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Wilson’s Wheelhouse: THE MLL!

5 - Published August 5, 2010 by in Pro Lacrosse

Last week I spent twelve minutes on the twittlez and all of a sudden I couldn’t stop thinking about the MLL.  I certainly wasn’t overwhelmed with the MLL’s online presence and there weren’t a lot of people (at least not that I follow) talking about the league, but one guy was. Kyle Devitte got me thinking: if the MLL is here to stay, then what is the heading? Can the course be changed? Which goes on to beg the question: does the course need to be changed at all?  And why, from the first whistle, do so many people tend to assume the MLL isn’t doing it right?

The answer to the last question is the most obvious and can be answered simply and sociologically.  When confronted with uncertainty, most people tend to be more cynical.  This is purely anecdotal and there are literally millions of exceptions but most often (and apart from religion and a couple of other examples) people need to feel like they understand things to really believe in them.

The understanding doesn’t have to be complete (or even correct!), but it certainly takes time, and from this perspective, the MLL is still quite young.  The NFL took decades to really gain in popularity, and while today we have the internet and thousands of cable channels, we are also competing with many more established leagues (like the NFL) and breaking into that highest echelon will be tough.  But I actually think the MLL is headed in the right direction in its many iterations.

The MLL is different from what 25 year olds grew up with.  Sure, it’s existed for 10 years but for at least half of that time, the MLL did so in a more fledgling state.  For the kid who is 20, the MLL has been around in a solid form for all of their high school years.  I feel like the times are going to change as these guys become the college stars of tomorrow and it’s just around the corner.  The MLL has been a real, viable league to them and while it won’t pay all the bills, it’s great to have something like that to shoot for after college.

In the past, and as I was growing up, the highest honors you could garner were in college but now there’s something else.  Something new.  Older players sometimes disparage the MLL and I bet they often do so to protect themselves and their own egos.  In college, I knew that with more work, I could have played at what I considered the highest level: D1 lacrosse.

Looking at the MLL now, I don’t think I ever could have played a single minute, even at my best.  Some guys may have a hard time admitting something like that because it means there is a level they couldn’t get to and for competitive athletes, that can be hard to deal with.  The younger players have always lived with the relatively new reality of the MLL.  It’s not something they have to swallow, it just is and that’s it.

So where is the MLL going and how are they going to capitalize on these young future fans?  It seems like they will continue to take things one step at a time, measure their moves and then go in as hard as they can when they decide to go.  Rule changes, ownership groups being brought in, sponsorships; all of these things are done slowly and with care.  There are obvious failures but I can’t imagine a venture like this that wouldn’t experience setbacks, like contraction from 1o teams to 6 or star players jumping ship for something else.  Creating a viable pro league is no easy task and making it 10 years says something.

The obvious conclusion is that these guys are in it for the long-haul.  The MLL isn’t some flash-in-the-pan road show, even if the Machine don’t have a home and their players get dealt a rough hand, because everyone knows that if they stick with it, this is building to something real.  And being a part of something great before it was great but getting it there is one of the most rewarding feelings in life.

You can look at the current make up of the MLL and there seem to be some interesting trends of success and failure.  Both Denver and Boston are newer lacrosse boomtowns.  Boston has had a scene forever but it was never a Long Island or Baltimore.  Now it is approaching that hotbed level and the Cannons are doing well on the field and in the stands.  Denver is killing it attendance-wise and lax out there is just exploding.  Chicago could actually get there eventually but there is A LOT of work to do lacrosse-wise in the Windy City before a team will really work there.

Places like Baltimore and Long Island suffer from the point I first covered; the old guard simply not believing.  Toronto may also face this problem as there will be difficulties in really converting Canadian box fans to our modified outdoor game.  Having the entire Canadian team on the roster is a great shot at that however.

As the league contemplates expansion they might want to consider markets that have an NCAA and MCLA college men’s lacrosse presence that is good but not great.  Places like Long Island, Baltimore, Upstate New York, Philly, Connecticut and Virginia are all saturated with excellent college lacrosse and gaining a foothold there will be hard.  Places like Boston and Denver that are sizable cities, love lacrosse but aren’t busting at the seams with top flight college programs make for perfect targets.

This theory rules out places like Seattle and Portland for now, as well as California.  The West Coast may require a slightly different approach and something lie the LXM Pro Tour could provide that linkage.  The game may be better served if they only operated on the left coast but by coming East, they do a great job of measuring interest in potential MLL cities and I don’t really believe in such a thing as “too much lacrosse”.  Basically, the West Coast needs some more exposure time and in 5 years, it will be the next pro frontier again.  Last time was possibly a bit too rushed.

I could see cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and maybe even Detroit being next.  These are sports towns that are not only aware of lacrosse but are starting to embrace it.  The sport is on their radar screen already and they’re sending kids to the next level.  When you’re producing guys like Brett Hughes or Peet Poillon, your town has probably made it.  Places like that are ready for the MLL and I hope that Pittsburgh is at the top of their list as it has maybe the most potential.

Since Cities that don’t have HUGE college scenes are doing well, the MLL should also think about playing their games on Sundays in the Spring.  It works for football and you just KNOW every lacrosse player in the country would tune in on Sunday to watch the pros after they played a college game on Saturday.  It’s lax season, for pete’s sake!  I’ll watch anything lax in the spring!  It may cut out some guys who are coaching but players play, coaches coach.  NBA players aren’t coaching in college.  They’re playing basketball.  It’s very simple if you look at it in terms of where you want to be in the future.

Of course, there are lots of things about which to complain regarding the MLL but I’m going to gloss over them because there are lots of things to complain about anything.  In the MLL, the style of play is fast, the stick skills are the best they’ve ever been, the personalities are coming along nicely and for the most part, it’s all happening organically.  There is the requisite planned marketing and t-shirts being shot out of giant slingshots but for the most part, it is about the play on the field.  When you also consider that TVs are getting bigger, the game becomes more accessible and as broadcast quality is improved, we should see another little boom.

In the end, the MLL’s growth will be a little slower than the game’s overall growth because it is the pinnacle of play and in order for the top of a pyramid to grow, the bottom must expand as well.  This is happening as we speak and it’s only a matter of time before it pays off.  The doubters will still be scratching their heads, and they still won’t get it.  The rest of us will be just be enjoying some top level lacrosse.

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About the Author: Connor is a life-long lacrosse player who doesn’t know when to give up on the game. He played and coached at Wesleyan University and now plays for the Southampton LC in NYC. Connor lives with his fiance in Brooklyn and thanks her for allowing him to keep the dream alive.

Contact him at connor@lacrosseallstars.com.

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