Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a four-part series reviewing the past year of men’s professional field lacrosse. The introduction to the series was published Monday. Today we’re covering the summer of Major League Lacrosse, and will also be tackling a comparison article between the two leagues. You can read about the first year of the PLL here.
(Cont’d): There is a large amount of developing news surround teams, owners, and operating models of the MLL happening right now. This post is focusing more on how last season’s decision was made and what its impacts were. The current news is not a major factor except where noted.
MLL 2019 Season Review
The MLL ran into this season with its most turbulent offseason in league history. It had dealt with contraction, controversy, the great recession and nearly anything else you can think of over its nearly 20-year history. But losing so many players along with some coaches and exclusive control of the U.S. men’s professional summer lacrosse scene meant things were in for a change. The other big issue that it had to deal with was it still had to grapple with all those years of baggage as it tried to move forward. What this meant is that as it battled in the court of public opinion, they were constantly put into lose-lose situations.
Immediately after the PLL was announced, things were still relatively business as usual for the MLL. It eventually announced new rules to improve player compensation and host more games, followed by a rebranding initiative. Then on April 1st, just about 8 weeks before the season started, Major League Lacrosse announced that the Charlotte Hounds, Florida Launch and Ohio Machine were ceasing operations. This was the outcome of an owner’s meeting, and you can read all about it here.
This is one great example of a minor lose-lose. The league had already announced a new salary model, an increased number of games and the fully released 2019 schedule. Now, based on ownership decisions, teams had to abandon many of its plans and had already sold season tickets. So what it wound up doing was playing its full 18 game schedule with the remaining teams. What this turned into was a TON of games, including several times where the same teams were just playing each other multiple times in a row. It meant some teams were locking up playoffs and facing off against teams they owned tiebreakers against repeatedly.
The MLL Players
Following contraction, the talent pool for the MLL shrunk drastically. When the PLL was first announced, it became apparent that a whole bunch of players that were not playing pro lacrosse were about to. Overnight, you went from 9 teams to 15 in terms of total men’s outdoor pro teams between the two leagues. But with the contraction, things went down to 12 teams after the Machine and Launch were canceled and the Hounds put on hiatus. It’s still an increase, but not as drastic as one. What this turned into was actually that significantly more NLL players began entering the field leagues as both groups were more accommodating to that league’s schedule. It made sense because many of these players were proven professionals with NCAA and international experience. Realistically, the way things took shape wasn’t that those new players that couldn’t sniff an active roster were all of a sudden leading the league in goals and taking over. It mean that role players before were taking on larger roles. A second or third option on an offense became the first. Players who would see a few games each season were now playing in them all. The names were still familiar in many cases, like John Grant Jr., Lyle Thompson and others which still kept the level of play high.
A large initiative that the league undertook prior to the season was rebranding the league. Rebranding can always be a little controversial because there is value in the history, which is an asset that the MLL has. But given all the other circumstances and negative impressions many had of the league, trying for a fresh start was worth considering. The MLL has carried years of negative PR amongst players and fans alike as they’ve had people pointing out every mistake made, no matter how small. As part of its rebranding, they hired some outside agencies that helped develop a new logo and a new message. It also brought in a professional photographer that specializes in working with professional athletes as part of a larger media day. It was able to leverage many of those photos, videos and interviews throughout the season to help build out their social content. For example, when the All-Star rosters were announced, a lot of the photos that they used were from that event, which allowed them to have pictures of players without their gear on. A seemingly minor thing, but it is something viewed as a hurdle when players are not recognized without their helmet on. If you fast forward through the season, they obviously still had to try to compete and break through the social noise the PLL had created, which was a difficult task to say the very least.
As mentioned before, the season itself was a bit grueling at times. It was also certainly filled with highs and lows. What this MLL season proved more than anything was how at this level, being a team mattered. Many of the players who chose to stay in the MLL over the PLL did so for two main reasons — they liked the team they had, and they wanted to play for that city. So it was no big surprise that the two teams who kept the most players from 2018 found themselves in the 2019 championship game. Denver and Chesapeake both returned a ton of players and did not lose a step. The other two playoff teams (Boston and Atlanta) also boasted high numbers of returners. In the most interesting twist, the team that arguably had the most talent on their roster, the Lizards, finished last in the league and never quite found their identity.
One of the biggest bright spots of the entire season was without question the playoffs, but specifically the playoffs. These semifinal games were the best I have seen in almost a decade. The game between Denver and Boston was a type of physical lacrosse that is getting rarer and rarer. The Atlanta – Chesapeake game had an ending that could only be compared to the 2009 NCAA Championship between Syracuse and Cornell. Even the final went all the way to the wire but unfortunately ended in about as ugly of a way as one could imagine. It was a close game that led to some highly controversial calls which made the Denver sideline become unraveled. It ended up being no joking matter. Zach Currier was ejected, flags were flying and Chesapeake walked off as champions. While that was great for the Bayhawks, it was an ugly way to conclude the season.
Major League Lacrosse’s Business
But back to off-the-field work. The biggest move in terms of operating the business side of the MLL was the reasoning behind the initial contraction, where it moved towards a single team, one owner, one vote model as Jim Davis moved towards owning one team. This is, of course, was interesting because it has been made some of the more recent news, which is still developing, a much bigger deal. Major League Lacrosse is now moving closer and closer to a true single-entity model where the league owns all six teams. The league has always been considered a single-entity model because they have all the player contracts centralized under the league office. To put it differently, individual league franchises have owned the rights to players but they don’t actually own the contracts. They don’t actually pay the players directly for the game checks. Any pay that they get from a franchise is usually some of the side work that you see players do through clinics or other appearances that are specific to that franchise.
The whole point of moving towards the model of having one owner, one vote was so that everyone was going to be equal. Previously in the MLL, things were a little uneven because someone like Jim Davis who owned multiple teams would have a much larger say in league decisions. Making this change put all the owners on a level playing ground with each other. That is why it is now so intriguing that after a single year they moved into something completely different. While there are reports of multiple owners turning control of their teams back to the league, the reasoning behind these decisions has not been publicly discussed. Stay tuned Lacrosse All Stars for that information as it becomes available.
With the league having to deal with this new operating landscape, a big question was going to be how sponsors would react. Fortunately for them, they have been able to keep most of their sponsors and add some new ones along the way. Bringing in league-wide revenue is going to continue to be vital moving forward. If you are operating under the franchise model, it allows — more than anything — a spreading around of either the profits or losses, depending on which side of zero the balance sheet is on. We’ve known for years that professional lacrosse is not a highly profitable endeavor. The NLL, in particular, has had owners go on the record that they lose multiple millions per year, although there are some teams that actually do turn a profit. The teams that do the best are the ones that own the facilities, so that’s kind of a sunk cost, and it’s really all about trying to pick up additional dates to book said venue. They then gain revenue from concessions, ticket sales, parking and merchandise. Ideally, those are enough to offset player travel, insurance, pay, as well as staff, marketing, etc. Teams like the Cannons and Bayhawks have been moving much close to this model, but that is being brought into question once again.
So the end of the story with the MLL in 2019 is really that despite all the change it had, more change is coming. In the next segment of this series, we’ll be diving into the MLL and the PLL a little more head-to-head and see how they both are approaching some things the same way and where they are going on different paths.