Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of a four-part series reviewing the past year of men’s professional field lacrosse. The introduction to the series was published on Monday. Yesterday was the MLL year in review preceded by the PLL. Today, we’ll jump right into a head-to-head comparison of the MLL vs PLL.
MLL vs PLL: A Comparison
When the PLL was announced, the obvious first question that came to mind for many lacrosse fans was, “What about the MLL?” Well, what wound up happening is that the MLL did their thing and the PLL did their thing. There actually wound up being very little cross-talk between the two. It actually took seemingly months before anyone in the PLL would even say the three letters of “M-L-L” consecutively. Former Major League Lacrosse All-Stars became professional all-stars. Their former records with the MLL were meaningless, and their old stats were non-existent in the PLL ecosystem. Everything was starting fresh.
But while the leagues were each walking and talking in their own direction, what honestly surprised me was the fan reaction. Excitement about the PLL was inevitable, but also encouraging. Fans new and old being excited about pro lacrosse is a GOOD thing. None of that is what surprised me. What did surprise me was how many decided to choose one league over another. It very much became MLL vs PLL. The reason that this surprised me is that there really wasn’t a major reason to do so. But how this manifested itself was not just enthusiastic support for the new league, but continued negative views of the MLL. For example: when the league was preparing to announce its rebranding effort, it temporarily removed all photos from their Instagram account — it’s a one click setting to do this — and changed its profile to a solid color of black. It created buzz, which was the point, but the buzz was that the league had officially folded. That’s not exactly what it was going for.
I realize that there has been a lot of bad feelings toward the MLL, particularly from former players about how things were run. You can read more about that here. However, what was interesting is how it became particularly divisive among fans, considering that most of these people didn’t actually have any personal connection to these players and were sort of just going along with their narrative.
But let’s take a look at a few key areas to see how the leagues really were stacked up head-to-head.
In terms of talent, the idea that everybody with the Premier Lacrosse League uses is “the best players”. That is also something that drives MLL teams and MLL players crazy. There’s no doubt that the gravitational center of professional lacrosse talent for men’s field leagues is with the PLL. If you have six teams side-by-side with each league, I would argue that the top talent on each team is relatively close. But if you look at the bottom of those rosters, the worst player on a PLL team is probably going to be a much better player than the worst player on an MLL team. The MLL has great role players, great high-end talent and it has lots of actual professional players. The league still has very good teams and very talented lacrosse players. All-American accolades are still the standard. But if you look at just talent alone from top-to-bottom for an entire roster, the PLL definitely wins out from an MLL vs PLL perspective.
Where the MLL is trying to separate itself, and why many of the players who chose to play in the MLL — it is important to point out that players did deliberately choose to stay in the MLL this year — is that they enjoyed playing with their team with whom they had formed relationships with teammates throughout college and through these past years of the MLL. They wanted to keep those relationships moving forward and keep playing as a group. Now that’s not to say that the PLL doesn’t have teams that play as a team. It absolutely does. I don’t think you see the sort of success that Whipsnakes LC would have without it. I think another team that had a great team vibe to it was Archers LC via a lot of history between players on that team, even though it didn’t have the same sort of success as the eventual champs.
Now, where things get really interesting between the leagues is when you look at its rookies. Some rookies were drafted in both leagues. In fact, all but two PLL draftees were also drafted by the MLL. The volume of MLL picks was also significantly larger because it was initially done while there were still nine teams. But where things get fun is when you start seeing how the rookies moved around. In the end, if you go by percentage of the draft class that played, the PLL was the better spot to be. If you look at numbers in terms of volume, the MLL was the better spot to be. Here’s a quick breakdown of the rookies for the MLL vs PLL:
MLL vs PLL Rookie Comparison
|# of picks||25*||79|
|Did not play||5||42|
|Saw the field||15||37|
|Played in 50% or more of games||13||18|
|Made the All-Star team||1||5|
|Went to the other league||4||15|
*Ryder Garnsey was included in this even though neither league drafted him directly due to his questionable eligibility for going pro due to having an extra year of NCAA eligibility.
The information gleaned from breaking that down a little bit also gets interesting. Only six of the MLL rookies who fell into the “did not play” category that were drafted by one of the three franchises that were either terminated or put on hiatus last year were not picked up by one of the remaining six MLL teams. 2 players didn’t sign with either league in addition to Pat Spencer.
Those are the rookies. What about everyone else? For a few of the younger players, the PLL did exactly what they wanted it to do for them. It took very talented players and put them in a position to thrive. Players like Jules Heningburg, Jarrod Neuman and Mark Glicini all saw their profiles rise significantly. In the MLL, players that were maybe the 3rd or 4th option at their position were given a chance to shine as well. James Fahey for the Cannons was out stripping players like Lyle Thompson and Rob Pannell. Players like Ryan Lee, Bryce Wasserman and Bryan Cole were turned into leaders.
