It’s Grim Up North

Dale Walker gives us his opinions on the state of Ultimate with respect to the UK’s geography; particularly the North vs the South. 

Over the past few months, I’ve seen a number of Ultimate-centric blogs come out onto market. Something struck me about all of them – none of them really provided a true opinion piece about a particular topic, concept or something wider spread than personal fitness notes or musings about a particular team’s performance. I can’t say I’ve read them all, but having been an avid reader of some of the commentaries by SkyD writers (Lou Burruss & Ben Van Heuvelen spring to mind) over the past few years there’s definitely been a lack of true content for the British reader.

With this in mind, and having attempted my own commentaries a few years back, I wanted to write a piece about not only one of the issues in British Ultimate but something that reflects upon the wider workings of the 21st Century United Kingdom – the North/South divide.

I have been playing Ultimate since 2004 and never really felt the need to venture further South than the M60 to fill my competitive and social fix for Ultimate. The career path I wanted could be undertaken anywhere in the UK, and I am not so dedicated a player that I felt the need to relocate to get my fix (appreciating the vibrant London scene). However, naturally Ultimate careers have always been tied into people’s career paths and I would be hard pressed to name players who haven’t taken a step forwards in their professional career out of loyalty to their Ultimate team. My favourite examples of this are some of the leading US players of the past 15 years – Seth Wiggins and Ron Kubalanza – who seemingly have played for more teams than I can make reference to (including but not limited to Sockeye, JAM, Furious, DoG, Rhino, Revolver) through what I can only assume is closely tied to their chosen careers.

When I first attended Tour events circa 2006, I distinctly remember a Tour final in Bristol being fought out between LLLeeds and Clapham back in the days when LLL could boast Christian “Wigsy” Nistri, Steve Vaughan, Jamie Cross, Rik Shipley and Rich Hims amongst others. In it’s heyday, that was some team – Fire if I recall had just come onto the scene and Chevron were still in a phase of playing with exclusively their mates (which perhaps came to an end at roughly the same time) so LLL were the main competition to Clapham. If you take a look at that year’s Tour results overall, you’ll see that the A Tour featured LLL, Chevron & Sheffield Steal in what was a period of relatively rude health for Ultimate in the North.
Prof. Dorling, University of Sheffield’s UK divide.
Courtesy of BBC News.

How times change. Whilst Chevron have gone from strength to strength continuing the club’s principle of taking the best talent from the Junior ranks and developing them into stars (having at one point in 2006 featured as “low” as eighth), LLL were relegated to B Tour at Tour 2 in 2012 and didn’t come back up, eventually ending the season at Regionals having been knocked out by Vision in sudden death in the game-to-go. Sheffield Steal ended the season ranked tied 56th with Jest Ridisculous 2. Below you’ll see the rankings of teams from the 2012 Tour season based in Northern England, and how their rankings have changed since 2006 (if applicable):

Chevron (Manchester/Bristol) – 2nd (+3)
ManUP (Manchester) – 21st (N/A)
Vision (Liverpool) – 29th (-3)
LLL (Leeds) – 14th (-10)
Gravity (Bangor) – 22nd (N/A)
The Brown (Newcastle – 19th (+19)
Sheffield Steal (Sheffield) – 56th (-41)
York Open (York) – 32nd (+4)

So what conclusions can you draw from this? Chevron have always been perennial contenders for the top table, and beyond that the rest have been heavily dependent on what talent stays in the area post graduation. I wouldn’t want to comment on the entirety of the decline of Leeds, but to go from a European power to struggling to get back into the Top 16 is a real shift in stature. Sheffield Steal, whilst not the same powerhouse, were an established club able to field two squads – to have dropped 41 spaces is remarkable. The Brown at the time were starting to establish themselves, and you can guarantee that every year the same faces turn out for them demonstrating a consistency of personnel.

On the other hand, you have team’s from the South East who make up the majority of the Top 16. Clapham, Fire, Kapow, Tooting, DED, Brighton – even Cambridge and Wessex (whilst not strictly South East) all featured at Nationals and high up in the Tour rankings:

Clapham – 1st (=)
Fire – 3rd (-1)
Kapow – 9th (N/A)
Tooting – 8th (N/A)
Cambridge (N/A)
DED – 4th (+4)
Brighton – 6th (=)
Wessex – 13th (N/A)

That’s 4 teams that didn’t exist 6 years ago all placing in the Top 16, and the 4 that did boasting an accumulative ranking difference of +4 places. Compare that to the North with 2 new teams and a difference of -28 places. Further to these 8 teams against each other, if you consider that Fire 2 ranked in the top 16 at Tour and Burro Electrico made Nationals, there’s an argument that even the depths of the SE would come out favourably against the best the North could offer.

Whilst compiling this information, I was intrigued to see how the numbers worked out after I had looked through the rankings and I was taken aback by the drop the North has suffered. Of course, there’s an exception to every rule (ManUP finished 11th at Nationals in 2012, beating Wessex & Burro Electrico along the way and pushing teams like Kapow and Devon hard) but you can quite clearly see that the regions are on different trajectories in terms of performance.

