009 teams shall be four. (Five is right out.) In 2010, there should - could? - be sufficient investment to revert to the original plans for external ownership, one city per franchise and so on.

I posted about the UFL three posts (and three months, sigh) ago. It continues to fascinate me mostly at the level of geeking out about sports organisation, plus new ventures are always fascinating, plus taking swings at the NFL is always admirably ambitious, even if this one turns out to be a swing and a miss. Whether the UFL makes it or not, it will resolve the question "Can you found and fund a sports organisation in the style of many 21st-century technology companies?" The people on board have significant Wall Street and Silicon Valley experience, plus there are enough smart cookies on the football side to avoid inauthenticity. Oh, and the leader of the new investment group is the husband of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the USA's House of Representatives.

The UFL faces many difficult challenges. While arguably the time to strike a new venture is now while so few of them are breaking ground, investment has been scarce and starting from a four-team basis will make the uphill struggle even longer, littered with corpses of other pro football ventures after the NFL extracted the juiciest parts. It should be a very entertaining ride, nevertheless, even if the web forum is as much of an attraction as the entity itself. (For much of late '07 and early '08, I was struggling and failing to write an article for here claiming that the proposed AAFL had hit written all over it and being negative about the UFL's chances...) The lead writer, Nation Hahn, is very good at what he does; probably the best starting-point is his two-part primer (part one, part two) of the UFL's first 21 months. His personal blog is fine, too.

Being sappy and egotistical, I wish him well at least in part because I recognise some of myself in him - or, more precisely, choose to project some of myself onto him. Let me tell you about my wonderful first job. I was a self-employed teleworking contractor working on the now virtually defunct web site of the Mind Sports Olympiad, and at the Mind Sports Olympiad events themselves. The concept was to establish an event, and a movement, that would do for mental sports like chess, bridge, poker, backgammon, go and so on what the Olympic Games does for physical ones. Compare with the more recent World Mind Sports Games. The Mind Sports Olympiad events in the UK are sputtering on annually, but have really been tailing off over the last few years; the smaller Cambridge events are rolling on and we have allies who do similar things, sometimes with our brand, in the Czech Republic and elsewhere.

The event was only a week or two per year, though. The vast majority of the upkeep of the web site pertained to the Mindzine, with news from all the aforementioned mental activities and anything else we could just about shoehorn in. We were very good at what we did, the team was lovely (I particularly happily enjoy remembering working with sir_gareth, amuzulo, godlovesevery1 and many others; ericklendl wrote a fine series for us once) and the work was fun. There were just two severe problems. One: surprisingly, painfully, unintuitively few people were interested in mind sports plural; there are more chess players or go players or poker players than generally-interested dilettantes who span the field. (I still don't want to believe this is necessarily correct.) Two: we didn't have a revenue stream.

This second problem was a rather severe one, and many investors ended up losing chunky sums that they had put into it. Many of the web site workers, myself firmly included, ended up not being paid for the last several months of work and there just wasn't anything left to sue. It was strange, it was irrational, it was built upon a big idea and it was pretty much the way things "worked" in the first .com bubble. Failures are useful feedback, though it's never clear whether a failure was due to an inherently bad idea or due to a bad execution of a potentially good idea. Having some self-employment experience on my CV probably didn't hurt me in terms of getting my later job, even though the transfer of skills was not an obvious one and nobody seemed particularly interested in the nature of self-employment.

And from here, it's not such a stretch to draw comparisons to the UFL. I dearly hope it makes it in a way that the MSO did not; it's a similar swing at a massive target, and there seem to be a lot of excellent talent, resources and good thinking behind it. Much as the MSO was a wonderful ride at the time, I have great confidence that the UFL will offer a fine ride, probably a much finer one, and think that UFL Access in particular will provide a grandstand seat from which to enjoy the ride.
Current Mood: optimisticoptimistic

(11 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:February 9th, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC)
I think the major difficulty that the UFL will face, aside from current economic woes and it's lack of a critical mass of teams, will be that they're putting themselves up as a David against a very serious pair of Goliaths; their season coincides with both NCAA and NFL football. I feel that they'd have a much better go of it if they positioned themselves as a winter-sports league, playing either in the South or in domed stadiums in March through May or so; go up against hockey and arena football, rather than the near-literal 500 lb gorilla of the NFL.

Of course, having so few teams will limit the league's appeal, and I get the suspicion that there won't be enough fan interest to sustain a second season, much less power expansion.

But I do wish them luck; I might even drive up to Orlando to catch a game.
[User Picture]
Date:February 10th, 2009 11:54 am (UTC)
Fair points, but they are working to mitigate this fact already.

1) They will deliberately seek not to go up quite against established football schedules, by virtue of playing mostly on Thursdays and Fridays, and Fridays only in locations where the Friday Night Lights of high school football do not shine particularly strongly.

2) The whole "split site teams" concept is a way to attract attention in seven markets with only four teams. It raises a lot of problems, but it may be worth a try. To what extent the - say - New York / Hartford Aardvarks can be considered the Hartford Aardvarks if they play only one game in Hartford and play the other two home games and all three road games under the New York Aardvarks banner remains to be seen.

Your "seeking to avoid the other football seasons" point is frequently made elsewhere and there's good sense to it; it's just a question of which tradition you want to crash up against.

