MLL: Past, Present, And Future

Lee Southren Lacrosse Agent
Lee Southren, Lacrosse Agent, in his lax-y office.

Editor’s Note: Lee Southren is an agent for professional lacrosse players and he is based out of New Jersey.  He’ll the first person to tell you that he’s no writer.  But after reading Ryan Powell’s post on endorsements, he felt compelled to send something over, and add his voice to the conversation.  And we love presenting different opinions, as long as they pertain to lacrosse!

He’s a father of 4 future college laxers, he’s down with sublimation in a major way, and is full of unbridled opinion.  We’re all about creating a place for REAL conversation (all while growing the game!) at LAS so while Lee’s piece is a bit prickly at times, we think he raises some interesting points… even if we don’t agree with all of them.  But what fun is a dictatorship?!?!?!  That being said, expect a rebuttal!!!!

Lee Southren Lacrosse Agent

Lee Southren, Lacrosse Agent, in his lax-y office.

I was very impressed with the article that Ryan Powell wrote regarding the state of Pro Lacrosse, the MLL, endorsements and player opportunities.  I got a chance to talk with RP at the Men’s National Team Gold Medal ceremony in NYC a few months back, and from my standpoint, RP is one of the most marketable professional Lacrosse players (along with his brothers) that the game has ever seen. Here you have a growing sport, three brothers from a Upstate NY locale, who all played at Syracuse, created the legacy of “a number meaning something” and most of all, dominating every game they played in.

At the time Casey broke into the “Pro” ranks of Lacrosse (Which was a few years before his younger brothers), the state of the game’s marketing landscape was drastically more basic (if you could imagine that, even though it wasn’t that long ago).  The merchandising was virtually nil, the equipment had been relatively simple and only offered by specialty retailers.  These boys accomplished everything anyone could accomplish in the game of Lacrosse by the time they were done with college.  Then came Warrior, with Dave Morrow’s ideas on products, Marketing, and getting Pro caliber former D1 All-Americans to work AND rep the brand at the same time, which was sheer brilliance.  The next natural progression was trying to launch a ‘Pro” League, which hatched the current MLL.

During the MLL’s infancy (it is still in its infancy in some ways), teams were formed, and with the support of Warrior, and I suppose Jake Steinfeld, the goal looked like it was to expose the lacrosse playing community, and future players, to the Warrior brand.   Worst case, this became an excellent tax deduction for Warrior, as I can’t imagine there was any money to be made there.  Now, in its 11th year, the MLL is still in existence (which is impressive), but for how much longer?  That is the question on the minds of the fans, at least the ones that actually know this league exists.

Today, there are numerous manufacturing choices for the lacrosse player at any level.  Clothing suppliers making sublimated apparel for anyone that can piece a minimum order of 12 together.  Swag.  Player endorsed brands.  You name it.  Some may say that right now there are not enough Lacrosse playing people to support these companies.  If that is the case, then these companies and entities need to become better at reaching their target audience, faithful in their pursuits to “please’ their customer and fan base, solicit the buyers’ input as to how they view their product or service (and be prepared for disapproval), be open and amenable to criticism and acknowledge that the customers and fans are heard.

And this is, in a nutshell, a perfect summary of my issues with the MLL.

I have been overly critical of Commissioner David Gross in the past, and to a lesser degree, Jake Steinfeld as well.  But my issues stem from what I just wrote in the previous paragraph.  All you hear from Jake Steinfeld is, “Things are well, we are doing better each year, give it a chance, we did this, we did that”, and so on and so forth.  But this is not selling workout equipment where the consumer can see a tangible difference in themselves by using a product or giving someone they know a gift of the product.

This is “organizing a league and placing a product” at an event so that people want spend their hard-earned money in a borderline oppressive economy, have fun, enjoy the atmosphere, purchase team gear, and ultimately leave that event with a smile on  their face, knowing that they want to come back.  I am really sorry to say that I personally was a season ticket holder of the Now Defunct New Jersey Pride for three years, and if I ever physically saw more than 1,000 people there it would have been a lot.