When people are making their first steps into their careers, there is no doubt that the most buoyant job market to be found at present is in London and the South East. I read recently that London as a geographic area has been out of recession since 2007, and the poor economic forecast for the UK comes from outside the M25. This naturally has a massive knock on effect to Ultimate’s amateur players. Of course, there are other programmes that do a great job being competitive at the top table whilst being outside Greater London (EMO & Fusion, for example) but it would be interesting to see how these teams would be affected if their stalwarts who have built their lives in their respective areas retired or moved on. Recent “graduates” of these teams are now some of the top players in the UK – examples include Tom Abrams (formerly of EMO, now of Clapham/GB World Games).

This makes for a stark contrast with the USAU Championships, where in the past 10 years we have seen winners from Seattle, Vancouver, two teams from San Francisco, Atlanta, Austin & Boston – compare this to the UK, where Clapham have won Nationals for over a decade.

Is this lack of diversity a hindrance? Is the spread of talent too heavy to one area? Coming off arguably GB’s best ever international performance with GB Open winning silver at WUGC 2012, the argument can be made that we’re in the best shape possible which is hard to disagree with. That said, the Open squad featured 14 players based in London/the South East (with all bar one playing for the afore mentioned teams). The final 2013 World Games Squad features 10 London based players, and upon initial invite to trials applicants were told to expect to train “like a club team in London” – even if I were at the level to be a serious applicant, would I commit 75% of my weekends to being in London?

Silver medallists at WUGC2012 with over half based in the South East

As long as Ultimate remains an amateur sport in the UK, this is unavoidable. No-one is tied to a contract (I’m infact interested to see what lengths the UKU would go to should someone mid-season decide to jump ship with the support of the beneficiaries), and if talent feels that they have the chance to win somewhere else unfortunately no-one can stop them.

 What the rest of the UK needs to do is open to debate, but to this writer the only course of action that could allow teams to remain competitive is to continue developing their programmes, work closely with the local universities/schools, and make sure that when players are making that next step in their lives that they know the region they’re moving to has a team that can support what they want out of Ultimate. 

How much of a deciding factor Ultimate is in people’s choices is questionable, but for those “floating voters” who are just too far for one team but maybe close enough for another (or infact feel their local team cannot provide their fix) the lure of London and the affluent SE Ultimate region might just sway their decision.

N.B. this article was written before Fog Lane Cup and University Nationals which saw some promising results from Northern teams – MCR Ultimate finishing 4th at Fog Lane & Manchester/Sheffield universities making Top 8 at BUCS Nationals respectively.

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4 thoughts on “It’s Grim Up North”

  1. Don't underestimate the fact that this may simply reflect the playing population. Especially considering how many players come from Uni backgrounds and the majority of jobs are in the South.

    We have this issue to an even bigger degree in Scotland!

  2. Good writeup. One note though is that USA ultimate doesn't really have the parity that you suggest across the country. With the exception of Chain Lightning and Doublewide one a piece, the UPA/USAU club championships have been won by west coast (or the same region in the case of Furious) teams since DoG won in 1999.

  3. Excellent article Dale, Really good read.

    In terms of Ultimate geography, Bristol could have an article like this on its own. The city has long been a place of great Ultimate history and and a thriving Ultimate scene but recent years have seen the open team struggle. Last year the team would have been unable to enter tour if it wasn't for pick-ups and aside from an appearance at nationals a couple of years ago (again with a team made up mostly of pick-ups) results have definitely been in the decline. The level of talent in the city is extremely high as can be seen from the recent mixed team performances and some of the individuals that live here. However the open team just cannot seem to get over the allure of other teams and every year sees a mass exodus of players, not necessarily to go live elsewhere but to continue their ultimate careers elsewhere. Living in the city currently there are several Chevron players, a large core of Devon players, some Cardiff players and a few that play for the big London clubs (Ka-pow have a strong Bristol influence this year with lots of mythago graduates). The “floating” players in the city are put off by the inconsistency and the uni players follow their peers off to other clubs. All this means that despite having the numbers and the talent Bristol Open looks set to have another attempt at a rebuilding/development year and trying to build a program to cope…

    There is a top National level Ultimate team in this city its just not Bristol right now…

    N.B. Just as a contrast the Nice Bristols women's team is the complete polar opposite… being the biggest team in the region by a long long way means not only doing they get regular commitment from the top talent inside the city but also have a strong pull of talent from around the area. Having already attended 2 european tournaments, and had trainings running for months attracting frankly ridiculous numbers they look set to try and go one better than last years massive achievements.

  4. Good read. Nice to learn a bit of history about the teams as well.

    Nice supplement by Paddy as well. Bristol fielded how many teams this year across divisions?

    Just going to throw my 2 pink cents in: We have players from as far West as Cardiff and East as Norwhich, as far North as Leeds and South as Southampton. JR whilst often dubbed a midlands team because of our more prominent Loughborough and Leicester players is truly without geographical base. I hear this is called a 'telephone team'. Don't suppose anyone could enlighten me on what this means? Is there a history of teams who don't train or have a base? It was interesting to learn that Chevron started out as just friends but whereas they started developing younger players we just pick up a few players per tour who used to play for other teams.

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