Win cash prizes!


money-briefcaseDid that title get your attention? I thought it might. Cash prizes are great, and we often can’t avoid checking out what it would take to win one.

But I strongly oppose cash prizes in Ultimate. I think they’re misguided, dangerous, short-sighted… and anathema to the spirit of the game. I understand the temptation, and I can’t blame anyone for wanting to play in a tournament with a cash prize attached, but we should try to consider what will happen in the longer term.

Ultimate works on the principle that we value our reputation. There is no punishment for cheating, and the only thing that we lose by cheating is respect – either self-respect or the respect of the community. But the only thing we gain by winning is respect – from the community or from ourselves – and so what would be the point of cheating to win?

We could all of us, if we wanted, win any game just by calling made-up fouls on every opposition point (though in practice that strategy might result in a fistfight rather than a win) and there’s nothing anyone could do to overrule us*. But our prize for winning – the respect of the community – has become worthless.

But cash prizes? Now that’s a whole new scenario. Cash is intrinsically valuable. It doesn’t matter where it came from or how you earned it; it doesn’t matter whether others believe you deserve it or not. It has inherent value. Lots of people are prepared to make themselves unpopular for cash.

And I’m not just talking about a team making a rational, conscious decision to cheat their way to a cash prize. It needn’t be so clear cut as that; the mere existence of that cash prize brings economics into the equation, even subconsciously, and undermines the social contract on which the game is based.

If an opponent calls you a cheat, and you’re able to wave a couple of hundred dollars under their nose in response, you probably find it very easy to rationalise your poor behaviour and maintain your self-image – not a cheat, but a smart, streetwise guy who made some cash at the expense of those moralistic chumps.

indfgumexSimilarly, if an opponent cheats you with no cash on the line, it’s hard enough to remind yourself that winning without respect is meaningless. But if his cheating steals money from you, isn’t it even harder? Wouldn’t you always join in, and stoop to his level, to prevent him cheating you of the prize? I think I would.

When the prizes get big enough, in a few year’s time, self-refereeing will be impossible. There may be some sham version of it where players are able to make some calls against themselves, as in cricket (or as in the pro leagues), but there must be rules in place to control that guy who’s three months behind on his mortgage payments and needs the cash. The basic concept that cheating can go unpunished, that we need only ‘play a let’ and get on with the game, cannot survive.

Perhaps observers will be enough to control things, but with serious cash on the line I guarantee that I personally would be pushing every boundary, contesting every call, diving when not fouled, and making the observer a referee in all but name. Self-refereeing cannot survive life-changing sums of money, in my opinion.

I’m not against prizes in Ultimate – but I believe strongly that wherever possible those prizes should be rooted firmly in the Ultimate community, and be dependent on maintaining reputation in order to have any worth.

For example, you might win $2,000 worth of Ultimate kit – but that only has value if you can take some pride in wearing it. If everyone knows you cheated to win it, it’s less attractive.

Similarly, a tournament might offer to pay your team’s air fare to come again next year – which could be a seriously valuable prize, but is only worth something if you’ll enjoy playing next year, if you enjoy being part of the Ultimate community.

Tournaments that offer cash prizes are in some small way making a statement about how the game should be played; that referees, or at least observers, are inevitable. That might be right of course – perhaps full self-refereeing cannot survive even without cash prizes as the sport grows.

If you believe in observers or referees, then of course there’s no real issue, and I’m not trying to tell you what to believe in that regard. But at some point someone will run a tournament under WFDF rules with a meaningful cash prize – and by choosing to play in such a tournament, you are inevitably taking sides in the officiation debate. If you don’t want to see external officiation then it will be worth thinking about your choices.

I have no issue with players being paid to play – I think that’s great. I’d love lots of people to make a living playing Ultimate. (I’d love it even more if some guys were sponsored by large companies on the basis of their excellent spirit – and the way it reflected on the brand – as well as their skill.)

But being paid to win? Not without referees.

