The last time I talked about the future of US box lacrosse, I focused on what I thought was the most important factor: US Goalies. Some agreed with me that field goalies could eventually be converted to great box goalies, while others thought I was crazy. Both sides had their arguments! This time around I’m going to focus on the NALL (North American Lacrosse League) in general, and what the league can do for the box game south of the 48th parallel.
Box is a tough sell stateside as the lacrosse community’s focus during much of the year is on field lacrosse. And it’s a tough sell with sports fans in general because of hockey and basketball both running in the Winter. It means there are less open arenas to play in, especially in major metropolitan areas, arenas are more expensive to rent, and that less people will be easily drawn to the sport. Box lacrosse has to make a serious effort to even get noticed in a big city sports scene. And that’s why I like the NALL’s approach right now. I can only hope that they will keep it up.
Currently the NALL is set to begin play in January of 2012, and there are five teams set up for the first season. The teams are located in Jacksonville (FL), Wilkes-Barre (PA), Kentucky, Charlotte (NC) and Hershey (PA). Players are starting to sign up, find homes and get excited about the league, and it seems like the NALL’s mission to keep it a mostly American league is largely intact, aside from the goalie issue. The goalie issue is that we don’t have many good ones, so the league will probably use Canadians there in many cases. Ginny Capichionni will be one of the US goalies in the league as she is set to play for Hershey.
Guys like Steven Panarelli are also looking to play, and this sets a pretty high player standard for the league right away. Panarelli played at Farmingdale on Long Island before heading to Cuse. He’s seen time in the NLL and MLL, but seems really interested (in the video below) in the NALL. And finding dedicated players like SP will make all the difference in the world for this league. And as you saw in the image above from the NALL website, Casey Powell seems interested in playing too. Who knows if this is true, but maybe the NALL could get ALL the Powells playing again. That would be interesting to see and certainly help the US box game in terms of popularity.
All of the players mentioned so far have box experience, but many wouldn’t make an NLL roster (excepting the Powells), but they also have some name recognition as well. GC is recognized as the first female to ever play in the NLL, and she’ll do the same in the NALL. The Powells are legends (obviously) and Panarelli is a name a lot of East Coasters have hard for years. I’m willing to bet that those who have heard of him are praying he plays with a pink stick again. And this is more of what the NALL needs: Americans who just love lax, and have loved it for years. Because the early road will be slow and tough. Love of the game is just going to be required.
But let’s not get too grim just yet… we’ll stick to more positives for now. While name recognition will help with the players, will it help with franchise locations?
When you look at the locations where the NALL will play, you might say that these aren’t exactly the biggest sports towns in America, but I think you’d be wrong on that count. The locations for the teams might not be HUGE cities population-wise, but they are all big sports towns or areas in their own right. Except Jacksonville. Yes, they have an NFL team, but box is going to be a big switch. Box certainly can succeed, and that potential is good. The only question is will box lacrosse succeed in each location?
Since each team is independently owned and operated, the success of the league really rests squarely on each team’s shoulders. It will be up to each franchise to put together a team, market that team, and then keep that team together. The pay from the league won’t be great, so if a team wants to pull in good players, and then keep them, they’ll need to go above and beyond outside of just managing the team as it relates to lacrosse. Some teams have opted to hire multiple people to handle these different jobs, and they will all be part-time. Charlotte, on the other hand, has hired Tom Ryan full-time, so he will be coaching AND running the show.
I can’t wait to see which of these approaches works better! And I bet that the potential expansion teams are even more interested!!!
And that is the single underlying reason why I think the NALL has a good shot. They seem to be putting together the right league office staff, which is great. Players seem interested, and that’s fantastic. But the fact that each team has to decide its own destiny is the best thing about the league because it allows for experimentation. Any time you are trying to start something new, flexibility is key, and understanding that what works for one group might not work for another is equally important.
The NALL has also recognized that each team needs to be held accountable for the product they put out on the floor, and they’re making it competitive right from the start. It’s almost like the NALL took the league rules from a highly successful sport and just made them smaller to fit their current needs. The league exists, but it doesn’t run the show in a top-down manner. I believe this has also forced ownership groups to be very realistic about where they will play as not one team is trying to fill a pro basketball arena. They are focused on smaller arenas that they can hopefully fill up. So while they lose out on some of the hype that playing in a big hockey or basketball arena brings, the teams gain a more sustainable business path, and possibly a more intimate setting for the fans they do attract.
I know that the NLL allows its franchises to do a lot of different things as well, so the NALL and NLL aren’t that different in this regard… but the NLL has proven time and time again that they struggle to create new teams in the US and I believe that is because they force teams to walk before they can crawl in terms of organization and arena. There is no grace period there, and yet the standard is still held very high. It’s great to quickly cull weaker franchises, but it does nothing to grow the league or the sport. A sink or swim attitude is fine, but the NLL’s set up obviously creates very thin margins, and because of that, successful start up franchises are going to be incredibly rare, especially in the US where basketball, then hockey, is King of the Winter.
The NALL will probably be even more sink or swim than the NLL, but the difference here is that the opening standard is much lower. Teams can function with a small budget and not get blown out by the competition if they do things right. Can they do this in the NLL? Yes. But for a new American franchise it would be very hard, and very expensive, to compete with a team like the Toronto Rock. In the NALL there is no Rock franchise to contend with, so even a team that enters next year or the year after could still quickly ascend the ladder. And that’s really what US box lacrosse needs: Opportunity.
The NALL, as a league, is still crawling. They won’t be able to compete with the NLL teams for years, and filling an arena once a season right now would probably be seen as a victory, but they’re definitely shuffling in the right direction. They’re focused on small franchises built on passion and love of lacrosse. They’re trying to expose new players and new fans to the game in new places. They have experience with pro sports, and experience with lacrosse. So while the NALL hasn’t even played a game yet, they have the potential to be the best thing to ever happen to US box lacrosse because they saw an opportunity, created a market, and are now allowing the consumers and producers to decide if it’s going to work. That’s as American as apple pie.
Now we just need to see if it plays out the way I hope it does!