Of course, with some players getting more of the spotlight, it meant that others are going to lose it. On the MLL side, this didn’t happen too much. The players who couldn’t find the field regularly were mostly new to the league as rookies or free agents. In the PLL, it was a different story. You saw players that were regular starters and all-stars all of a sudden have their time on the field evaporate. Players like Steven Brooks, James Pannell, Davey Emala, Ty Thompson, Brandon Mullins, John Lade, Steve Waldeck, Evan Connell, Kevin Rice and Joe Fletcher played no more than a handful of games. In some ways, this is good for the PLL at a high-level because it keeps those players out of the MLL, it makes spots more competitive and it helps build its prestige. On the other hand, good players do not like sitting at home. When those contracts are up, more players may go back to the MLL or just leave the game entirely. As more players are entering the PLL, this problem will only grow.
Social media actually may be one of the biggest areas where the two leagues have a stark difference. It’s a very interesting area because every business, league or organization has the ability to either care about social media a lot, care about it a little bit or not care about it at all. You can have a very successful business while making a ton of money with a very dedicated fanbase without an ounce of social media. You also see some brands and organizations that only exist because they have amazing social media.
When it comes to sports, you typically see a few different approaches. You have the groups that like to use social media as a personality. There are great examples of this all over the place in sports where the social manager running that account speaks as if it is themselves. They talk to the account’s fans almost like a person, even though it’s the logo and name of the team or league. Then, you have organizations that do it differently. This is would be the MLL, where it uses social media to push information out so that you can understand what is happening with that team or league. You’ll see scores, links to press releases, breaking news, some key highlights of a game or a big play or two it feels is worth highlighting. This is typically what you’re going to see on an MLL feed.
Where the PLL went totally different, is rather than using social media to supplement its other messaging, its entire approach is social media first. As a person who lives in a market where the PLL has visited, once the announcement came out that it was coming to Gillette, I was seeing sponsored posts from the PLL for that event every time I logged into Facebook. I also got the same thing for the PLL Academy when it has events in this area. That is how it is doing its marketing, and that’s just the paid stuff on top of the regular content it’s pushing out on its accounts. It’s using its accounts to drive as much engagement, interactions and generate impressions (much of which I talked about in the previous article) so it can make a dedicated global fanbase. The one possible knock against this approach, which I’m not saying is right or wrong because in the end it’s ultimately proven how well it’s doing, is that social media creates free interactions which still need to be turned into actual dollars through sponsorship, merchandise, ticket sales and other forms of revenue.
To start the year, the two leagues actually started in a pretty similar spot was with regards to stats. If you’ve been following professional lacrosse for the past several years, you’ll know that stats are a very touchy topic. The problems that people have had was actually recording accurate stats and having them line up consistently. This was usually made worse when people like Joe Keegan started keeping their own stats to provide more in-depth analysis. You could find some discrepancies between what he would publish and what the official box score said, despite using the same definitions. Having live, up-to-date stats was always a thorn in the side of lacrosse fans. Now the NLL has recently announced that they’re really moving forward with a more robust stat keeping operation as they try to embrace gambling, so that is going to be raising the bar a bit.
But in terms of the outdoor game, the MLL wanted to make sure that it took a step ahead in terms of the stats it was keeping this year. Since the PLL knew the bad history that the MLL had, and wanting to avoid replicating that, it tried to see what it could do a little bit differently. When both leagues started, a major issue was that neither one of those leagues had a functioning stat site. When you’re trying to cover the leagues, having good, accurate box scores is critical to solid game coverage. With neither one of these leagues offering any sort of live stats in the first weeks, it was frustrating to say the least. This wound up turning into emailed PDF box scores after each game. Sometimes two if there were errors.
When the stats sites were finally launched, they went in very different directions. With the PLL being a player-focused league, it tended to highlight much more of the player-driven stats and who the stats leaders were more than holistic team box scores with scoring summaries like you see at the college level. You could definitely see that it had a different emphasis that it was trying to apply. What I really miss from its early-season box scores was information like time on the field and +/- values. The MLL, on the other hand, really stepped up their game in the stats department. I feel like not many people may have really noticed what an improvement it had made. It started getting into interesting things like defensive runouts and straightforward penalty team stats. In this category, the MLL really did well from an MLL vs PLL comparison.
(Note: If you’re looking for some great statistical analysis about the PLL, check out our PLL By The Numbers series created by NBA sports analytics guru Wayne Winston and his son Greg.)