*Technically, the Tournament Rules Group often has the power to intervene at major tournaments. However, this would not be a suitable solution if cheating was sufficiently widespread, as any decisions take place long after the incident. The TRG may prevent the really egregious cheat-on-every-throw option, but could not reasonably reverse the result for a few cynical fouls.
Meaningful cash prizes will provide an external incentive, not balanced by thoughts of reputation, to push the boundaries of cheating. Cheating already occurs, but even among the worst teams it’s still mediated by thoughts of reputation – there’s a limit beyond which such cheating is pointless. It could not fail to be worse if large intrinsically valuable prizes were on offer.
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5 Responses to Win cash prizes!

  1. DG says:

    Something I found interesting was a sports community I participated in before I began playing ultimate, which was paintball. Paintball is an expensive sport to play, making cash prizes attractive to teams attending tournaments, but it is also an incredibly difficult sport to referee, making cheating rampant in the early 2000s when its popularity peaked. I think that you are very correct in your observations, and I can say from having participated in such a sport that it is not a place we ever want to be.

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  2. Nadav says:

    I totally agree with this. It’s pretty much what I thought when I first heard the idea of cash prizes. I’m not clear about what the aim is of having such prizes. Is the idea that it will increase competitiveness, that it will make players train and play harder to have a better chance of winning the cash, and thus will generally push up the entertainment value of ultimate? If so, I see the logic, but it seems like most players are motivated enough as it is, especially the ones competing at the level where cash prizes would be on offer. The amount of work teams put in to try to win nationals, worlds and such, and they want to win for the sake of winning, to be the best – they could only really train more if they didn’t need to earn a living as well, it doesn’t seem like motivation is lacking.
    So the other reason could be just the general idea of getting paid to play, which I’m not necessarily against, but then why do only the winners get paid? Every team in the competition has played the same amount of games, potentially put in the same amount of work leading up to the tournament, spent the same amount of money getting there… in that case you could have something more egalitarian, and which would also stop cheating from being economical, eg all the teams playing nationals get an equal payment…but then you might have the same issue of money on the line in the games-to-go at regionals.
    As it is you see some dodgy calls at the highest level, in big, high-stakes games even though there’s no money involved, and if that increases then referees might be inevitable anyway (which would make me sad). But I’d bet that adding money into the equation would only make this worse. I’m not sure monification (if that’s a word?) of sport is ever a good thing – at the end of the day it’s just a game. A really fun, healthy, sociable game. I’m glad my knees will have given in before money takes over ultimate, I don’t think I would enjoy playing it as much.

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  3. I organize tournaments and leagues in the Philippines. I do not give any cash prizes out. Instead I waive their registration fees for next years event. It isn’t “cash” per se and I award it to the club and not it’s players, meaning players have to stick together to avail of the prize. We also give free reg to teams that gain the highest Spirit of the Game.

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  4. In a developing economy where people try as much as possible to save their money but at the same time have fun doing the things they love, this is inevitable in order for the sport to grow. As much as I agree to the fact that giving out money to winners is wrong for ultimate and will lead people to cheating, I believe that in order to help promote the growth of the sport in the community, one must try their best to help with lessening costs of playing the sport and that is why we give awards of “waiving reg fees” which is the same as giving “free uniforms” to individuals teams that win. We even started giving free reg fees as raffle prizes so that anyone can win and not just the best players.

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  5. Ralf says:

    Even if you won’t ever have cash prizes: Success will most likely always be more measurable than sportsmanship. The result will be that successful teams get bigger sponsors and more money.

    I don’t see easy ways to prevent that. Maybe if just a very small part of the community gets in touch with this, the rest will still be all about reputation and keeping good spirit and therefor encourage good spirit.

    If you grow up learning all the good values our sport teaches you are maybe less susceptible to cheating.

    The problem is that once it starts, it will just become worse. Cheating demands referees and having referees will somehow legitimize everything that isn’t called by the referees…

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