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Has Major League Lacrosse Improved in 15 Years?

Has Major League Lacrosse Improved in 15 Years?

Examining the question, “Has Major League Lacrosse improved in 15 Years?” Connor Wilson looks as the past and offers light for the future!

After a Twitter conversation a couple of weeks back with @RPDLacrosse and @Knights_MLAX basically asking “Has Major League Lacrosse improved?”, I had to sit down and really ask myself if the league was in a good place after 15 full seasons, as impartially as I could. I thought about it long and hard, and here is what I came up with. Stay with me if you can, this post is like a three-day bushwack. A safe return is not guaranteed!

Let’s get some background out of the way first. When talking about something like a pro league, and its successes and failures, it’s important to state your relationship to the entity, as potentially tedious as that can be.

I saw Major League Lacrosse come into existence, watched it for 15 years, have friends who played, knew one of the original owners, and some of my other friends used to dress up as the Boston Cannons’ mascot, Boomer. I went to games during the first season and I’ve been to at least a game or two in person most years since. I sat in my car for a 2 hour rain delay in Boston just to watch a game in year 2 or 3. Why? I’m still not sure, but from Day 1 of MLL action, I’ve been a fan on some level.

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Ryan Powell 2001 MLL
Ryan Powell with the Rattlers. Photo Credit: MLL / Getty Images

The league definitely held a certain mystique, and ideally, it represented a sort of “next level”, which could allow for guys who were later bloomers in lacrosse (like me) to still see success at the highest levels against the absolute best players. It was like the elite divisions at Placid and Vail and Glastonbury and the War at the Shore all rolled into one. I used to play in those divisions (and usually get embarrassed), so Major League Lacrosse was really something I wanted to see happen before it ever existed, just without me playing in it (thankfully for everyone). When it came to be a reality 15 years ago, I knew we were only a couple years away from being a mainstream sport if the league only did things right. I mean, the XFL was an instant success, right?

Gary Gait Long Island Lizards
Gary Gait with the Lizards in 2001. Photo credit: MLL / Getty Images

Of course I was 20 years old back then, and even more naive than I am now. I didn’t understand what it took to make a pro league grow and prosper, and I didn’t understand the costs associated with making something look professional, let alone having it be professional. I’m now older than most of the players in the league, and still know a number of them personally. I hear the good and the bad, from first hand sources. My position with LAS has also given me a lot of access to the MLL Commissioner, David Gross, and Jake Steinfeld, the co-founder of the league. I’ve heard it all, from every angle, and it’s changed how I view the league in many ways; some for the better, some a little worse.

I get press passes from teams, press releases from the league, and we have gotten press passes from the league office as well. We are invited to weekly Coaches’ Calls. We are not an MLL Featured Publication (I’m still not sure what that is actually). Currently, we have no official relationship with the league outside of being a member of the lacrosse media. They do not advertise with us, and neither does the Lax Sports Network, a newly created and heavily related media entity. Cascade and Maverik, two MLL sponsors, do advertise with us. Current and former MLL players write for us at times.

By knowing something well, and hearing as many sides as you can, it changes you from fan to something else, and it should. So now that my initial infatuation with MLL as fan boy has fully dissipated (you’ll have to trust me on that, or read some of my older posts for proof), I can ask questions about the league, and while I still want to see pro lacrosse “work”, I also know it’s an uphill battle, which is only truly getting underway now.

Ok, your decade old dreams are boring, and so was all that background info. Can Major League Lacrosse work, or what? And is the league in a better place now than it was 15 years ago, when it was just starting out?

Hypothetically, yes, pro field lacrosse can work. It has some major issues, of course, but the bones are there. The game is fast, plenty of goals are scored, there is physical contact, and there are enough talented players out there to create a league with legitimate parity. Some of those guys also have the right personalities to make it work, which is more and more important in today’s modern sports landscape. There is an existing, and growing, base of lacrosse players to utilize as initial fans, and lacrosse is becoming less of a regional game in this country year by year. That right there presents a good skeleton for success. Unfortunately, that’s all it is, and no one wants to hear about hypotheticals. Or skeletons.

