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Brian Reese Colorado Mammoth Baltimore Bayhawks

Brian Reese: The Inside Scoop On The MLL

27 - Published April 26, 2011 by in Gear, Pro Lacrosse

Editor’s note: After reading the recent posts on LAS regarding the pro leagues, Brian Reese, former MLL player and current GM for the Denver Outlaws, decided it was time to set the record straight – but this time, from the inside.  Brian is employed and paid by the Outlaws, not the MLL, so if anyone can give us a knowledgeable look into how the MLL truly operates, it’s got to be him. This is a great article and it should really elevate the level of conversation surrounding this issue.  At the very least, it will give you a better appreciation for what an MLL team is going through!
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Let me start by giving a little bit of background of my experiences. I played professionally in both the MLL and NLL for 7 seasons (1999-2005). In 2006, I became GM of the Denver Outlaws expansion team and have been employed by the organization ever since. I have been on both sides of this discussion, first as a player, and now as a member of the Outlaws front office. My paychecks come from the Denver Outlaws. I do not work for the MLL league office, but do work with them along with the 5 other (soon to be 7) teams in the MLL. I wanted to make that clear so no one think that I am a corporate shill and just spouting the corporate talking points.

Brian Reese Colorado Mammoth Baltimore Bayhawks

Reese at practice with the Bayhawks before he was a GM in the MLL.

Photo courtesy e-lacrosse.com

The league currently consists of 6 different teams. Most decisions are made by a group, and not by one all-powerful dictator. Important items that impact the league are discussed among the group and then voted on by a Board of Managers that includes representatives from each team, as well as the league founders. There are many instances where teams do not agree with each other or with the league, but we do respect each other and understand the reasoning behind differing thoughts and opinions.

I have read the recent articles (and subsequent posts) by Ryan Powell, Lee Southren and Connor Wilson regarding ways to improve the MLL.  I think its GREAT that people involved with the sport are talking about the MLL and thinking of ways to make the league better. Not too long ago most of the chatter about the MLL was that the league would never get off the ground, or will never last another year.

But here we are 11 years later and the MLL is still around and not going anywhere. Is it perfect? No. Have mistakes been made in the past? Yes. But the league is growing and developing in a positive way. Players and employees of every league and corporation have a desire to make more money. It is human nature and not unique to the MLL. Just look at what is going on in the NFL and soon, the NBA. And those guys make A LOT more than lacrosse players. Still, there is a feeling that they need, and deserve, more.

None of what I say in this column is meant to be a slight to the folks who wrote these articles and provided these thoughts. I simply want to give my perspective from inside the MLL, address some of the ideas or concerns that people have brought up, and clarify why policies are in place. I understand that some might not like or agree with some of the rules and policies, but I hope they respect them and can see why they are in place. If you take one thing away from this article, let it be that the teams, and MLL, truly care about the players.

We have to balance the players’ best interests and the interests of the teams, and league, with every decision.  I can tell you that most people who sit around the table at the Board of Managers meetings were players at one time or another.  Not all were elite players, but the reason everyone is involved with the MLL is because they have a passion for the game of lacrosse.

Ryan Powell is one of the best to ever strap them up and is a true ambassador to the sport. We were fortunate to have him as part of our team in Denver for a year and he was a consummate professional. I have never crossed paths with Lee Southren, but I can see he is passionate about the sport, and committed to its growth. However, it appears he bases many of his opinions on the MLL from watching the New Jersey Pride, who haven’t been around in how many years? Regrettably, they were among the weakest performing teams in the MLL during that time. That would be the equivalent of me saying the movie industry is a failing venture when the only movies I have seen are Gigli and From Justin to Kelly.

No one in the pro lacrosse business is getting rich. Many involved are losing money on a yearly basis or have put in a lot of money to either buy a franchise or provide capital to start the league. The players, fans, and the vision of one day becoming as big as the NFL, are why the owners and investors continue to pump in resources. We want the players to be paid more and want to make this a full time job! Like everyone in this world, we can only live within our means.

We have focused on slow and steady growth and sound financial decisions to ensure that the league is around for a long time.  We could try to be something that we are not, pay players a lot and break the bank, but all that would do is guarantee that the league would go bankrupt quickly.  Get rich quick approaches rarely work.  And what is better in the long run? Making $25k for 2 years, and then having the well go dry?  OR making $10k for 6 years?  You net more with the long-term approach.  That is what players have to keep in mind.

The Denver Outlaws organization and staff work extremely hard every day to put more fans in the seats, sell more sponsorships and to make our MLL games the best investment for our fans’ discretionary dollars. I am sure the other teams in the MLL work just as hard. All of this hard work will hopefully help the players get to their goal of having lacrosse as their full time job in the near future.

