It has recently been announced that the newly formed United States Lacrosse League (USLL) is set to get off the ground in the fall of 2014, and information on the first franchise for the new league, the Maine Moose Trax, has also been released. From the absolutely glowing media coverage so far, things are looking really rosy for the USLL… but is the picture really so bright for this new American box lacrosse league?
You’ve heard all the fluff, and more than enough of the good stuff on this site and others, so let’s take a deep look at some of the potential roadblocks to success, and see if they have any legs… (Editor’s Note: small portions of the story have been updated as new information comes to light)
My concerns start with little things, like when the USLL said that the Maine franchise had secured the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, ME for home games, when in fact, they had not quite done so. That looked a little weird to me, especially when such a basic fact was missed in a big press release meant to spur the league forward. Even the Maine team owner said the statement was premature. It’s a small red flag, but it’s a red flag nonetheless and definitely got me thinking about the league’s future a bit more.
It was tempting to get on board immediately, as others did, simply because I was excited when I heard the news. But after the failure of the NALL and PLL, it also seemed prudent to show some restraint. I didn’t want to be blinded by optimism, and when I looked closer I did see some cause for concern.
When we get to the USLL’s overall timeline I see some potentially bigger problems. In September of 2014, they want to play regular season games. They just announced their first team this past week, which means that over the next 9 months they are going to announce at least 5-7 more teams, set logos, find coaches, release a full schedule, create an All-Star event, plan a Championship Weekend, line up sponsors, seal arena deals, get uniforms, secure financing, find local partners, get the word out to potential fans, sign players, hold final tryouts, hold a draft… the list literally goes on and on.
Nine months seems REALLY tight for all this to happen with a 3-man operation running things out of the league office. I’m not saying it’s impossible by any means, but it will take a highly coordinated effort to make it happen. I asked Anthony Chase, the USLL Commissioner, about this tight timeline, and this was his response:
We have been working on this for several months and have a full 9 months before the season starts. We will be more than ready to go.
Chase says they have been working on the USLL for several months, so maybe we can knock the timeline concern off the list, but a number of the items on my above list simply can not be done yet, so there is definitely a lot of work left. I bring the timeline issue up because when both the PLL and NALL launched, it was clear that preparation periods had not been long enough, and the leagues suffered for it, as some teams were simply not read to go, lacked sponsors, or had no home floor locked up.
Timelines are a concern. They always are. But if a league has good leadership, they can be managed. Guess where we’re going next…
As I noted above, Anthony Chase has been named commissioner of the USLL. Immediately after that, it should be noted that Chase owned the NALL’s Kentucky Stickhorses, and was one of the founders of the North American Lacrosse League (NALL). His reputation with fans and most players is strong, and he put on a great show in Kentucky for two years before suspending team operations when the NALL folded. Our own Mark Donahue was a ref at one of the Kentucky homes games and had this to say about the experience:
In my personal opinion, Anthony Chase is a great guy. I’ve seen first hand all of the things he did well for Kentucky and he was highly concerened with making sure the fans, refs, coaches, and players were all taken care of. He also understood that pro sports are more than just the game so that’s why he had cheerleaders, a mascot, a fan zone, and a great announcer. They executed professionalism the best they could in a start up league. He even came down and introduced himself to me when I reffed the Stickhorses and asked if there was anything I needed.
They hyped their black vs. yellow scrimmage, which was free to the public, which means they put money into advertising, they didn’t charge admission, and had little merchandise at the time. I see that as a commitment to the community as well as the right way to hype your upcoming season. Get people in the doors for free first then keep them coming back because they got hooked.
Former PLL and NALL players I spoke to mirrored Mark’s assessment of Tony for the most part, and all remarked how he has a good head on his shoulders, makes sound decisions, and can do good things for American box lacrosse. Outside of Kentucky’s direct operations, Chase was labeled as a staunch supporter of Anthony Caruso, the NALL’s legal counsel and eventual commissioner, during the NALL/PLL fallout.
Now the failure of the NALL is not necessarily a knock on Anthony Chase in his new role, as he may be able to efficiently govern a league, but it’s definitely an issue worth raising. At the end of the day, Chase supported a commissioner who could not effectively manage the league, but he showed a strong ability to manage his own franchise and invest in it. I would tend to judge him on what he directly controlled, and that was the somewhat successful Stickhorses franchise.
I really like that Chase stuck with it through the end, as that speaks to his dedication levels. He didn’t disband the Stickhorses when other teams dropped off, and it seems like his franchise may continue to live on, and could join the USLL. However, I also see that Chase was involved with the original NALL from the start, before it split into the NALL and PLL, and as one of the founders, he couldn’t help keep that initial group together.
