In its 9th year the MLL is starting to settle down, gain traction with its identity, and become a real professional sports league. I don’t have any insight into the financials of Major League Lacrosse, so I will only comment on salaries, sponsorship money, television deals and ticket prices briefly. The real point of this post is to just talk about the product on the field, both in its presentation and in terms of quality.
We hear a lot about how salaries need to be higher, teams need to practice together more, and all of the players should live in the city where they play. While there is some truth to all of those critiques, I don’t think it’s fair to put that kind of pressure on the league that quickly. For example, the NFL actually started out in a pretty similar fashion where players worked other jobs for their primary source of income. Crowds were small, ticket prices were low and certain teams came and went while others really seemed to make a connection with their respective cities. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds a lot like the MLL right now.
A lot of the guys in the MLL make a living from lacrosse. Maybe they play in the NLL as well as run camps, pick up some sponsorship money for one thing or another, give individual lessons, coach at the high school or college level, the list goes on. And sure, some guys work regular jobs, but the fact that some guys are able to make a living off of just lacrosse is pretty impressive when you consider the league hasn’t even been around for a decade.
Denver, Boston and Long Island all seem to have cemented their places in the local sports scene and are expanding popularity-wise. Toronto seems to be on the right path, and although Chicago didn’t do very well this year according to their record, they do seem to be making progress out in Illinois. To me, Washington is a VERY suspect sports town unless you are the Redskins. The Nationals always struggle with attendance, the Capitals are a non-issue in the City and the Wizards aren’t the most successful of NBA teams. The Power of the NLL left town even though Gary Gait played for them. Suffice to say, I am not a big believer in the Baltimore/Washington industrial sports complex when it comes to lacrosse beyond the college level. Maybe it is snobbery where they think the MLL isn’t pure enough but if that is the case, then they really need to take another look.
The MLL now looks like a real professional sports league to me for the first time. The quality of play has always been high, but the team aspect of things is really starting to emerge. Denver plays a great team defense with crushing slides and Toronto plays an excellent team offense filled with exciting two-man games creating a lot of pick and rolls and tight action in close. Paul Rabil is a beast out there, bringing the midfield game to a new level. Guys like Stephen Berger make you feel dizzy just watching with all those changes of direction and re-dodges. Brodie Merrill is the best longstick I’ve ever seen in my life. Brendan Mundorf and Drew Westervelt, although different, both just create and finish and are a joy to watch. What I’m getting at here is that the level of play is as good as it has ever been and there is a consistency to the quality that was missing in the past. To make sure you get what I am talking about, let me reiterate: for a league to accomplish this in only nine years is impressive.
Like a lot of people, I had some problems with the MLL when it first came around. I didn’t like the 2 point line. I didn’t like that there were only 3 poles allowed on the field. I didn’t like the idea of a shot clock. I hated how deep the bags were on some of the guys sticks. The way the allotment of players was handled always bothered me. The restriction to only allow Warrior equipment seemed ridiculous. The venues were usually a let down. There were so many problems with the league! Or were there? Maybe the problem was with me. The fact is, I had an idea of what the pro league should look like in my head, along with the rest of Lax Nation, and when the MLL wasn’t EXACTLY what I wanted, I felt let down. But the MLL could never be exactly what I wanted or exactly what anyone else wanted because you just can’t make everyone happy all the time. So instead, the MLL came up with an idea and they’ve been refining it every year – and every year I have liked it more and more. Though the process of conversion was a slow and arduous one, this 9th year has proven to be my tipping point and I am now a fan.
A lot of it has to do with me just coming around to the differences and no longer looking at them as distractions. Sometimes I have even gone so far as to think that the innovations are actually a step up. A perfect example of this is the 2 point line. I played in the Cape Ann Tournament in Massachusetts a couple of years ago and there was a 2 point line, and I have to say that I loved it. Cranking a 2 pointer with a longstick is probably one of my most fun lacrosse memories even though it meant nothing in a summer ball game. I actually think the NCAA could benefit from the installation of a 2-point line, and while some will say that a change like that is bad because it messes with the “purity” of the game, they just don’t know much about the history of lacrosse. The rules constantly evolve… from the number of longsticks allowed on the field to clearing time restrictions to stick restrictions, which have all really affected the way the game is played.
