On Monday morning, the MLL released some news that no lacrosse fan wants to see. It also happened to be on April 1, which is April Fools’ Day. That did not help things at all. The news was that the league would be ceasing operations in three cities for the 2019 season. The Ohio Machine, Florida Launch, and Charlotte Hounds are all folding prior to the start of this season. This is absolutely shocking news which raises more questions than it answers. It also marks a very sad day for the league.
One of the reasons that this was so shocking is that from what I’ve been able to gather, this had very little to do with the teams themselves, which is unfortunate to say the very least. I was just talking to one of these teams this past week about story ideas and players to profile for this season. Another team even was sending out e-mails for their upcoming tryout as late as Sunday. For outsiders, this may have seemed like an obvious move for the MLL, but I won’t believe that for a second. To say the writing was on the wall for these teams is just not true. Teams and players were blindsided by this decision.
The biggest question for this happening is of course, ‘Why?’ While we still do not know everything that went into this decision, what we can say is that it’s part of an effort the league is making to ‘right size’ everything going into the future. Two other examples of this are Atlanta recently announcing their stadium move, and Boston is also relocating. While each of those are full of their own intricacies, the fact remains that they still are both trying to improve the game day experiences and try to find the right mix of location and stadium size. The other part of the why that we know is pulled directly from the league announcement, which is the broadcasting deal. I’ll touch on that again shortly.
As with pretty much everything in the pro lacrosse world right now, everything needs to be viewed through the lens of what the PLL had to do with this. In this particular case, the only response can be ‘I have no idea.’ And short of totally off-the-record comments and pure rumor mill statements that can’t be confirmed, that’s true. And honestly, turning rumor-mill fodder into actual fact may never happen. The primary reason being that many of those discussions and decisions happen behind closed doors. So where that leaves us is trying to establish how this will impact the part of the game we can see.
The major questions that this creates for me are how are current players affected, how are drafted players affected, how are schedules changing, and what happens to existing contracts? Some of these we know partial answers to, or at least the intent. Some of those we won’t have full answers to until the league makes that information available. But we can explore each a little bit to see what we know and what we don’t. The first group of players to take a look at are the currently rostered players.
Currently rostered players take four forms. There are the protected players from last season that did not leave for the PLL. It is very important to note that some of the players in this situation did actually make the choice to stay with these MLL teams. How they react to these developments will be interesting depending on what options they even have. The second group is the rostered supplemental draft players. There were two supplemental drafts, one just after the PLL announcement, and another recently after a tryout at the draft. Aside from those two are the regular free agent signings. But, the end situation for all of these groups is the same: their rights belong to a team that no longer exists. There will likely be a dispersal draft, which is something we have seen in both the MLL and NLL before. Whether this happens like an actual draft or just direct assignments is to be determined.
The other group of players to consider is the players from the recent collegiate draft and how they’ll be draft handled. Hanging over the head of most of the top draft picks was whether or not they will also be drafted into the PLL. The MLL can make a case for many of these players, but these recent moves are not going to help that case at all. If there was anyone on the fence, this may have pushed them to go to the PLL, which is certainly unfortunate for the MLL. Redrafting the lot is something that could be done, but would also be a terrible look for the league. Strategically for the teams, it’s also a terrible idea because it’s like replaying a hand of poker with the same cards. Everyone already knows who wanted whom. What is more likely to happen is something similar to the dispersal draft. Another alternative is they are all free agents upon graduation. No matter what they choose, that is information which will be coming.
The next question after the players, but still related, is what happens to the schedule. Tickets have been sold, venues are reserved, and the whole season is planned. So what happens? As of right now, it appears that there will still be a full 16-game schedule. There are two hurdles this decision clears. The first of which is just the pure logistics. Every remaining team still has their full home slate. The second hurdle is player compensation. A cornerstone of the league’s change in the fall to play players more was increasing the per game pay in association with the increased number of games. So while the overall schedule shape will remain, the specifics are going to shift a bit.
The remaining question comes down to contracts. Since the MLL is a single entity league, they technically play for the league, not the teams. Which I believe means they are still MLL players, but that needs to be confirmed. According to the release, team-specific partnerships will be refunded and tickets sold will be refunded. I’m sure that for league partnerships, there will have to be some major reassurances going around that whatever message and vision they were sold on is still intact. The one exception to that is LSN.
LSN has been the exclusive distributor of MLL games since they were founded just a few years ago. The issue with their exclusivity is it tied the hands of the league for a long time to branching beyond the web-first model short of expensive contracts. Given the state of the league, that made things cost prohibitive. This is another area where I do not have concrete numbers or anything on record recording the specifics of the deal, so more exploration is needed to fully understand. But with this now cleared, a new challenge in presented. Where will games in 2019 be shown?
So while all of these questions linger, there will be answers coming soon. The sooner the league can move past this all the better. That is because the timing of this happening is a terrible look. Had this decision been made months ago when the owners met to approve the pay increases and other changes, it would have been bad, but this is worse. I personally thought the league would wind up contracting, but I never thought there would be three teams at once. Especially given the effort they have given in the offseason to prepare, every indication was that they would be given an additional year to see how things worked out.
But where we sit now is murky. I do believe the six remaining MLL teams are in a position to make a great impact in their own right. The best examples are the Blaze having moved to try a new venue and the Cannons having invested $1.5M in a new stadium. What this really means that the major differentiator between the PLL and the MLL was just given significant attention. While the PLL is touring the country and trying to build a national profile, the six MLL teams need to own and thrive in their home markets. The loss of these three teams, their staff, their coaches, and their players is going to leave a huge void in those communities and that cannot be understated. But for those that are left, there is now increased pressure to show that having an anchor being party of the lacrosse fabric in that region is something that still matters.