It must again be stated that Anthony Chase obviously doesn’t bear all the responsibility for the split, or even the lion’s share of the blame, but honestly, it’s a small black mark on his record as someone who wants to lead a start-up league. It could be a positive thing if he learned from that previous experience, but when you look at the the fact that the Commissioner of the USLL (Chase) could also be a team owner (Chase owns the Stickhorses, remember?), I tend to grow more concerned, instead of less. It can be hard to be a referee or moderator when you have a man directly in the fight. That being said, Chase has also stated that if Kentucky comes back, he will not be an owner.
So perhaps I’m being unfair, and judging the USLL on one man’s limited front office involvement in the failed NALL. So let’s look at the rest of the USLL leadership, and see if there are any notable red flags or issues.
The USLL Founder and Chairman is Nick Desrosiers. Desrosiers is the Managing Partner and President of DC Sports & Entertainment, located in NYC. Nick’s listed accomplishments on the page include being the Chairman of the PLL, and being on the Advisory Board of the United State Football League’s second edition, which ran for about three years, saw some limited success, and then succumbed to financial problems.
Another of Desrosiers’ touted sports ventures has been baseball’s independent Northern League. Desrosiers’ DC group acquired the league and set a date of Summer 2014 to commence play. The NL had previously stopped operations in 2010 when it merged with another league, which then proceeded to fold in 2012. The Northern League’s website saw a flurry of announcements in May, June, and August, right around the time of acquisition, but there has been no update beyond that.
In fact, it looks like the Northern League’s premier new team in Iowa may never get off the ground. The Elkhart (Indiana) Miracle is the only official team in the league (and they don’t even show up on the League’s website), and while they held a groundbreaking at the stadium site, the team did not own the land at the time. It’s kind of similar to the Maine Moose Trax situation where things are announced before they are actually finalized. I found no updates to the Elkhart situation since early July, nor has the league made any publicized moves that I could find.
Desrosiers is the Chairman of the Long Beach Splash, an unaffiliated baseball team in California. The team planned on playing in 2013, but still doesn’t have a basic website, and the league they were going to play in now says it only has teams in Arizona and New Mexico. Oh, and if they did join that league, it is in dire straits financially.
From what I can find online, the above represents the vast majority of Desrosiers’ history in owning and operating pro sports franchises and leagues. In fact, they are used heavily in his USLL bio as points of strength. Add in the fact that Desrosiers was involved in one of the short-lived New Jersey teams in the early days of the PLL/NALL and his involvement in the league as Chairman starts to raise some serious red flags. Perhaps these ventures will prove successful but right now I don’t see a strong track record of success. Maybe that will change.
The sole member of the USLL Advisory Board officially listed online is Ted Glynn. Glynn has a solid reputation in the lacrosse world, and represents Northern New Jersey’s US Lacrosse Chapter as a member of their Board of Directors. Glynn was also the GM of the Reading Rockets in the NALL/PLL, which experienced some problems of its own, but players spoke highly of him. I obviously can’t blame Glynn alone for the failings of the leagues or the split, but at the same time, if the same problems that came up last time surface again, why would this play out any differently when almost all the same people are involved in leadership or ownership positions?
I posed sent some questions to Anthony Chase, specifically focusing on why the USLL would be different from the NALL or PLL and here was his response:
I was never involved in the PLL but was instrumental in the NALL. The main differences are that the teams are better vetted for financial stability, fall play will allow NLL players to play if they desire, and the league office will be more active in assisting teams with operations, ticket sales, and sponsorship sales.
I’d hate to see the USLL take the same path as the NALL, but from a leadership perspective and the answers above, it’s difficult to see this pro league turning out in another fashion. It’s a lot of the same people at the top, and none of the proposed changes are all that groundbreaking or new. And not to knock the Maine franchise specifically, but I fail to see how they are better positioned for financial stability than last year’s NALL teams. Maine could be the next Boston, or it could be the next Jacksonville, but how is this franchise truly different? If teams like the Vermont Voyageurs or Syracuse Stingers join I could see that statement being true.
Lots of interesting stuff said in this conversation…
As for the NLL players playing in the USLL point, that seems highly unlikely right now. I asked the NLL if this was possible, and according to their response, it doesn’t look like it could happen as things currently stand:
Players under contract to NLL clubs would be prohibited from playing in any other league which overlaps with NLL training camps.
This season, many NLL training camps opened on November 16th, which would be in the middle of the USLL’s proposed regular season.