The players need the teams/league and the teams/league need the players in order to be successful. Prior to the MLL, no one came to watch club lacrosse games regularly, even when the best players in the world were playing. Players need owners to take on the financial risk to own and operate teams. They need the organizations and league to market the games, sell tickets and promote what they are doing, and to get people to the stadium to watch them perform. Without them, we would be back to post-collegiate club ball, where no one came to watch and no one got paid. The talent level at those club games was pretty high but still, no one paid any attention to it.

Oh, and the players back in the club days wore whatever equipment manufacturer’s gear they wanted, but they weren’t getting paid for it.  Worth taking note.

The teams in the MLL need the players to perform on the field. It would be difficult to get fans to come watch an empty field at INVESCO Field at Mile High. This competition on the field, along with a great atmosphere will, hopefully, make fans want to keep coming back to games. In addition to the game itself, the teams try a lot of different ways to encourage fans to purchase tickets. Whether it’s adding post-game fireworks, a musical act, youth games or other entertainment, the goal is to draw more people to an MLL game.

The reality is that there needs to be more entertainment than just the action on the field.   MLL and college games need to be bigger events if we want attendance to increase past the usual 700-1000 fans you see at most college games. Many established lacrosse fans come for the game itself but many newer fans come because of the other things surrounding the game. Ryan Powell said in his article that when he played in front of 22,000 fans in Mile High Stadium on the 4th of July, he realized that the fans attend MLL games to watch the players. And I would have to disagree with him to an extent.

If fans are there solely because of the players, then why don’t all games have the same attendance figures? If the players are the same, the number of fans should be about the same, right?   I can tell you that the Outlaws put in more resources to get our July 4th crowds than any typical regular season game. A great Firework show was part of that July 4th game, extra marketing in newspapers and additional TV spots are put into promoting the event weeks in advance. A huge extra push is needed by the organization to get that many fans to a game. I wish it were as easy as turning the lights on and playing a game to draw a huge crowd but lacrosse just isn’t there yet. We all optimistically anticipate the days where that is no longer the case. Trust me, it would make things much easier and cheaper for the teams.

The bottom line is that we truly need each other to be successful.

A lot of the discussion in the previous articles has centered around player endorsement deals and the league wide sponsorship the MLL has with Warrior and Brine. An exclusive, league-wide deal is not uncommon in pro sports. It was stated in Ryan and Lee’s posts that this set up is the norm in pro sports. The NFL, MLB, NBA, MLS and NLL all have exclusive deals in one way or another.

Below are a few points I would like to make about the current situation/policies in the MLL:

Why has this become an MLL issue, and not a pro lacrosse, college lacrosse or International lacrosse issue?   I know that the NLL is an exclusive Reebok league, yet I never read or hear how they need to open it up to other sponsors to be successful.  Most NCAA schools have exclusive equipment suppliers, so where is the outrage?  US Lacrosse and Team Canada both had exclusive sponsors for their national teams.  If a Warrior sponsored school plays an STX sponsored school, does the attendance shoot up because multiple equipment manufactures are involved?  How has the equipment sponsor of a team, pro or college, affected attendance? It doesn’t!

Exclusivity is what all sponsors want to pay for. The MLL office sells league wide deals and those resources are what they use to operate the league, pay for player salaries, insurance, officials, and then still do all the other things they do. All sponsors, not just the lacrosse specific sponsors, are paying for exclusivity. Would it be great to have every equipment manufacturer, every sports retailer, every automobile company, and every shoe manufacturer involved in the league and helping market the MLL? Absolutely! Is it a reality? No. Those companies want that exclusivity and would not want to be involved if their competitors were getting the same things they were receiving. So a league is forced to choose one partner if they want significant sponsor dollars. Without exclusivity in the MLL, the sponsors would look to the next thing that they feel they could own. Again, you may not like it, but that the way it is.

Opening up a category would not necessarily bring in more sponsorship money overall. Let’s take the idea that players should be able to wear whatever manufacturer they want. And let’s just say that the current exclusive Official Equipment Supplier of the MLL (Warrior/Brine) pays $1 million to the MLL. If this category was opened up and players could wear whatever they wanted, that $1 million would go away, and the league and teams wouldn’t have enough revenue to operate.

Warrior/Brine would be crazy to keep paying that type of money when other companies are getting the same exposure that they get, more or less, for free. And for what?  A couple of guys maybe getting an extra $1,000 or so?  And would there be any guarantee that all of these other companies would just start handing out endorsements?  Remember, they have budgets too, and I seriously doubt that this opening gets them to start handing out endorsement money like candy. Or take another scenario where manufacturers paid $50,000 (which, to my knowledge, is about double what hockey manufacturers pay to the NHL) to either the players, or the league. How many manufacturers are there in lacrosse 6 or 7? That total dollar amount would not come close to the $1 million that an exclusive sponsor brings in. Plus, there is no guarantee that other companies would want to, or could afford to, pay that fee to the league. On top of that, only the very top players would benefit. While stars are important, role players are equally important to a team’s success on and off the field and they could easily get left behind.

