Greg Gurenlian MLL All-Star Game 2015
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Greg Gurenlian Wins Award His Company Sponsors

Greg Gurenlian won Major League Lacrosse’s Face Off Athlete of the Year Award, which is sponsored by the Face Off Academy, which Gurenlian owns and operates, along with some other F/O big timers…

To be overly simplistic, Gurenlian won the Face Off Award sponsored by Gurenlian.

And in almost any other sport, if a star player won an award that was sponsored by a company he owned, fans of other teams, and the general sporting populace would call for an internal investigation and immediately indict the commissioner of the league as a certified stooge, bowl haircut and all.

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Thankfully, Major League Lacrosse is not other sports, and a player basically winning his own award shouldn’t come as a huge shock. In fact, it might even be a good thing! (You can also consider how dominant Gurenlian was this year and shove any complaints of bias right out of your mind.)

The lacrosse world is still small, at least when it is compared to many other team sports, and if you want to succeed in it, you need to have your hands on a lot of pots, juggle multiple responsibilities, and do all of this while your name is as relevant as possible.

For a guy like Gurenlian, that involves training for lacrosse, training other people for one of his day jobs, playing lacrosse, and then training kids for face off specialization all across the country. That sounds extremely tiring. Oh, and did I mention he’s also the President of Tribe7 in NYC, which makes lacrosse equipment? I didn’t mention that? I should have.

In this world, overlap is almost inevitable, and often times, it drives the sport.

For this reason, I really don’t think it’s stupid that a player could win an award that his own company sponsors. These guys simply have to do a ton of different things just to pay the rent each month, and Greg winning this award actually shows how hard it is to make it in lacrosse, and what it takes to make a league work, in a really interesting fashion.

While a site like Deadspin or Barstool might look at this award and see it as just another example of how small time lacrosse is right now (make no mistake, it is still small time), I’m going to look forward, and wonder if this kind of thing is actually a good sign for the sport overall. I’m obviously biased, but to me, it shows more positive than negative.

The obvious and unavoidable negative is that MLL is still not able to draw in so many big time outside sponsors that a smaller company, like Gurenlian’s Face Off Academy, would be priced out. The top face off guy winning his own award becomes a non-issue if its sponsored by Gatorade. Gatorade doesn’t take face offs.

Of course the lack of many big time sponsors has been, and will be, a constant reality for this league, and many other small leagues, throughout its early existence. It’s pretty much a fact of life in the American sports landscape, so when you look at it in that context, it’s a much more normalized and expected situation. The big guys don’t all jump in until you’ve made it.

But the fact that Gurenlian, a current player, is invested in the league he plays in speaks volumes. If he didn’t believe in it, why would be spending any of his own dollars to sponsor this Face Off Award? He would just pocket his salary, use his well recognized name to promote his brand, and keep as much for himself as possible out of the FOA kitty. But instead, he’s buying in to (and spending dollars on) a league that he likely KNOWS is still 10-15 years away from any sort of serious profitability or large scale exposure… and that says something to me, something good.

Gurenlian on the Face Off Academy

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With the increase in MLL allowed manufacturers/equipment sponsors, and a seeming increase in lacrosse-related sponsors, Major League Lacrosse is widening their net at home, within their community. While the FOA isn’t nearly as big a sponsor as STX or Maverik (where other current players work full time jobs), it does show quite clearly that current players believe in the MLL product, and it’s not just lip service for a paycheck.

Guys like Gurenlian are putting their money down on the table (and he’s not alone), and I think the MLL has to be thrilled to know their own players believe in the league that much. As the rest of the lacrosse world continues to come around to Major League Lacrosse, the thrills should only continue.

While this is all well and good, the league does still have a choice to make when it comes to sponsors, overall popularity, and their financial future.

If lacrosse continues to grow at a solid clip, the MLL could become a league sustained by the lacrosse community, and few others. Players would never make more than $50-100,000 a year, if that, and crowds would likely average around 10,000 people per game. Some franchises might do a little better, but the sport would remain capped by being fringe, and only really enjoyed by those who play it. Players would still hold down other lacrosse jobs, but the quality of life would certainly improve. Lacrosse-related marketing would be the driver.

Of course in 20 years, people could very well look back on today’s MLL and wonder how it became as big as it did. Both the NFL and NBA saw rapid popularity surges in only a decade or two, and while lacrosse seemingly has a long way to go, that kind of success can’t be ruled out completely.

However, it won’t just happen on its own, and this is where the choice comes in. Will the league keep to the core of lacrosse, and grow as the sport grows, somewhat organically? Or will the league decide to change how they operate, and how they want to appeal to people, in order to cast a wider net?

MLL franchises are now in Charlotte, Ohio, and Florida, and while there is solid lacrosse in all three regions, none are quite large enough to sustain those teams without outside interest. Expansion seems destined to happen soon as well, and Houston and Atlanta look like the obvious choices, and that is more of the same: non-traditional hotbed franchises.

While I think it’s great that Major League Lacrosse has teamed up with Gurenlian’s Face Off Academy, and vice versa, the newer franchise locations push me to the belief that MLL is eyeing bigger targets, and national brands, as their future. For now, it’s great to see that players are dedicated to making this league happen in a major way down the road. It would mean that they could just play the game, and still pay the rent.

The big question, assuming the above comes to fruition, is how does the league change to attract big time sponsorship dollars?

And that only opens up a can of worms of other questions. Will the pay-to-watch Lacrosse Sports Network be the answer? Will more teams move to larger stadiums? How will they fill them? How many teams can this league realistically sustain? Will the MLL and NLL ever work together in a truly concerted effort to see both leagues grow? Can the sport of field lacrosse become popular in Canada again to the point a franchise in Toronto could work? Where else can the league go?

I have thoughts on all of the above, but no concrete answers. All I know is that it will take time, effort, cooperation, and a whole lot of money. That’s a lot to ask, but if the end result is a massively popular league, it will be well worth the investment. For now, lacrosse brands and players drive the league, but to truly go big time, it will simply take more than that.