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MLL: Major Changes in Major League Lacrosse

At the beginning of this week while many were still waking up, Major League Lacrosse dropped some of their biggest news of the entire offseason. The MLL has been under fire from media, fans and certainly players for how many aspects of the league have been managed.

New commissioner Sandy Brown is in his first full offseason and has begun talks about an MLL 2.0. Recently, there was a meeting with all the league owners where a few new policies were enacted, which should have an impact throughout the lacrosse world.

mll week three Photo provided by Major League Lacrosse
Photo provided by Major League Lacrosse

The three big items are adding an additional active roster spot for game day and increasing the number of games per year by two. Then there is the change that really captured everyone’s attention: the salary cap has been raised by 51 percent. That last reason is so important because currently you cannot listen to a single broadcast or see any local news segment where the fact that the players are ‘weekend warriors’ or ‘part-time athletes’ is brought up. The other reason why a  51 percent increase is important is that The other two new rules are really there in support of more pay for the players, which makes the 51 percent salary cap increase all the more important.

Then, Marisa Ingemi of the Boston Herald said on Twitter that the MLL schedule start date is going to move back until June. I have been able to confirm this, and there are several other details supporting it that will be announced soon.

This is another major move that will benefit the players. It significantly decreases the number of players who miss MLL game opportunities because their NLL season is still going. There will still be some overlap for the final teams, but the majority of players can do both. This doesn’t even get into rookies being able to play a full season.

Now, all of this is under the banner of supporting the players and investing in the product on the field. In the larger economy, there is plenty of discussion about wage stagnation, and the MLL is no different. There has been next to no movement in player salaries throughout league history. There have been many reasons for that on the league’s side of things, but now this new move for players is a major sticking point. Their dedication is at an all-time high. You cannot just show up on game day and expect to have a spot in this league. Nor can you show up to training camp without having done anything since the season ended and expect to be on a roster. Training all year and dedication through the week are now expected.

The first domino in these new rules is the pay raise. So you want to pay players more, eh? Kind of like squeezing water from a rock, you can’t just automatically have this money appear from nowhere. That’s where adding a game makes sense. It gives one more opportunity to get the team out there, wrap sponsors around them and bring in fans. But in order for that to be equitable across the league, two games are needed for each team. One home and one away. With a 16-game schedule, every team will now player every other team. Everyone gets an additional date for a possible home game, and players now earn two more game checks.

To support those two more game checks, you have to raise the salary cap. Imagine the reaction to just adding dates, and then only adding a few dollars to the game day checks to compensate? That would not be pretty. So adding those two games means at a minimum, the cap had to be raised 14 percent. Now, 51 percent and 14 percent are very different numbers. So let’s take a look at where that other 37 percent goes.

For one chunk of it, you now have an extra game day spot. This will be huge for players. The MLL does not pay sidelined active players game checks, so that means an additional game check is added. For specialty positions like FOGO’s, this may mean more opportunities for backups to get a game day spot. There may now be an additional longpole in the mix where teams used to make a SSDM switch over in the middle of a game if there was an injury. For coaches, it opens a world of opportunity.

So, 5 percent of that 37 percent goes to this additional roster spot. It will more often than not be a rookie, a journeyman type of player, or a short-term need, which means they’ll be on the cheaper end of the pay spectrum. What this leaves is a new 32 percent raise in discretionary cap room. A big part of this new deal is that the max salary was also raised. This is a huge deal. While specific numbers are not publicly available, the new limit was set to offer a more competitive deal to reward star players, league veterans, and incentivize players to stay committed to the league.

One player who has signed a new contract under these new agreement is Max Adler of the Denver Outlaws. Adler’s situation is interesting because it touches on a number of these topics. For one, he just completed his first full season in the MLL, which came after his rookie campaign in Denver where he was drafted. But he is someone that comes from a Division II school (Bentley) and is establishing a career completely outside of lacrosse. As the MLL season was winding down and he was winning the MLL Championship on the weekends, his weekdays were spent building a new career in finance. In years past, players like this would be assumed gone, if not next season, the year after. That 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. office job for young employees is a tough one to negotiate with when it comes to leaving at noon on Friday to make the night practice before a game in Maryland or Ohio. He’s also in a spot where as the FOGO, he has never had an game roster backup. When he was the backup for Tommy Kelly, he never dressed for the same game. It was always one or the other. This drew more scrutiny during the MLL Championship when Adler was hobbled with an injury and was questionable to even take the field again. And there was no real plan-B except for having another player do double duty with their normal position against one of the best FOGOs in the league.

So after the MLL released these rules, a flurry of signings came out across the league, led by Adler’s in Denver. His two-year deal is significant to him because it marks a commitment to his team and the league.

“It shows that the league is committed to making changes. We have a new commissioner and we need to give him a chance. Just talking to the commissioner and other guys in the league, it seems like the league is on the right path and it’s about time,” said Adler.

When I asked him more pointed questions about some of the individual changes, his favorite part was actually the two extra games.

“I love playing lacrosse, so the more I get to play, it’s great,”  Adler said.

Specifically, when Adler realized how it will mean a home and away with every opponent he said, “I lived in the Boston area and went to school there, so playing in Boston would have been great for me. But, they just were not on our schedule this year as an away game.”

These are additional former missed opportunities can now be capitalized on by teams.

As good as this is for the players, this also changes things for coaches and GM’s as they have new calculations to make. For Coach Tom Mariano with the Florida Launch, a major benefit of adding two games is it now helps avoid some of those ugly tiebreaker scenarios at the end of the season.

“With an equal schedule, you can’t lose a tie breaker on one head-to-head game,” said Mariano. But Mariano also thinks adding two games is important because it’s a “chance for players to grow more as team” as well. It also provides more MLL action for fans to come and watch.

When it comes to how the raised cap space will actually be used, things get murky. For Mariano, it will all come down to individual players, situations, needs, and timing. There won’t be just a formula to provide pay (x for two players, y for three, etc.), but it will give them flexibility to adapt to each situation differently.

In Boston, Coach Sean Quirk had a slightly different idea on how the two games will impact his organization.

While looking at how having the extra roster spot will impact the Cannons on game day, Quirk said it will really come down to their personnel and the situation.

MLL Championship preview Powell Lacrosse
“We’ve dressed 2 FOGO’s at a time, which then hurts you by not having the extra offensive or defensive player. For us, it gives us the chance to dress an extra two-way midfielder or even an extra attackman,” Quirk said.

That decision will really come down to who they have at their disposal and who they are up against.

But the main spirit behind the rules were something Quirk wanted to emphasize. “Everyone’s excited about the MLL right now. It’s a league going into its nineteenth year. The owners are showing their commitment. It’s the premier league in lacrosse and we’re ready to get into that nineteenth season of Major League Lacrosse.”

Adler echoed these sentiments when describing his overall attitude for these moves, “It’s exciting, and everyone’s excited and wants to be a part of it. It really seems like it’s on the right path and this is the start, it’s not the end.”

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