Of course people do love hearing about problems. What problems? How about the sport not translating all that well to TV, and being hard to follow for many new or casual fans because of weird rules and a fast pace of play. This must be dealt with. Confusing rules may need to be simplified. New markets will need to be tested, and the sport’s overall popularity will need to grow, and continue to grow, for decades, in order for an organic mass of interest to form on its own. A simplified version of the game, like 3×3, might need to be introduced to kids at schools to help push this along. And where does the money come from for that?

Those are some of the problems.

I could write a long post about each of those issues, and I might, but for now I’m going to focus on the ONE thing that I believe could actually change the league for the better, and alleviate some of the pain caused by the above problems. RIGHT. NOW.

Today, I’m about solutions.

What it takes for the league to truly make big strides in popularity is really quite simple, and both of my aforementioned Twitter conversation participants agreed on this:

The league needs full-time players.

WHY? And can the league actually support that? Lets’ get into it.

Chesapeake Bayhawks vs Boston Cannons July 2015 Photo Credit Jeff Melnik

Full-time players would improve the product on the field overnight. The same guys you have today with more practice time per week together would mean a better quality product on the field. PERIOD. There isn’t a top 10 college team out there that practices once, maybe twice, a week. It just doesn’t happen, because it doesn’t work at a high level when everyone else is going full speed, 5-6 days per week. That means there is still plenty of room to improve the on field product even if it is good now, plain and simple. Anyone can say that MLL is the best lacrosse in the world, but until teams are practicing 4-5 days a week, many people just will not buy that line. That is true both in reality and perception.

The guys out there now are phenomenal with 1 or 2 days a week together. No doubt about it. But ask them if they’d be better with 4 days a week of practice and more team film study. Go ahead, I’ll wait. With more practice time, team bonding, and less financial stress, you get better lacrosse. Allen Iverson’s comment not withstanding, practice helps you get better. And people tend to like things that are clearly better. At least that’s what I hear.

The crazy things is that the benefits don’t end with “better lacrosse”.

You also get players living and working IN THEIR TEAM’S CITY, and this is a great way to get people from the community invested in your team. If only 5 guys are living in a city, they interact with however many people in that city 5 guys can interact with. If 5 times that number of players live locally and are in town more often (to be at practice every day), that’s 5 times the interactions with potential local fans and franchise supporters than you get now.

And here is another huge potential benefit. Full-time players could show up at schools to talk to kids, maybe only once a week. It can be part of the full-time job. 25 guys means 25 classes of kids. EVERY WEEK. That’s 500 potential new fans every week. Think of the sheer exposure for the franchises! Or think about it more simply: are you going to watch the pro lacrosse player who comes to your donut shop for coffee every day or the one who just flies in for games? It’s fan base building 101. Engage the community directly. Allow your players to pull in fans. Connect to people like NBA, NFL, and MLB players do not.

It would also allow for potentially great players to stay in the league longer. Lower paid players, and guys without any sponsorships, can struggle to make ends meet right now. Even some of the top guys are working camp all week, right before huge games. By the end of the season, they are exhausted. If the league paid out full-time dollars, these problems could disappear, and guys could really focus on their playing careers, instead of worrying about paying rent. It represents a huge opportunity for the players to make more of their positions as professionals, and it would be a big step for the league. Once players retire, they could then hit the camp circuit hard and still make a living off of the game they love.

Taking this next big step will be the hardest thing MLL has ever had to do.

The below numbers are somewhat hypothetical, but relatively close to reality. They are simply used to give you an idea of how daunting a task full-time salaries would be for the league right now. You’ll get the point at the end of all this. It’s only a little math, so pay attention. This is important.

If you have 25 guys on your game day and practice rosters, and they all make $5,000-$15,000 a season, you’re laying out around $250,000 in salaries to players alone, and that doesn’t count staff or coaches. So let’s bump that number up $100,00 (for the sake of argument) to $350,000 total for all staff and coaches. That’s a solid chunk of change right there (and it’s likely very much on the low end in reality) and will represent our 2015 single MLL franchise salary number. It could be very different from this, but that’s not the point here, as you’ll see below.

Moving forward in 2016, let’s say each player receives around $50,000, which is a relatively livable wage for a full-time anything in most places in the US, and what it would take to make these guys “full-time” players. It’s not anywhere close to NBA money, but players could rent an apartment and pay for their food and gas with that kind of paycheck. Now we’re talking about $1.25 million for just the players ALONE. Staff salaries, if they stayed the same, would bump that number above 1.3 million dollars. PER TEAM that is an increase of a cool million dollars in salary expenses alone every single year.