The Lacrosse itself is great, no doubt, but what a depressing environment that was!  Denver, and even Boston, are known to be great venues with a lot of people, but 2 successful team locations are not going to support an entire league.

In my opinion, the bigger issue, and something that I have heard many Players talk about is the lack of professionalism of League Commissioner David Gross.  I have had, firsthand, a few very distasteful experiences speaking to him (in the days when he would actually speak to me) on his views on WHO the players work for, what HE expected out of HIS players, and for the minimal pay (which by the way is tolerable, given the reality of what this is… a part time Summer job), that they need to make a full commitment over everything else.  The reality is that a growing number of “Pro Players” are making a really good living being full time Lacrosse people.  This includes a company endorsement or 2, MLL, NLL (Indoor League), Clinics, Camps, appearances etc, but for the 90% of players left, this is still very much a part-time Summer gig.

The real world jobs that this 90% have, put forth real consequences if you are not doing your job, though many people who employ these Players are very understanding… to a point.

I have said over and over since 2005, the MLL can and should be doing more… for the Players, Fans, Owners and ultimately themselves.

I had an opportunity for a small, but potentially medium sized, licensing deal for the MLL, and Gross’s response, through a former League Owner and someone I know, was that he is not interested in anything I can bring them.   Furthermore, anyone who criticizes the League, Player, News entity… anyone… is no longer on Gross’s call back list. How do you run a fledgling league while holding grudges?

If I ran a League, and Hannibal Lechter wanted to bring in a profitable deal, I would be an idiot not to at least listen (though I would not go into a room alone with him, etc).  There is story after story about this type of behavior.  I am sure there are people out there who think he is a nice guy, and I’m sure he is, because this is not personal, it never was… this is business, and business only.

RP is a survivor, from the earlier days when there was not as much to talk about, and now that there is, I can see his point crystal clear about endorsements, marketing, and the treatment of the Professional Athletes in the game.

Can this League and Pro Lacrosse concept work?  Absolutely.  It starts with the correct leadership (as any successful entity does).  The Commissioner of this League has to have thick skin, and realize that criticism is NOT personal.  This may be his brainchild, but to be successful, it will require the support of the fans, and that means our money.

Player salaries can begin to rise again by letting any and all companies in and out of Lacrosse pay a fee to be a part of the League.  This may make the MLL a more attractive “date” for a bigger and more meaningful TV deal, make the Players a part of this, and allow THEM to live THEIR Dreams of playing meaningful Professional Lacrosse, and not a scaled down version that resembles someone else’s Tax deduction.

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  • Great post. Very insightful. I had heard before that Gross may be what is ultimately holding the league back. While I respect and appreciate what Gross has done, after a decade perhaps it is time for a changing of the guard…
    I think that Major League Soccer is the best league to use as a comparison. It is only a few years older than the MLL, and soccer carried the “fringe-sport” stigma when the league was founded in 1996. The league’s original commissioner Doug Logan did a great job of getting things going, but then the league became stagnant. Don Garber came in around 2000 with a new plan to slowly build the league. Garber’s plans germinated while the league continued its slow decline under Logan’s model. Starting with two expansion teams in 2005, the league began to build its profile. Soccer Specific Stadiums were built, higher profile players were signed, expansion teams became more expensive and in greater demand, and the league became respected. MLS is now on the verge of overtaking the NHL in attendance and viewers. All of this happened because the league changed its top guy.

    • I’m not sure if Gross is or isn’t the right guy for the job, although I must admit that I’m biased towards him. What I do know is while MLS is a good analogy it only works to a certain point and I definitely think you crossed that line. What I mean by that is this…

      1) although soccer is a “2nd tier” sport in the US it is played by A LOT of young kids now adays because it’s cheap and easy for youngsters. These kids drive ticket sales (for every kid who wants to go to the game there is most likely a parent or two, friend, brother or sister, etc) as is the case with lacrosse. But there are a LOT more kids playing soccer in the US than lacrosse.

