Yesterday, I reviewed the recent moves by the MLL to eliminate three teams for the 2019 season, despite being less than two months from the first whistle. The main point was that while the news was enormous, it created a ton of logistical questions as well as bringing into question what sort of strategy the league was operating under. Fortunately, I was able to talk about what went down with MLL Commissioner Sandy Brown and try to determine what answers he was able to share. Fortunately for us, he could answer nearly everything, and in an odd twist, I left the conversation with a positive outlook for the MLL.
That last sentence might seem a bit condescending, so let me give this some context. When it comes to the lacrosse world, there is ample opportunity to focus on an dwell on the negative side of things. With the MLL, there has been an especially negative cloud for years, which is a large driver behind why the Premier Lacrosse League was formed. There were complaints that were not being addressed. My response is to generally focus on the positive direction people are trying to take things regardless of the league, level, or team. But with the MLL news on Monday, I was personally struggling to pull any positives from it. It was not a fun decision, hundreds of people were directly affected, and it did not paint a good picture. This conversation with Brown helped paint a picture with some great examples to show it’s not just for show. There are fundamental changes happening in the MLL which are setting it up to operate the way it should.
Prior to meeting with Brown, it’s important to note that Kyle Devitte from Inside Lacrosse actually had an informative Q&A with Brown as well. I tried not to rehash the same conversation, so here are some of the highlights from their conversation:
- The league will still be single entity
- Due to single entity, current contracts for teams are still in effect
- Teams will maintain a sixteen-game schedule
- The league owns their media rights now
- LSN’s status is up in the air
Now, here’s what Brown and I were able to discuss.
We first focused on the reason for making this move now. Was this proactive or reactive?
His response was an emphatic “proactive.” Brown said that, “When I presented a plan to the owners in August, we agreed to make the decisions needed to drive attendance and build a strong game day atmosphere.”
In order to do this, there are two major things missing. They needed to control their media rights and the needed to move to the model of one team, one owner, one vote.
Jim Davis had been the owner of four different teams. The three that folded and Dallas. Now, he owns only Dallas. This dynamic meant that he owned four of the nine ownership votes, which meant that if just one owner agreed with Davis they would have the majority vote. Ceasing operations for the three franchises mentioned puts all of the owners on a level playing field.
Of course, this left collateral damage — which is a terrible way to describe it. The decision made to end operation of these three teams was not based on team performance, and it was not based on cost savings. It was made to change the ownership dynamics and governance of the league. In the near term, that means these teams could no longer function, but these decision were made, believe it or not, with expansion in mind. Allowing owners to act on behalf of a single team and have control over media rights has been a major hurdle for attracting prospective team owners to the league. These changes should allow a more welcome environment amongst the owners.
The media rights issue was an interesting one. The MLL did not have control over their own rights. Lax United Marketing (or LUM), was the entity that owned and operated the rights to the league for years. If you go back just a handful of years, you would see people like Quint Kessenich calling games in an LUM polo shirt.. In more recent years, LUM has been the operator for Lax Sports Network (LSN). So, with the league now taking over the rights, it left LSN’s status as the provider for MLL games up in the area. There is the possibility of seeing games on LSN this summer, but the terms are going to be different. The MLL now has control over the rights, the production, and can look long term. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is right out of the NLL’s playbook.
Under NLL Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz, the NLL has seen excellent growth and is bringing in team owners that were unobtainable in the past. Before Sakiewicz, the NLL was downsizing. They lost the Boston Blazers, the Wings moved to New England, the Stealth moved from San Jose to Everett to Langley. The Swarm moved from Minnesota to Georgia. With all those moves, smaller arenas were being used, and things were not looking great. But once the league shifted their vision and could sell newer owners on it, more money came in. The arenas became bigger, owners invested in better production equipment and they have moved from league branded distribution to the Bleacher Report Live platform. These are all the same moves that the MLL is setting itself up for right now.
The interesting wrinkle with the broadcast rights announcement was the recent deal signed by the Boston Cannons with NBC Sports Boston. To gain some clarity on if this change affected that deal, I talked to Cannons President Ian Frenette. According to Frennette, the details were approved under the previous LUM setup, but the deal itself was directly between NBC Sports Boston and the Cannons. There was no entity in between. So now that the league owns the rights and not LUM, there’s really no change. The regional distribution deal still stands. It’s also worth noting that NBC Sports and NBC Sports Boston are separate entities, different channels, etc. So the fact that the Premier Lacrosse League is on NBC Sports all summer is not a conflict with the regional network.
This Cannons move is a great sign that all the remaining six owners are heavily committed to in terms of making this model and making their teams work. Their plan is to become a major player in each of their respective markets. At the league level, they are trying to find the best ways to enable to the teams to do this and work on the national level and facilitate growth.
In terms of the timing, this was really all part of an internal review amongst the owners. And once they all made the decision to do so, they acted. Would it have been cleaner before season tickets, schedules, drafts, and contracts? Absolutely. But from the owners’ perspective, this option was better than other alternatives on the table.
The next question, which is really just because of social media being social media was the optics of announcing this on April 1. This was the only part of the interview where Brown really did not like the question. When I asked for clarification on this fact, he actually cut off the question once he knew where it was going.
“That is not even worth discussing,” Brown said. “We’re talking about people’s livelihoods here and we’re a business.”
And for those keeping score: that’s the correct answer. You don’t play around with the timing of decisions like this to work around a date when people like to play small pranks on each other. When all the criteria was met to facilitate this announcement, they made it. End of story.
In terms of the schedule, the sixteen-game schedule was maintained for two reasons: ticket sales and player pay. In the fall, the player salaries were increased per game and the higher totals were supported by additional revenue opportunities for teams.
In terms of season tickets, Brown said the current numbers offer quite a bit of optimism. “Season ticket sales are well ahead of last year’s totals in a number of markets, even with the season starting later.” There will be some shuffling, but teams are all expected to maintain their current home slate.
The other major question mark was In terms of contracts with league wide sponsors. From the outside, there is obvious cause for concern going from nine teams to six this close before the season. But, according to Brown “All sponsors are supportive and appreciate us being proactive. We are in a better position than we have ever been.”
The largest question for fans, though is what will happen to the players? Each team currently has a preseason active roster (PSAR) of forty players. To handle these, there are steps being taken to ensure every single one of them is prevented from falling through the cracks. Teams are organized just as they were for the collegiate draft, and will have a dispersal draft at the end of April (date is not yet announced). All 120 players from the three teams will be spread across the remaining six teams. Their current contracts will be honored. They are also assured a spot in the training camp of any team that picks them. There are also some details like teams cannot do draft-day trades or exchange picks in this draft. But they can still trade currently rostered players. From players the league has contacted, indications are they are still committed to playing in the MLL this summer.
The larger question sits with draft picks of those three teams. These players are still going to find a home, but it won’t be as straightforward as the dispersal draft. As it stands right now, there will be waiver draft that is going to be handled on its own. But, these additional rookies will be accounted for.
The end result of all this player movement is there are going to be some highly competitive training camps in May. Any concern people had of the league being “watered down” should certainly be erased at this point. These are going to be incredibly difficult rosters to make.
To end the conversation, Brown circled back to the desire for the league to be in an optimal position for growth going forward.
“We are trying to get new ownership into the league. We want to expand into the Pacific Northwest, Minnesota, California, and the sunbelt region.”
He is trying to focus in on areas where there is double digit growth in lacrosse participation, which can offer a good base and something to grow with. His final comment, though?
“Our league has had 750 All-Americans, 200 national champions, and 85 US Men’s National Team Members. That is the quality of players who we have had, and it’s who we expect to continue to have in this league.”