The National Lacrosse League (NLL) Needs To Change

Mike Synek Chicago Outlaws box lacrosse
Mike Synek playing for Chicago.

I’ve always enjoyed professional indoor lacrosse, but I’ve also had my complaints.

I like watching it on winter weekends, I like following it and keeping up with the teams, and I used to love going to games in the Old Boston Garden.  I’ve always been impressed with the skill, toughness, scoring, and intensity level displayed by pro box lacrosse players, and found the atmosphere at games to be pretty enjoyable for the most part.  The fans were pretty in to the game, the players played hard, and the action was nonstop.  It wasn’t perfect, but overall it was pretty good, and at the time, I thought that was good enough.  But now when I look at the NLL, and lacrosse in general, I’m not so sure.

As the game of lacrosse continues to boom, and box lacrosse continues to make strides in overall popularity, good enough just might not hack it anymore…  And now the wolves are at the door, because they can smell opportunity, especially when it comes in the form of weakening prey.

The new boys on the block are the North American Lacrosse League (NALL), Canadian Lax (CLax), Midwest Indoor Lacrosse Association (MILA), and even the European Lacrosse League (ELL).  All 4 of these leagues have started up in the past 1-3 years at some level, and while none of them will immediately challenge the NLL for box lacrosse supremacy, they all show that the sport is picking up in popularity.  People don’t start new pro leagues during tough economic times, unless they are passionate about the sport, and believe in its ultimate success.  And during this most recent economic downturn, we saw FOUR new leagues start. That’s enough anecdotal evidence for me.

Of course, Before the NALL, CLax, MILA and ELL started up, there were already at least two wildly successful box leagues in Canada.  The Western Lacrosse Association (WLA) and Major Series Lacrosse (MSL) both feature some of the best box players in the world, and many of the clubs have dedicated and die-hard fans.  So while box lacrosse fandom is nothing new, these teams and organizations are making strides towards increased legitimacy (on a more pro level), and the NLL should definitely be concerned.  Sites like The Box Rocks allow these games to be seen, and they approach the broadcast quality of an NLL game already.

While the NLL is still the best and most popular boxla in the world, the league no longer has a stranglehold on the top spot, and I think that’s a change worth noting.  Now I’m not saying the NLL will be done in 2-3 years, or even 10-15 years.  But as the MLL has shown, a league has to plan, grow, expand and evolve to continue to succeed, and it’s simply past time for the NLL to start making these strides.

In order to stay at the top, the NLL has to increase their exposure.  There is no simpler way to put it.  This can be done through increased TV deals, and more marketing, and both should be pursued on the grassroots and media sides.

TV exposure is key, and while the NLL has made some progress here on the media side of things, their efforts need to be re-doubled in this area.  I have reached out to the NLL many times before to talk about how they could increase their televised expsoure (amongst other topics) and I rarely hear anything back.  When I do, it never goes anywhere.  Others have had very similar experiences.  And I don’t see a ton of other sites with NLL TV deal talk either, so that’s an easy area to improve upon.  Talk to the media more and be proactive.  As a lacrosse writer, I’d love to cover the NLL more, but it has to be a two-way street.

Mike Synek Chicago Outlaws box lacrosse
We have a MILA writer/player. Where is our NLL poet warrior? BE PROACTIVE, NLL!

Now you may be wondering how the NLL could improve their TV exposure with grassroots marketing, and if you are, well done.  It’s a good thing to be curious about.  Basically, the NLL has a solid fan base.  These are the people that go to games, check out, and watch their livestreams on the NLL website.  USE THESE FANS!!!!  These dedicated lax junkies are clearly willing to put in the effort, so ask them to help.  If every fan of the NLL wrote an email to ESPN or TSN, or even their local sports channel, and asked them to broadcast games (or more games on TSN), the NLL might be able to make more progress.  Prove to television that you have a following and they will listen.  I’m guessing most of these fans would love to see games broadcast on TV, and I’m sure that they’d love to be a part of making it happen!  In fact, this could actually be a really great way to unite and galvanize the existing fan base, even if it didn’t result in more TV deals.

The marketing side of things is obviously related to getting more TV exposure, but it also stands alone to a certain extent.  While the NLL does have existing fans that they need to mobilize, they also need to increase their overall fanbase.  There are two key elements to attaining that increase and they are; interacting with potential fans more often and more directly, and improving the game.

This will attract new and invested fans, create more marketable players, and create a product on the floor that will translate to TV a little better.

I’ll start with fixing the game first, because you don’t want to show something off that isn’t ready.  If the NLL wants to be a real pro league, they really need to start acting like one.  Enough with the pop music during play and announcers yelling at the crowd to cheer.  There can be some of that, like there is in the NBA, NHL and NFL, but right now an NLL game is too much like a circus.  Those leagues are established, and if they want to pump in music, they can because they’ve proved themselves as legitimate.  But the NLL still has a long way to go with your average sports fan, no matter how much I may personally enjoy it, and legitimacy is something to strive towards for long-term success.

The fighting has to be reined in as well, at least a little.  Personally, I’m of the school of thought that would like to see fighting go away completely, but I realize that may not be realistic.  The NHL makes it work more or less, so I’m sure the NLL could too.  But right now it doesn’t work.  Some people actually go to games to see the fights.  Fight highlights get more views than game highlights.  There are guys out there who basically just boxers in pads.  Listen, I love Slap Shot as much as the next guy, but it’s not professional by any standard, and if the NLL wants to truly be successful, they need to look at this issue a little closer.