Greg Gurenlian New York Lizards MLL Championship 2015

With 9 teams in the league next year for sure, this means the league would somehow need to find a way to generate an additional $9-10 million dollars of revenue and/or investment every single year. Without major sponsors pitching in a LOT more money, a ridiculously lucrative TV deal, or some insane but brilliant angel investor with $100M to blow, this will have to happen a different way.

Can the Lax Sports Network be the answer? If you forget the start up costs for LSN, which many sources estimate could easily climb into the “millions of dollars” range, the network will generate $70 per subscriber per year. Of course there will be deductions and costs, so the end number will likely be well below $70, but for fun, let’s look at it as $70 profit. In order to pull in $9 million a year, the LSN would need to have over 125,000 people sign up for an annual deal. When one considers that MLL has 58,ooo followers on Twitter, 59,00 fans on Facebook, and 40,000 subscribers on YouTube, all of which are free, you have to concede that LSN doesn’t look that promising as a catch-all answer to MLL’s future finances. At least not if the goal is full-time paid players.

However, LSN could benefit from being heavily involved in the college lacrosse scene as well. If they can pull over a ton of big college games, and offer teams like Denver, Penn State, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Albany, Syracuse, and UNC special coverage opportunities, and cover the D2, D3, and MCLA championships, they may be able to make serious waves via the long and short tails of product creation. High school lacrosse is another opportunity for them, as is the NLL and FIL. Of course there are costs involved with all of that, and I’m interested to see how it all plays out. But who knows, perhaps LSN is only one of many ways that MLL is planning on creating new revenue. What else could they have up their sleeves?

Well, one thing that the league has going for it right now is a good number of owners who REALLY want to win. So while the league itself may not be able to bring in millions per year to pay their players, certain teams are definitely taking things to the next level themselves. Some of this comes in the form of apartments, or other perks. Some of it comes from straight cash. Teams CAN pay their players additional dollars, and if you want to win, it might be what needs to happen in the future, until the big dollars come rolling in from other sources. A desire to win will likely continue to drive the league.

Bayhawks 2010 Championship. Photo Credit: MLL / Getty Images
Bayhawks 2010 Championship. Photo Credit: MLL / Getty Images

Of course this would also mean that the league office would likely need to give more control to each franchise to run their own show. If team contracts were bigger than league contracts, and players were practicing more, this would only make sense. Is the MLL willing to give up central control of the league to the owners? If those guys are writing all the checks, it will have to happen.

Another viable option is to COMPLETELY CHANGE how the league operates, and take on a slightly different business model.

Instead of running the league in the late Spring, all of June and July, and some of August, start it earlier. Like much earlier. Use the NFL as your model. Youth, high school, and college games will be played on or before Saturday, and on Sunday, everyone sits down together to watch pro lacrosse! I can just imagine college players flocking to their TV sets on Sundays in the spring to watch their buddies in the pros. High school players and younger, who missed college games on TV on Saturday because of their own games, could watch the pros play on Sundays instead. It’s basically MLL as NFL, and lacrosse as spring football. Big games could even be played on Monday nights, to help spread out coverage, and hit open windows of TV time.

Fifth-third-Bank-staidum-kennesaw-georgia-mll-championship-game

Games could even be played on college campuses, and if the Pioneers can sell out Peter Barton I’m sure the Outlaws would too. If you can sell out a stadium, that’s a good thing, right? I know Denver does well now, but like I said, this would be a different approach. Can Denver actually MAKE money by selling out a smaller stadium? How much could/should they charge for a ticket? If Denver can sell a more expensive ticket, but sell out a stadium, do they make more money? It’s worth looking at in an overall model evaluation.

Another hidden benefit is that if the players were full-time pros, and the games were played in the Spring, the issue of being a college coach and/or a professional player would disappear. Guys would need to choose between the two jobs, and while that would be tough, it would open up additional jobs in the lacrosse market, and hey that’s good for our economy! Full-time pro jobs would be new, and some of the guys who currently hold both job types would leave one or the other.