I like that the MLL has added a 4th longstick to the game. It allows for better slide packages and team defense, which was sorely lacking for a couple of years. The shot clock has been a good thing as well because slow-down, stall lacrosse just isn’t an option. By limiting the roster the MLL has also kept it from becoming a shoot-out like most NBA games. In the MLL, they still play defense and as the NFL has learned, you need both to be the best league in the country. The same can be said for the English Premier League, which is also insanely successful in soccer-mad Britain.
Teams have also started to create real identities for themselves, not only in their style of play, but also within the communities in which they exist. Outreach by players and coaches and league officials has worked and has drawn the lacrosse community to the league, and more importantly, the games. Denver is doing very well with attendance while Boston and Long Island have been able to consistently draw decent crowds for nine years. Chicago has some work to do and they need the kind of players there who are willing to do extensive outreach to expand their fan base. Lacrosse is big and getting bigger in Illinois but the Machine will need to grow their base the good old-fashioned way: getting out into the community and making friends. Chicago is a sports town so once they get a following going, it may really snowball.
Washington also has a lot to prove. The DC/Baltimore area is the self-proclaimed birthplace of modern lacrosse and home to what basically amounts to the collegiate mecca of lacrosse, Johns Hopkins. Navy, Loyola, UMd and a host of others are ALL in the region, yet the Bayhawks still seem to struggle. It actually makes sense because the area is such a hotbed that their expectations are probably the highest. I just hope that the people there will give the MLL another honest chance to flourish (I mean, it only took me nine years!) because right now, I think they’ll be really impressed. Toronto is a real lacrosse hotbed and the Nationals made a great decision to play a distinctly Canadian style of field lacrosse. They are catering to their fans and local talent and seem like they are on the right track to great success much like Denver and Boston have done.
Venues across the league have also improved drastically over the past couple of seasons. Invesco field and the average 10,000 fans that show up in Denver lead the way while Boston does well at Harvard Stadium. Toyota Park, which is Chicago’s home field is a great MLS stadium and provides an intimate setting with most of the amenities of a larger stadium. Long Island plays at Hofstra where the NCAA crowds reach the tens of thousands. The history and legacy of the Hofstra stadium with lacrosse specifically in mind make it an ideal place for an MLL team to play. Toronto plays at BMO Field, which is smaller, 20,000 person stadium. You are pretty close to the action and the seating is spacious. It’s a great place to watch a game. Washington actually plays their games in Annapolis at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, which is a history-laden and top-notch facility (where the MLL Championship Weekend was played this year and for the next two years into 2011).
I mentioned some other issues earlier, like bags on sticks and I feel like that is being reigned in. Takeaway checks are being thrown more and the ball is on the carpet from time to time. The number of high-talent players per team has improved, and players are really trying to commit to each other while creating that consistent character and style of play needed to expand a die hard fan base.
Warrior isn’t the only brand in lacrosse anymore as Brine is now also allowed in. Sure, Brine is owned by Warrior and Warrior is owned by New Balance (who also sponsors the MLL) but it is a step in the right direction. I can imagine a day where STX, Maverik, Harrow and Gait products are allowed into the league. Nike, Reebok and Adidas are all creating massive lacrosse arms and it will only be a matter of time before they force there way into the college game to a greater extent than just footwear and uniforms. After that, if the MLL is still growing (which I believe it will be), they will find their way into that market as well.
The fact that the MLL is still operating after the most recent economic shock-wave is a testament to the dedication of those involved. From the ownership groups to the MLL team/league employees, the players, the fans, and even the sponsors You need people who believe in a new product in order to sell it effectively in the short-term and over the long-haul, and I believe the MLL has that.
Jake Steinfeld, an integral part and founder of the league, has said that the MLL is a “skinny horse trying to win the long race” and a more apt comparison does not exist. There isn’t a lot of glitter or glam with the MLL because there just isn’t room for that nonsense. It is all business and quality of product on the field that matters, and focus has to be on growing a community from it. I tip my hat to the MLL in general for their continued efforts and I wish them the best of luck as they move forward with the venture. A great pro league might not be something we really “need” right now, but setting it up nine years ago and having it hit its stride now shows great foresight. This has positioned the league to really take advantage of the bubbles of growth that lacrosse is experiencing now and will experience for years to come.