The Legacy of the NALL
Good money was laid out by owners, sponsors, and sometimes even players, while league officials got paid. The end result was a messy league, and it was not good for the game, or for future growth. It created a new level of mistrust in US box lacrosse in general from fans to the media to the players themselves. The consolation championship game was a good effort, but way the league folded right towards the end made our sport look like amateur hour, which is a shame because so many people poured their time, blood, sweat, tears, and money into it. Many of the guys with NALL experience that I spoke with were interested in the USLL, but also quite wary, precisely because of what happened in the NALL and PLL. Their willingness to travel long distances was severely impacted, but some had still registered with the USLL as free agents.
The Potential For Anything
I think Anthony Chase has potential to do real good with the USLL, and Ted Glynn seems to know a thing or two about keeping players happy and being up front with people involved. I’m curious to see who else emerges in leadership positions, but the USLL Chairman, Nicholas Desrosiers (of DC Sports and Entertainment), does give me some cause for concern. Desrosiers (or his company) has now started, purchased, or chaired four pro teams or leagues and made big public announcements for each of them, and yet none of them have been truly successful so far.
The leagues and teams could start up, and see success, but the only one to play a season (or most of a season) is the NALL (where Desrosiers was not the Chairman), and they too were financially insolvent by the end of their first regular season, with two teams dropping out before the regular season games ended. It’s clear that running a successful league like this requires a hands-on, 24-7 approach, and with so many responsibilities as the Chairman of multiple organizations, I find it hard to believe that he has the time.
Tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars are being laid out by owners, and players will be putting in a HUGE effort, so it’s fair to expect the team in the league office to be working around the clock. Individual team fees and costs approached $200,000 or more (as I have heard from numerous reliable sources) in the NALL. That is a lot of money to be laying out to a potentially absentee leader.
I would allow Desrosiers to respond, but he never replied to my emails (Chase was very helpful however, and Desrosiers responded after this article was published).
My other line of questioning centered on why the NALL wasn’t just making a comeback with new investors and teams. What is in this new name, if the set up is more or less the same? Chase did his best to answer this question for me as well:
I was involved in the NALL and given the legal matters that it endured, it made no sense to get team owners involved who had no “dog in the fight.” Nick is the primary founder of the USLL and chose its name and later involved me in its development. So, the two have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
While I can get on board with the first portion of that statement on some levels, the last sentence just doesn’t ring true for me. The two leagues have a LOT to do with each other, even if they are separate on paper: Some of the same teams are projected to join up, the league’s front office is very similar, players will be coming from a similar pool of talent, and the length of the regular season is also similar in length and structure. The league has moved to the Fall but that alone doesn’t make the USLL totally new.
I am also confused as to how why the NALL name couldn’t be used again if the legal matter has been settled, which it seemingly has been. Desrosiers was the PLL Chairman, and Chase was an NALL owner, camped on two different sides of the case, and yet they are working together on the USLL. Why would this be an issue for future owners? Isn’t the legal matter settled?
As someone who cares deeply about the health of lacrosse these questions and more literally keep me up at night. The USLL will not just magically happen. Something like this needs to be done right, with attention to detail, sufficient financial backing, and leaders who are prepared to give it all to make it work.
The Bottom Line
There is no more room for error or financial problems this time around. There is no more room for screwing over hard-working players, fully invested owners, and dedicated fans with half-finished seasons. For this to work, it will require a serious monetary investment from the front office (instead of them getting paid as they planning on doing now), and can not be viewed as an immediate money maker for the guys at the top. Desrosiers, Chase, and others need to be watched like a hawk by fans, players, and even other owners. They need to be held accountable for what they are doing within our sport, and for the money they are extracting from our community. They need to feel the pressure to succeed, like they’ve never felt before.
Failure is ok sometimes, and it happens to many people who go on to see success, but continued failure using the same techniques should not be supported, especially when it costs hundreds of thousands of lacrosse dollars. If the USLL does not work out, it would be the third pro box lacrosse league failure for members of this group in only 4 years, and it should really serve as the final strike for their leadership.
If the USLL fails it also means anyone who tries to pitch investors on an American pro box lacrosse team will get laughed out of the boardroom for at least a solid decade. Any investor worth his salt would agree. So if you want to see box lacrosse grow, you better hope these guys are doing it right. It’s a heavy and at times thankless burden to carry, but these guys should know exactly what is on the line here. And so should you.
I wish the USLL the best of luck, and I truly hope the league takes off and does well. I really do. I would love to see another opportunity for lacrosse players to be paid to play the game we all love. I’d love to see fans cheering, and going to affordable pro sports games. I’d love to see kids playing mini box in the parking lots of arenas. I think it would all be great.
I am staying optimistic, and hoping for the best. But I am also keeping an eye on history, and learning from mistakes, as I hope the USLL will do. No matter what happens I’ll be keeping a close eye on the situation. I hope you do too. It’s the least we can do for a sport that means the world to us all.