Job creation jokes aside, running the pro league on Sundays could create massive buy-in from the greater lacrosse community, especially if players were full-time, and if games were played at attendance-heavy college campuses, like Denver, Syracuse, and Hopkins. People would SEE the difference in speed and skill between college and the pros EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND, and the old die-hards who say MLL lacrosse is still a step down from college could experience the differences for themselves. With full-time players, MLL would simply be far superior, and no one could deny it. Could this type of move to smaller stadiums actually catapult the league to the point where a $50,000 salary becomes feasible?

While the route and method towards full-time player employment could take a lot of different twists and turns, I firmly believe that full-time players give the league its best shot at success and mainstream popularity in the long-term. It will build up franchises’ local presence, increase the quality of play on the field, keep better players in the league, and provide a livable wage opportunity to potential future players, who want to give it a shot. How all that happens is still a long ways off from being figured out it seems.

Major League Lacrosse may simply decide to “ride the wave” of lacrosse growth overall, and never make a push to create full-time players until the market creates it. It’s certainly possible, and would be the most conservative move. For those who look at the league now as the same entity it has always been, the possibility of a big change must seem limited. While I do think Major League Lacrosse is taking the slow and steady approach right now, I also think they realize the importance of having full-time players in the league. There are just no guarantees that it will happen any time soon.

Has Major League Lacrosse Improved in 15 Years?

This will sound crazy, but even if the league were actually somehow worse now than in the early 2000s, it would still be better. How is this possible? Well, the league has now been around for 15 years, and 12 years ago, you simply couldn’t say that. When people said, this league will be done in another 3 years, they could have been right. At least in 2003 they could have been right. Now when they say the league can’t last, the league can say, “we have lasted already. For FIFTEEN YEARS”. And honestly, that means something. A lot of pro leagues don’t last this long!

It shows an ability to make things work on a consistent level. It shows dedication and a long-term approach. It has a certain gravity to it. Even if the league had been paid for wholly by the owners, and everyone had taken a huge loss, it still has gravity! Why? Because people would have been willing to take a loss on it for FIFTEEN YEARS. That’s either terrible business or it simply shows enough passion to make it work eventually, even in a worst case scenario.

Also, it’s nothing new. This is actually a tried and tested way to start a viable professional league.

Successful professional sports leagues in this country have often arduously laid down foundations in their early years for later success. The NFL and NBA are both examples of this slow approach, where popularity is built up over time, often regionally. MLL has followed these two current sporting giants’ methodology closely, and when you consider the limited dollars available to lacrosse (because of the sport’s overall size and market), I think it makes a lot of sense.

Of course there are detractors to the above point of view, and they will often mention the MLS. Major League Soccer started out paying players an average of over $50,00 a year, and the guys were “full-time” from Day 1. Many of the franchises played in big stadiums and some drew in big time names to help get them off the ground. So people will ask why MLL couldn’t have taken this approach, and I will tell answer that question right now.

Soccer is the SINGLE MOST POPULAR SPORT IN THE WORLD. I’m not yelling, I’m just making sure that fact is understood. Lacrosse, at least according to BiggestGlobalSports.com, figures in around number 68. SIXTY-EIGHT. Lacrosse isn’t even in the top 15 in the US, or the top 21. In fact, “not sure” ranks well above our sport. So starting out at the same level as soccer just wasn’t going to happen. In fact, soccer even had a predecessor professional league, which ran for 16 years, from 1968 to 1984, where players were also full-time. So soccer is really not an apt comparison, at least in terms of start up salaries.

Football and basketball are a lot closer, but you have to look further back into history to see it. Both are “American” games, much like lacrosse, and both took time to grow out of regional sports into nationwide games. Both had low salaries early on and used part-time players. Both leagues also saw competitors rise up, and in the end, teams and players merged from two back into one. Does any of that sound at all familiar for lacrosse? Both had terrible TV deals early on, and saw franchises pop up and then disappear with some regularity. Both leagues kept at it, and eventually broke through. When players finally played full-time, popularity was skyrocketing, but it had taken time.

So how is lacrosse any different? I’m glad you asked, because there is one HUGE difference. Both football and basketball benefited greatly from their incredibly popular college level counterparts in the NCAA. While it was a struggle to pull over fans at first, as more college stars made the move, so did their supporters. And here is where lacrosse is in some trouble, and where my momentum train really runs out of steam.