Attendance, oh attendance. This is another area where things are always going to be interesting and controversial. It very much is a glass half full and glass half empty type of scenario depending on how you wanna look at this topic. I previously mentioned in my PLL article its great Baltimore and Albany games both hitting sellout crowds. But, the way that it reported its attendance throughout the season as “total attendance” is to intentionally hide poor attendance from specific games during the entire weekend. Even during the NCAA Championship weekend, the NCAA is able to provide separate attendance for Division II and Division III games at the same venue on the same day.
I feel it’s important to also emphasize that attendance figures are always, across any league and any venue, something that becomes a little bit of an art and a science. Some locations just look at total sales while others will focus on turnstiles. You could go out and give away 200 tickets to a local charity organization, and now those tickets will count as being sold even if nobody sits in those seats. NFL teams have used this tactic to navigate its TV blackout rules for years. Also, some will count every employee, every media member, every staff member, and every concessions worker who is in the building. These numbers are not going to ever reflect who is exactly in the seats, but you do hope that a group at least calculates comparable numbers to other events that are held at similar venues so we can make accurate comparisons across events. If you are trying to compare MLL vs PLL attendance, there’s always going to be a margin for discrepancy.
Back to lacrosse. The total attendance is frustrating because as it does hide the bad, it also hides the good. You can be there in person and come up with an estimate, but you’ll never have any sort of way to prove it. As much as I want to compliment some of the good crowds that you could see on TV, it’s tough to really put too much emphasis on this and compare it to similar events. I want to compare the PLL’s championship game in Philly to past lacrosse events at that stadium, but I can’t.
For the MLL, attendance was also a mixed bag. The Boston Cannons announced sellout crowds for its opener and its closer, but it definitely had some light games in the middle. When you look at someone like Atlanta, it even moved venues in the middle of the season because it was not getting the sort of attendance that it needed. Another one that tended to look low was Dallas, but that one was a little bit tougher to tell based on the stadium setup. The one that really drew some attention was that the Chesapeake Bayhawks announced nearly 16,000 people at one of their games, which is of course an amazing crowd. But the one or two pictures from that game that captured a wider angle didn’t reflect a crowd of that size. In order to be that size, nearly half the stadium has to be filled just based on pure capacity numbers and that definitely was not the case. The other MLL attendance high point during the season that everyone looks at is Denver’s July 4th game. Unfortunately on this July 4th, weather played a huge factor and it definitely impacted the normal attendance that the team will report with the postgame fireworks always happening right after the game. In years past the Outlaws have had over 30,000 fans for that game alone.
Jumping over to the PLL, as I said before, it had the great two games, but what I really want to see from the league going into this season is the ability to maintain a crowd over all three games during a weekend. I don’t think that it needs to try to have sellouts at every single place. But, I don’t think that it can just have one marquee game at every single tour stop. I personally think a better sign for the PLL is going to be a maintained attendance level across all three games. Because that shows wherever it goes, it is drawing in a crowd that wants to watch all of the lacrosse games. It’s one thing to hype one game where it’s about 2 hours of gameplay plus maybe some fan fest and tailgating, but when you can get that many thousands of people to dedicate an entire weekend to your league, then you know you’re in an even better spot. Now, similarly to the Chesapeake situation mentioned above, you also have things like the PLL All-Star game in Los Angeles and a few other locations where the total attendance reported did not seem to line up with what you may be able to estimate with who was actually in those seats.
Business: MLL vs PLL
Now, in terms of business models, I tried to cover as much of that in the past two articles — for both the MLL and the PLL — so I don’t want to dive too deep into what each league is doing. I’m going to take a look to see how different each is in some ways and how similar they are in others.
Both leagues operate as single-entity models because all player contracts are centralized within the league office — both the MLL and the PLL. Where things differ is the MLL has previously been trying to operate like a more traditional league where the team located in a specific market knows how to best tailor its message to those specific fans it wants to pull in. The local connections drive revenue. The PLL, on the other hand, has based its touring model to be more focused on making sure that the league has a brand that typically is more important than the team brand. So the teams exist, but they exist in support of the league.
What that means is you might have people in an MLL market like Boston that know who the Boston Cannons are, but don’t know who the MLL is, and they couldn’t name a single team that the Cannons play against. But with the PLL, nearly any fan of a PLL team is going to know all about the PLL and they’re going to get their news through the PLL. They’re going to get everything about players from the league from that source. With the PLL keeping everything as centralized as possible, in some ways that works great because it means it has control and it has consistency. It’s relying on a smaller team to do everything. That does offer some great efficiencies, but where the league loses out in doing that is it doesn’t have the same amount of experience in market knowledge with each of the sites it visits. There is not the same boots on the ground type of marketing support to help draw new fans into the game outside of social media. Comparing the MLL vs PLL in terms of business models is different because they are two different approaches. But, at the end of the day what matters from a business perspective is who is generating revenue.