The current structure of the MLL does not prohibit players from getting outside endorsements. In fact, you could say the opposite.  Just look at how many players are being endorsed by various equipment manufacturers. On the Denver Outlaws alone, Seibald is with Nike, Mundorf is with STX, Hardy is with Maverik, Langty was with Harrow, Schwartzman, Westervelt and Clausen are with Warrior, Eric Martin is with Gait and I may be missing some others. The exclusivity deal the MLL has is not preventing endorsements other than its league sponsors to happen.

Before the MLL came along, you could count the number of endorsed lacrosse players on 1 hand.

Are there more companies involved with lacrosse now? Sure.

Could it be that other companies are paying more now to keep up with MLL sponsors or is the exposure players get from playing in the MLL helping them get endorsements?  Probably.

Would another company like STX, Maverik, Nike etc. start paying endorsed athletes more just because they can use pictures of them wearing their MLL uniform? I doubt it.

I have also heard the argument that the MLL is prohibiting its players from playing in other professional field lacrosse events, and not allowing them to make more money.  But let’s look at it this way; many players in the MLL get endorsement deals from lacrosse companies. That pay usually isn’t enough to be a full-time job.  It’s probably less than what they make from playing in the MLL. Now let’s say Johnny ProLaxer is getting endorsed by Company X, an equipment manufacturer that isn’t a sponsor of the MLL, for $6,000 a year. Can Johnny then go out and get endorsement deals from other equipment manufacturers when he isn’t fulfilling his current sponsor obligation? Would Company X allow them to do that? They aren’t getting paid full time wages, right? And they have time to do it. Would that increase Johnny’s exposure to lacrosse and benefit Company X?  Company X would never allow that to happen.

Company X is paying Johnny for his exclusivity even if it’s not a ton of money and they want everyone to see Johnny wearing Company X’s gear.

Warrior does not “own” the MLL. This notion that the MLL is simply product placement for Warrior is ridiculous and insulting. I see first hand how hard both the front office and players work to be the best they can be. The players bust their tails and sacrifice a great deal to win Championships and help grow the sport. To downplay that effort by insinuating that they are just photo ops for Warrior is a slap in the face. Warrior/NB/Cacade/Brine/Sports Authority/Powerade and all of the sponsors are extremely important. As I said before the league could not survive without them. But remember, there have been other MLL sponsors that have come and gone.

Reebok, Under Armour, Tommy Hilfiger and Yahoo are just a couple sponsors that used to be involved in the league. They decided, for one reason or another, not to be involved with the MLL any longer. That is their prerogative and they are allowed to spend their money wherever they want. But let’s not criticize Warrior for being loyal. They could have ended their relationship with the MLL years ago but they see a benefit to the relationship. A company that is as successful as New Balance does not waste money. Everyone involved with our league should thank them for support, not question their motives behind it.

Like many people have said, the league is in no position to turn down money, so any and all potential partners that can help the business are seriously considered. Any company could call ESPN and purchase some commercial time. Do you really think ESPN would turn down ad revenue?  Side note: Has anyone ever considered that maybe there are no other equipment manufactures involved because no one else has brought a proposal to the league? Maybe other manufacturers don’t want or can’t afford to be involved. Just a thought.

Attendance is not impacted by equipment manufacturers. What I mean by that is, I have never had a fan come up to me after a game and say, “Yea, the talent on the field is awesome but I’m never coming back because no one uses an STX stick!” Nor have I ever seen attendance figures in any sport impacted by sponsors. Do you think the NFL attendance will change because Nike will supply the uniforms now instead of Reebok? Does anyone honestly think that the MLL attendance will improve because more equipment manufacturers or sponsors are involved? I keep hearing about this “increased exposure for the MLL “ if players could wear other equipment. But there is no guarantee that would happen. The only guarantee is that who ever the current sponsor is, decreases their commitment level.

And don’t forget about the Teams! Just remember, owners had to buy franchises. It costs them a good chunk of money. It also costs a lot of money to operate a team for a year. So before anyone thinks they are entitled to more money, let us be sure they have a chance to recoup some of their losses. I know the owners of the teams are not greedy people. They aren’t making money and don’t plan on getting rich. But they don’t have bottomless pockets of money either. And in order to get more ownership groups to buy more teams, we need to make sure it’s a viable business venture for them. We have made tremendous strides in the ownership of each team. This will ultimately help all parties.

My biggest issue with the articles that I’m responding to is that they are taking attention away from the most important issues.

The bottom line is, the #1 thing that will move the MLL in the right direction is improved attendance.

I don’t think people understand or appreciate how hard it is to sell a ticket to get people to watch lacrosse. This is still a developing niche sport and the MLL is still relatively young. This is not just a pro issue. The top college teams have trouble drawing fans and most let their students in for free. When we can pack stadiums and have a healthy revenue stream just from attendance, this league will sky rocket forward and everyone’s objectives (players, fans, owners) will be met!

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