Where MLQ Went Wrong in 2016

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By Andy Marmer

“Major League Quidditch” wants everyone to know that it is putting forward professional quidditch, and by and large it has the world convinced. A wildly successful #16for16 campaign started the year, where, to much fanfare, MLQ announced that it would expand from eight teams concentrated primarily along the Northeast Corridor and Rust Belt, in addition to the Canadian capital of Ottawa, to a league with teams extending from Boston to Los Angeles. From there, MLQ made all the right moves from a marketing standpoint: partnering with organizations such as Savage Apparel and Peterson’s BroomSticks throughout the season; generating great press for quidditch through well-written articles that took the sport seriously, such as this profile in Boston Magazine; a partnership with NowThis to stream to a huge Facebook audience; recently writing a Buzzfeed post celebrating the championship; and bringing in high-profile, experienced volunteers trusted by the quidditch community. Yet, the sad truth of the matter is that this season of MLQ has been very disappointing.

One of the photos from Ottawa vs. Boston that was featured in Boston Magazine | Photo Credit: Ben Holland Photography

In 2015, despite what revisionist history will have you believe, there was legitimate intrigue before the season as to who the best team would be. Some commentators expected eventual North Division champions the Indianapolis Intensity to finish dead last, while the eventual MLQ Championship winners Boston Night Riders were not the heavy favorites many remember them to be. What resulted was a mostly interesting season with 16 of 36 games (44 percent) in snitch range, and a dominant but deserving champion that was pushed to the limit in two snitch-range championship games.

This year, the contests have been less interesting. Just 27 of 72 (38 percent) of games have been in snitch range, yet three of the four first place teams have combined to go 26-1 (1-1 in snitch range). What this has meant is a league largely devoid of drama. The teams atop three of the four divisions have handily disposed of their rivals, playing just two out of 27 games in snitch range (7 percent) and losing just once. It is worth noting that the North Division has again produced excellent games (14 out of 18 in snitch range) and some real drama. Yet the sad truth is that three of the four division champions were seemingly preordained, and nothing happened this season to disrupt this May coronation.

The previous paragraphs used 72 games as a baseline; however, this may be misleading, as only 66 were actually played due to the Phoenix Sol forfeiting two of its series. While the Phoenix team ran into numerous roster issues, it is perhaps worth noting that the average high temperature in July in Phoenix is 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius). The league must undoubtedly have been aware of the difficulties of playing outdoor sports in the summer in Phoenix — they literally named the team Sol — yet the Phoenix Sol exist.

While it seems illogical to have a team in Phoenix, MLQ’s commitment to expansion forced it into the market. After a successful season in the Northeast and Great Lakes, with quidditch players nationwide clamoring for more competitive quidditch opportunities, the two expansion markets for a league wanting to be professional, and feature the best quidditch possible, were always obvious — the USQ Southwest, specifically Texas, and the USQ West, specifically California. From there, it wasn’t hard to infer possible markets for teams by looking at the concentration of USQ teams: Austin, Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Kansas City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix. The MLQ model relies on having four teams close to one another so that teams can play three weekend series throughout the summer without overly-extensive travel and overly-high expenses. In the Southwest there may have been some flexibility; in the West, unless you put two teams in a market, there was not. In the 2015 season, the furthest drive from one team to another was 14 hours (Boston to Indianapolis) and the furthest intra-division drive was nine hours (Ottawa to Washington and Indianapolis to Rochester). In 2016, Phoenix and San Francisco are 11 hours apart, and Salt Lake City is at a minimum 10 hours from any other team. Meanwhile in the South, Kansas City is 10 hours from Austin, 12 hours from League City, and 13 hours from New Orleans, while New Orleans is eight hours from Austin. This increased distance has a number of effects. From an obvious standpoint, it increases the cost of MLQ participation both in terms of time and money. Less obviously, it increases the strain on volunteers, particularly in areas devoid of experienced referees, snitches, photographers, and the like. Players get an obvious benefit to the league through a competitive experience against top players — referees, snitches, and others in support may receive compensation, for which MLQ should be commended, but certainly not an amount needed to compensate them for the high costs of travel and work they put in.