But yes, please do go to an Orlando game and report back!
[User Picture]
Date:February 10th, 2009 12:38 pm (UTC)
I'll see what I can do -- I've already got a LOT of professional sports that I'll be going to this year; season tickets to the Firecats AF2 arena football -- and hopefully playoffs -- 3 Red Sox MLB spring training games -- and potentially more, when the Sox play the Twins, as both train in Fort Myers -- the occasional Everblades ECHL hockey game -- and hopefully playoffs -- and potentially some boxing (there's about 3 good boxing venues within a reasonable drive -- 100 miles -- from where I live).

Fortunately, the latest of these that I know of is an arena game on 7/25, and Orlando's UFL won't be playing until October.
[User Picture]
Date:February 10th, 2009 12:04 am (UTC)
Your posts may be rare but they are full of interest. I hope the UFL succeeds but I doubt that it can and I feel that four initial teams is below critical mass. Notwithstanding my scepticism, I will arbitrarily choose Las Vegas and see what happens come October.
[User Picture]
Date:February 10th, 2009 11:55 am (UTC)
Thank you! The whole split-site theme is an attempt to gain interest in seven markets even with only four teams. I'm not convinced that the benefits will outweigh the problems it throws up, but on a league partly predicated on "ehh, it's worth a go"... ehh, it's worth a go.
[User Picture]
Date:February 10th, 2009 10:31 am (UTC)
I still don't want to believe this is necessarily correct.

I think it's one of these cases where it matters a lot how you pose the question.

People who are good at a mindsport of some kind typically are the kinds of people who might enjoy quite a range of mindsports. However, they are also typically the kinds of people who like to do things well if they are going to do them at all. This is a problem, because people seldom have the free time required to practice multiple mindsports to the degree required to excel at them.

There are many ways to persuade someone to take up a particular mindsport. The game/activity itself can be intrinsically intriguing. The tournament scene might be hotly contested enough to offer considerable kudos for winning. There might be good prize support. However, with all mindsports typically competing for the same time slots in people's diaries I can see why it's rare for people to take a real interest in more than one or two.

The other related problem (he said, making his comment unnecessarily long) is grassroots play. Many (most?) secondary schools have Chess clubs. Far fewer have Bridge clubs. Almost none have Go clubs. And the more obscure things get, the less likely it is that a potential competitor will encounter them before university. This matters because for most people their free time starts to disappear rapidly from the age of 22 or so. The active mindsports community will only ever be small if it cannot effectively recruit below the age of 18.
[User Picture]
Date:February 10th, 2009 01:53 pm (UTC)
(+1, Insightful)

Several different issues here. The MSO always tried to incentivise people to play many tournaments and, to some extent, many different mind sports through the prestige of its overall "Pentamind" (i.e., best tournament results in five different mind sports, but inevitably gamed to all hell) and "Decamentathlon" (exam paper and practical in 10 different midn sports) competitions. They were moderately niche endeavours and didn't grow considerably over time, though the scene was very hotly contested by its adherents. From a web site point of view, at the time, we were more concerned with trying to get people who were interested in news from one mind sport interested in reading about a wider range of endeavours, whether they played it or not. Doing it through simply having lots of well-written, accessible articles on a wide variety of mind sports did not prove enough.

Your other point about tuition is right on the money; crossover mind sports play at the scholastic level is pretty damn rare. The only crossover mind sports club that I know of off-hand is the admirable Cambridge Junior Chess and Go Club, which plays other games as well, but a large part of the credit for this can go to one of the MSO's crossover stalwarts. The Middlesbrough Gamers Club plays tabletop war games, RPGs, trading card games and board games, and I'm fairly sure it's unusually cosmopolitan in this regard, but there weren't many people there who crossed over very widely in my day, and there wasn't a particular encouragement towards crossover.
[User Picture]
Date:February 10th, 2009 02:23 pm (UTC)
"Pentamind" and "Decamentathlon"

Aha - might have guessed you'd have come up with something along those lines!

They were moderately niche endeavours and didn't grow considerably over time, though the scene was very hotly contested by its adherents.

This is what I would expect. People with the right mix of skills already think it's the best thing ever (perhaps learning or polishing up a game or two in order to reach a high level). People without the skills already see an impossibly high barrier to entry.

the admirable Cambridge Junior Chess and Go Club

The word "Cambridge" appearing there somehow fails to surprise me.

Middlesbrough Gamers Club plays tabletop war games, RPGs, trading card games and board games

Although not all players of board games and TCGs play them in a way that I'd classify as Mind Sports!
[User Picture]
Date:March 17th, 2009 02:01 am (UTC)

Hello, sorry to intrude into your journal.

I´m writing my thesis about social networking sites and advertising.
One of my objectives is to describe what kind of people use sites like LiveJournal.

I randomly chose you because you commented on this LJ Biz post:


So, I was wondering if you could take this questionnaire:


and tell me what was your result.

It´s a test called VALS, which stands for Values, Attitudes and Life Styles, that´s used to do psychographic segmentation.

If you decide to help me, I´ll be really grateful.
If I´ve bothered you, I´m really sorry, I won´t do it again.
[User Picture]
Date:March 17th, 2009 07:52 am (UTC)
You've caught me in a good mood.


Your primary VALS type is Striver, and your secondary type is Thinker.

The primary VALS type represents your dominant approach to life. The secondary classification represents a particular emphasis you give to your dominant approach."
[User Picture]
Date:March 17th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)

Thank you for your help!

You are very kind! :D

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