Chesapeake Bayhawks vs Boston Cannons July 2015 Photo Credit Jeff Melnik

Most college teams don’t pull in tens of thousands of fans for every game. College lacrosse is still not like football or basketball in the NCAA. A couple thousand people is still considered good, and places that do sell out (Denver, Hopkins, etc) have smaller stadiums to fill. Even the NCAA Final Four caps out around 30,000 fans for a game, so the MLL may not be able to rally new fans to THEIR version of the game all that easily, because there simply aren’t the same number of fans out there to begin with.

Some may look at this as impossible, but if you’re an optimist, you willingly look past the dissimilarity between soccer and lacrosse in many regards, and acknowledge that in soccer, the MLS has really taken off in popularity BEFORE its college counterpart. Baseball, in its early beginnings did the exact same thing. So can lacrosse create a boom of fans at the PRO level first? Are there un-captured fans out there that pro lacrosse could snag? Can pro lacrosse leapfrog the college game?

This will be a challenge for the sport in many ways. First off, there are a number of established sports already being played professionally and it is far from an open free market. The establishment has power. It leaves less air time to talk about or show lacrosse. It also leaves less casual fans around and means every franchise will have to fight for every new ticket holder they get. It means big brands will need to be convinced to get on board, still provide top notch support, and see less immediate payback. It’s either that, or people with money are going to have to put a lot more into it personally, which is typically not a sustainable practice.

Will Manny Boston Cannons vs Ohio Machine Credit Jeff Melnik 2015

It’s all going to be very hard. BUT, if lacrosse can take the best parts of both professional sports models, by playing off of the existing fan base AND bringing in a whole new set of fans, it can potentially see long-term success. Here are a couple of ideas to “grow the base”:

FREE Access to the Lax Sports Network for all current military personnel and families.
Exhibition Games, played for league-supported charities, in famous locations like Central Park, Jose Marti Park in Miami, or Piedmont Park, in Atlanta.
– Strike up a partnership with the National Parks Dept, and play games on grass in historic national parks, to benefit those parks.
Play a game overseas. In front of our troops? Even better. The league doesn’t have to play up its ties to the military because this league has active duty players. A partnership or event like this should be an incredibly easy sell. Same thing goes for access to the LSN.
Find an All-Star format and STICK WITH IT! USA versus the World (D3 players, Canada and Iroquois!), Old School versus Young Guns, East versus West, just something. Make it count.
Fastest Shot. Mandatory for ALL MLL All-Stars, let’s create the standard, and if it takes on a life of its own, like the longest drive competitions, even better for the sport overall.
HD, HD, HD. Everything in HD, all the time.
More sponsors. Hit up lacrosse companies. Nike, Under Armour, Epoch, Wolf Athletics, Adidas… how you doing? And nab a couple big outside guys. What’s up, Chevrolet? JetBlue, say hi to your mother for me! Not that easy, but needed.

While I have a couple other ideas on what the league can do, I don’t have nearly all the answers. For those, league leadership will need to step up and create some compelling deals.

Is the league better off now than it was 15 years ago? Yes, it is, but perhaps only because the potential I used to think was there is still there, and it’s 15 years later. For a niche sport that is still growing, it’s a positive place to be, but only for now. Ask me again in 5-7 years, and if things have not changed, my answer likely will have. Does that seem like a long time? In pro league years, it’s really not.

Major League Lacrosse is more organized, has more information, and a stronger history than ever before. They can’t be called flash in the pan league anymore, and they have demonstrated their staying power and determination, while looking towards the future when they can. The next big step could be a couple years away still, but the league seems positioned to be able to take it. By my count, that’s a solid place to be in 2015-16*.

*Disclaimer: All of the above pretty much goes out the window if there is another major economic collapse in the US, or in other parts of the world. Timelines instantly lengthen, and staying alive can become the top priority. History tells us we should be decades away from another major burst in the bubble, but just because cash is available now, that doesn’t mean it will be available in the future.

The one positive for Major League Lacrosse in this regard is that they have direct experience in steering a league through a massive financial collapse, as the league was 8 years old when the US markets last saw a major shock. The league may be in a precarious spot when it comes to reserve funding, but their small size and flexibility should help them avoid any sort of complete shutdown, even in catastrophic conditions.

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