      2) Soccer is one of, if not THE, most popular sport in the world. There are plenty of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation immigrants who are attending these games because they can no longer watch their favorite club in person.

      3) Grabbing players like Beckham boosts attendance, boosts notoriety, increases apparel sales, and adds credibility. But we can’t do that for lacrosse because we already have all of the Beckhams in the world of lacrosse. This isn’t a baby-brother league to a world-wide superpower the way the MLS is. This is it.

      4) Lastly, and this is only speculation, but in addition to all of the above the biggest factor may also be timing. Perhaps as the first real (and by that I mean substantial) generation of US soccer players became adults and could pay for tickets, or bring they’re families with young sons and daughters who play, and as we are also seeing an exponential expansion in the latin-based population (stereotype alert) who love soccer, and as tickets for other sporitng events become so expensive (at least in the new york area), we are hitting a perfect storm of interest in a reletively cheap event that appeals to the whole soccer playing family. I don’t think we can artificially create that in lacrosse but I do think it’s coming and hopefully David Gross, or whoever, can prepare the league properly for when that comes.

      • Great post. Here would be a great excercise, how many total people (boys, girls, youths, adults, parents, coaches etc) all in, are paying yearly dues to US LACROSSE?
        500,000?. I would love to see a poll on how many of those people know the MLL exists, how many of that number have attended a game, and of that amount list 2 things they liked, 2 things that could have been done better..
        If I was running the MLL, don’t you think I would find that type of intel extremely valuable?

      • Very good points! Especially regarding the ‘faux wave’ of players especially at the youth level. Soccer has been and will always will be the sport of the future, so-to-speak. My only counter would be this; I feel like soccer youth participation in the US is (or should I say ‘was’ as I believe this is changing) driven by parents. IE, My little johnny can run around and he won’t get hurt because it’s not a ‘contact’ sport like football, it’s cheap, we won’t keep score and everyone gets a trophy at the end. To me Lacrosse youth participation is different in that its driven by the kids themselves. Their parents have no clue about the game. That’s how I got involved. I wanted to play a contact sport in high school, my parents said ‘no’ to football and said ‘What the hell is lacrosse?’ when I asked to play that.

        I can tell you from listening to a recent Boston sports radio call-in segment about baseball participation dropping, that these older Sox fans are utterly confounded that Lacrosse is nipping at their sport’s heals. Almost every call in was about how their kids or nieces and nephews have zero interest in baseball and ALL of them wanted to play Lax instead. It keeps popping up in different places slowly intergrating with culture. Even last night I was watching the ‘Southie’ episode of ‘No Reservations’ where they chatted up an old boxing trainer about how they are losing kids to other sports, Lax being at the top of the list. None of them seemed upset about the change in youth choice of sport because Lacrosse is more culturally acceptable in this country than soccer is/was and I think that is a big difference between the two as well.

        • Anon, I think your point about growth from the youth up is almost exactly the point I was trying to make about “timing” up above. Lacrosse is growing because it’s fast paced, fun to play, and there’s an element of creativity/originality (in both playing style and more importantly gear) preiously only found in the “xtreme” sports.

          I don’t want to go on a diatribe about why the sport is growing so fast but my point above is that I believe we are only now beginning to see the 2nd full generation of laxers. There aren’t many kids who are playing now who’s parents played. Lacrosse expanded out of the traditional hotbeds in the 90’s (for the most part) and out of the northeast in the early 2000s. When those players have kids in the next 10 years, (and those kids will likely play lax) that is where the first major wave of expansion will be. Numbers will increase exponentially across the nation and life-long laxer parents will be going to or watching games with their children.

          I think this has happened with American Soccer already. When I was growing up (I’m almost 30), rec and club soccer leagues had already been in existence in my town for almost a decade. And about 60-75% of all the kids in town played at least a year or two. Lacrosse has been popular in this town longer than most (back to the 80’s) but we have only seen the numbers of youth lacrosse players to rival the number of soccer players starting about 10 years ago.