Maybe the refs should just call more penalties.  EMO is always good for some beautiful passing goals.  And that way all these “tough guys” might not feel so slighted all the time and end up fighting each other.  I mean, why have rules if you’re not going to enforce them?  Why even bother to pay the refs?  This self-regulation business is actually quite silly when you think about it.  And if you tighten up the calls a little bit, these more thuggish fighters will quickly find they have no place in the league anymore, and the game can get back to lax, and away from MMA.

The attitude should be, “You want to wear an Affliction shirt?  Be my guest, but don’t come to a lacrosse game looking for a knock out“.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the direction in which the league is heading.  Personally, I’d be much more inclined to watch more NLL games if I just saw lacrosse players out there playing the game and trying to score goals.  Once in a while there might be a fight, and it would be news and then die down.  Some of the stuff that goes on now just looks like a baseball brawl, and those guys are as soft as they come.  Do we really want to emulate baseball?

So tighten up the calls a bit, like hockey did, reduce fighting and increase scoring.  Increase the amount of lacrosse players out there, and reduce the number of pure thugs.  Suspend players who can’t seem to keep from fighting.  Send a message, and clean up the sport.  When the biggest news from 2010 was a pre-season brawl, a botched halftime show and a big trade for a team that eventually shut down for a year, you KNOW the product on the floor has to be improved.  I love boxla, but all this other stuff is really getting in the way.

So IF the NLL were to make these changes, and started calling games a little tighter, they’d be ready to showcase their product to the wider lacrosse world.  And I have the perfect idea for how this could be done.

Set up a traveling NLL box rink and take the game to the people!  These already exist.  The AILA has one.

Each summer, the NLL should get together a pool of 40-50 players who will travel to all the biggest field lacrosse tourneys in the US.  The NLL could set up a portable box lacrosse rink outdoors, on grass, at all of these tourneys and put on demo games.  If they wanted to, they could also enter a “Team NLL” in each tourney to compete on the field.  Tournaments like Vail and Placid get a TON of exposure, and something like this would definitely interest people.  Ocean City, Tahoe, Glastonbury and a number of others will all have 30+ teams in attendance, and that’s a great way to get a ton of people exposed to the game.  Want to reach a younger audience?  Well set up the roadshow at a youth lacrosse jamboree, and watch the new young fans start to line up!

By competing against the pros on the field, or seeing the pros play box against each other, people would get a first hand experience.  And this is invaluable.  THAT is grassroots.  It’s putting feet on the ground, and creating thousands upon thousands of chances to make a personal connection.  It’s why MLL players stay after games and sign every autograph.  It’s why the NFL is so heavily involved with “Get Out and Play”.  Because it works.

The NLL has a lot of potential right now but it’s because of the growth of lacrosse, and not what they have done.  If the league doesn’t make some changes, invest in its future and take things to the next level, it simply won’t expand and improve consistently.  The game of box lacrosse is a great one, that many more people should appreciate, but while I hope that the NLL is able to chart a better course for the future, they still have a lot of work to do.


  1. I just hope the NLL stays around long enough for home-grown American box players to make it into the league. I think a homegrown talent base from boxla academies like the one in San Jose will snowball into more fans, awareness, and more money. I thought I was a huge fan of the game in high school, but I didn’t even really know how box lacrosse was supposed to be played when I attended my first NLL game at age 19. So much of the NLL is in the US, and the fans can only get so serious right now. 

    On another note, I think Joe Walters is awesome for playing in the OLA (I just learned today that the Resetarits brothers play too), and I really respect the work that all the US Indoor guys have put in. Last year’s bowhunter cup might be my most watched non-NCAA highlight video. 

    EDIT: I don’t know why I said stays around long enough, the league has operated for a really long time.

  2. I mentioned in a previous post that US Indoor gives no credence to the indoor game, and that’s at the heart of this issue.  If US Lacrosse is not going to legitimately promote a professional game, then what?

    To defend the NLL, I’d have to say that those three “biggest stories” would also be the biggest stories if they happened in any other league.  If an NFL preseason game ended in a 40 man brawl, that would clearly be a year-defining news story for football.

    TSN already shows some games; I don’t think the issue holding NLL growth back is Canadian support.  (check the coaching and player rosters)  Clearly the airtime is available in the US.  Universal Sports this week is showing International BMX.  The Tacoma PBS station airs about 9 hours of Australian Rules Football each week.  Yes.  PBS.  Australian Rules Football.  (The fact that a Seattle native made a roster helped, admittedly)

    Beyond ESPN (and I don’t want to hear about ESPN3), there’s the previously mentioned Universal Sports, and let’s not forget the NHL league.  Hockey and indoor lacrosse share a training history.

    blah blah blah, though.  Here’s where we, as fans, get proactive.
    1) yes, write the networks and ask.  Emails, postal, any way you can.  (It would be especially helpful if someone could dig up a few names to direct mail to)

    2) Anytime a game is aired — ANY TIME — write the network and let them know you watched.  This is absolutely as important as #1.

    3) This is the most important thing that we, as fans, can do:  WRITE THE SPONSORS.  If you go to a restaurant or chiropractor or law firm or anyone who bought an ad on the boards, make sure you tell them you are a customer because they sponsored the team.  Whenever you buy a product from a sponsor who advertises on a TeeVee airing of a game, tell them you bought their product because they sponsored the game.

    I can’t stress the importance of #3 enough.  Games get on television because the advertising time can be sold profitably.  If the networks don’t realize there are businesses willing to buy ad space during a lacrosse game, and further, there are businesses that don’t realize they can buy advertising space and because of that get more customers, it doesn’t matter how good the product is.  When advertisers realize that they can grow from airing NLL, and networks realize they can sell a lot of airtime when they air NLL, it all works.

  3. There are a lot of problems at the professional lacrosse level, which then trickles down to the development. All of the above mentioned are skimming the issues. Great article, very thought provoking and great discussion starter.