MLQ volunteers at last year’s championship in Ohio | Photo Credit: Jessica Jiamin Lang Photography

In addition to expansion, MLQ took on ambitious projects such as fantasy quidditch and decided to keep up initiatives from past years such as stat collection, livestreaming, and media outreach. MLQ’s desire to do all of these things is very understandable, especially given its status as a league that is relying on talented volunteers who might not have otherwise been involved. Yet the result is a somewhat buggy fantasy interface, livestreams of various quality and reliability, and stats that are woefully outdated. One is forced to wonder if MLQ had half the number of teams whether their resources would have been stretched so thin. Half the number of teams means half the number of games to cover, and if they had kept the original franchises, players, volunteers, referees, and fans would have had significantly less distance to cover.

Recently, MLQ announced that two teams, Rochester and Ottawa — one team with a 7-2 record featuring many players coming off of a USQ Cup 9 finals run, and the other Canada’s lone representative, with several players from that country’s national champion — would be unable to attend the MLQ Championship in League City, Texas. Before we go further into the implications of this, let’s take a minute to appreciate that MLQ decided to play its championship in Texas in August. I haven’t seen details of what League City is providing, but I’m sure City Council member and League City Legends manager Hank Dugie helped facilitate a great bid package (and good for MLQ for leveraging a connection to get a good bid). I am, however, left to wonder who thought it was a good idea to hold one of the sport’s premier tournaments in a city that very few people could find on a map, which is fine, and that has average August high temperatures of 91 degrees Fahrenheit (33 Celsius), which is not fine. For those wondering, the forecast is 91 degrees with a 60 percent chance of rain for championship weekend.

If League City were MLQ’s only bid, that would be one thing, and the reality may be that the bid was so superior to others that it effectively was; however, at least publicly, MLQ had two other finalists. The two other finalists were San Diego (average August high temperature 77 degrees Fahrenheit) and Toledo, Ohio (average August high temperature 84 degrees Fahrenheit). San Diego would instantly be the biggest city in the US to host a quidditch tournament of this magnitude since New York hosted World Cup V, while Toledo rolled out the red carpet last year and helped facilitate a successful event. I’m sure that League City put together a great bid, but the health risks created by the weather seem unnecessary.

Let’s return to the fact that two teams just dropped. Although quidditch is still funded mainly by unpaid players who want to get on the field during whatever free time they have, MLQ bills itself as a professional sports organization, and professional sports organizations do not have teams drop from the championship. MLQ estimates that it should cost a person about $400 to attend the championship. The bulk of these costs are of course the flight, and while we’ve already quibbled with the location MLQ selected, it is worth noting that League City is an hour from a major airport. The bigger problem is the cost of playing MLQ. Most quidditch players are either college students or have very recently begun their careers. Many must work weekends. To attend a weekend series, one must drive typically around 12 hours in a weekend, if not more, and MLQ estimates that it costs approximately $500 to play for the season (more if you attend more road series, and more to the point, last year the average player spent roughly $750). This is undoubtedly a high barrier to entry, though clearly worthwhile for anyone who chooses. The league does attempt to find sponsors for some players, but this cost is still high. The bulk of league expenses are through travel to the championships, with 13 teams estimated to be flying; however, an easy way to reduce this cost would be to have a central location in a smaller league. In 2015, Toledo was within 12 hours of every team, which provided each the option to drive, but most teams don’t have that luxury with regards to League City.

Had MLQ chosen to stay small, it would have had more volunteers, been spread less thin, had lower expenses, and it also might even have increased parity by funneling players to teams (and possibly relaxing geographic requirements, since players could potentially play in only a few series and/or the championship without establishing residency in a city/geographic area). Even if MLQ were committed to expanding, it could have done so in a more geographically logical way. Cities that might have hosted teams without stretching the league so far could have included Philadelphia, Raleigh, Richmond, Toronto, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis/Kansas City, or even a second Boston team. That’s 16 teams without ruining the geographic integrity of the league.

The expansion is done, and almost certainly it is not going away. MLQ has done a great job marketing quidditch, but as the league enters its third season, it needs to work to improve internally. This means training more referees/snitches, raising more money for teams, lowering costs for players, and ensuring it has the resources to deliver on what it has promised: professional quality quidditch — not just in game play, but in all-around experience. All of this said, I and I’m sure many others are very much looking forward to seeing some extraordinary teams compete for the championship this weekend and to see where MLQ can go in the future.