          • After re-reading your post, I think you’re dead on. We’re from the same ‘Lacrosse Generation’, if you will. As I posted above, I think it’s on us ‘old guys’ to really get behind the sport to take it to the next level. Which presents a conflict. I don’t know about you, but right now I just want to keep playing until my body physically rejects the cascade sitting on my head, not sit around and watch someone else play

          • You bring up a great point… between playing once or twice a week (almost year round), coaching youth, and going to watch my brother and a sister who are now playing in college (not near by), I’m not left with a lot of time for me to go to any other games. And we are certainly the target demographic. As it pertains to the MLL though, I do find myself DVRing college games on espnu and cbs sports, but not MLL games. By the time the summer comes I must say that I’m not as amped to watch lax and maybe don’t care enough about the storylines (if there are any) in the MLL.

            What could the MLL do to better market the product to people like us (target demographic)? I’m not sure anything would change much except changing the time of year and bringing back a team that’s close to home (NJ Pride 2012?).

          • Love all the comments, especially from Anon & el_niino…The MLL has no future, regardless of who runs it…dare I say, the product is just not that good!!! There, I said it, but hear me out. The game has changed immensely, as we all know, in recent years. I am 43 and grew up in a hotbed (MD) and played since I was 7. I come from an era where middies played both ways, there were no subs for offense/defense and players did not possess these absolutely horrific bags on the end of their sticks where the ball just won’t come out, regardless of how heavy a check is thrown. It was a finesse game that moved at the right speed, a lot of up and down the field, lots of goals and just physical enough. Today’s college game SOMETIMES resembles this but if I have to watch another 5-4 game I will kill myself. In the MLL, the game moves too fast, is too physical and people just don’t have the ability to keep up with it. That’s why folks like baseball, it’s slow, sometimes a minute between pitches, built-in bathroom breaks, etc. The MLL games become a bad double-A baseball promo night at times with the futile attempts at fan engagement…truly they don’t get it. And I’m sorry but the athletes are marketed all wrong…they come off as “dudes” with the long hair and stupid tone in their voices, mess up attitude about women…just look at some of the ads that Lax Magazine will take. It’s all very fragmented right now and the league has no chance at success and I’m really not sure if we’re ready for a professional outdoor league.

          • DEAD ON! I’ve been trying to think up ways to answer el__niino’s question about ‘how does the MLL market to us’ question and the first thing I could think of was to suggest that hey forgo the superficiality of the ‘Bro culture’ and go for a more traditional marketing of lacrosse. I don’t have it fully baked yet, but something like a “Head, heart, hustle” campaign in heavy rotation on the major four letter sports network would be a good start

          • I agree, the Bro Culture – especially in MLL & gear marketing needs to go. It’s hard for this game to be taken seriously with these clowns acting like jackasses. I put a lot of that on Warrior with their immature ads, but the prevailing douchebaggery that keeps popping up online doesn’t help.
            My (winning) response in last month’s Lacrosse Magazine focuses on one aspect of this nonsense, but it really conveys my attitude across the board.

          • my thoughts on what needs to happen

            regarding the mll

            1. Bringing back the sticks with no pockets. Nobody wants to see 7 or 8 garbage goals. Part of the appeal is 100 mph shots and spectacular dives

            2. The physicality of the mll needs to be emphasized MORE, along with the athleticism involved in lacrosse, to help shed the sport of it’s entitled, whites only, polo-esque image

            3. The key to marketing the game is emphasizing it’s native american roots, showing everyone the wonderful local history the sport thrives on

            regarding college

            players are better athletes, but simply not as skilled. The majority of the players have spent their entire middle and high school careers being able to run by everyone and when they get to college and cannot, they simply back off.

            You see the insane amount of half field structuring as a result of this, rarely ever will players engage a defender and take a shot or skip a pass, or attempt anything creative while their defender is within a 5 foot vicinity. They simply have no experience working without the space.

            And the refs are awful and allow no hitting

          • Ok, I see what you are saying. Being of the same age group, I agree. NASL was still in its heyday when I was born and EVERYBODY played soccer.
            Lax is definitely lagging, but the combination of MLL and more televised NCAA games are helping immensely. I believe the internet, YouTube, and social media are playing a huge role as well. It’s all exposure. But when more of the HUGE schools around the nation (like Michigan, USC, ASU, Florida, etc) add lax, the game will experience truly unprecedented growth. It just seems that lax is more socially acceptable than soccer (still), probably because it involves hitting and using your hands…

    • I totally agree with the MLS comparison. Both leagues have had the same early trajectory. Remember the MLS “shootouts” from half field? WHAT A JOKE! Interesting parrallel to the 2-point line in the MLL. Team names is a good second example, WTF does a Kansas city “Wizard” have to do with soccer? NOTHING! MLS re-evaluated how they were marketing the game. Instead of trying to americanize soccer, they re-aligned to look more like European soccer leagues. Changing names to sound more like European clubs (Now they are “Sporting Kansas City” mirroring Sporting Lisbon, Real Salt Lake tips the cap to Real Madrid and so on…). They went in grass roots directly to SOCCER FANS to engage them, Seattle really set the standard for what Soccer could be in North America and then I just watched the Timbers take it to a whole new level with new traditions to breed that fan loyalty and push that soccer atmosphere even further. The MLS ultimately woke up to the fact that after all the gimmicks and the rule changes to make the game “appeal” to the mainstream you lose your core audience who sees nothing but a mockery of the game they love and you don’t end up grabbing any mainstream attention. You have to appeal to your core audience FIRST and FOREMOST. The MLL has yet to wake up to that fact.

      I like the idea of opening up the league to new sponsors. If nothing else, hopefully they can at least make the teams look a little different instead of horribly identical Tommy Hilfiger jerseys where the only change is the color scheme to zone 2 and zone 3. They need to start giving their teams a regional identity. If you think the fans in Denver are the same as they are in Boston, quit your marketing day job, cause you suck at it! This one-sized-fits-all marketing scheme has got to go. Just on sheer participation numbers in lacrosse in general the league is going to improve, but what about all the missed opportunity! As it stands right now the tradition and regional rivalry of the college game trumps anything the MLL can offer which is basically extremely talented lacrosse players in something resembling lacrosse that ends up more like the XFL than the NFL.

      • It’s not that I disagree with you, ’cause I don’t. But your statement paints the reality:
        “the tradition and regional rivalry of the college game trumps anything the MLL can offer.”

        The college game does have all the tradition and rivalry, and STILL no one comes. No one in any substantial numbers, or numbers enough to justify a Pro League.

        • I would say you are 100% correct on that, my one point would be that my statement was comparing NCAA to the MLL where as yours is more comparing the sport of Lacrosse to other spectator sports. When you compare NCAA lacrosse to say NCAA Football, it’s no comparison, but I think the numbers on the rise and the real indicators show up in places like Denver where they regularly sellout their games. To your point though, the attendance even at NCAA games is not even close to where it needs to be. I think it’s inccumbent on people (like myself) who are out of college, have disposable income, and love the sport to start showing up to their local colleges games and financially supporting the sport. Problem is that old bastards like me love the game so much that I’m playing my ALL games on the weekend instead of being a specatator

          • Ha! Nothing a pulled hamstring can’t fix! That’ll put your butt in a seat.

            It’s a good point though, all the advocates for the game are often participants at some level. Whether playing, coaching, reffing, ticket taking, whatever. Until the fan base broadens, financial success remains just beyond the grasp.

    • There is a whole host of really qualified ‘Lacrosse’ people, who have experience running a business, have the right temperament and personality for this type of venture.
      A former Brine VP Mike Martin comes to mind,

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