When the news broke about the PLL and MLL merging, it felt very similar to when the PLL was first announced just over two years ago. There was certainly a buzz of excitement, but for many people, there were now a lot more questions, and there are not many answers … yet.
It’s important to remember that above all else, professional lacrosse is a business. As fans of lacrosse, we like to play fantasy lacrosse and think about how we would build teams, where they should play, how they should be marketed, etc. But for those actually making those decisions, their goal is to make money. There are certainly individuals involved who love lacrosse and want to see the sport at its best, and there are others who certainly do believe that a key element of growing the game is to have a robust and sustainable professional tier for young players to aspire to. But for those at the very top and those behind the scenes investing, pro lacrosse is about trying to get a return on that investment, even though the payoff may be longer than most.
So with that in mind, I circle back to my original questions upon hearing this news. For me, the big questions were: what happens to the MLL, how does this affect all the teams, how does this affect players, what does this mean for the future, and is this a good thing?
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What happens to the MLL?
The key word as part of this announcement that does a lot of heaving lifting is “merge.” Typically with transactions like this, the word merger or partnership is thrown around at the beginning without knowing what it really means. In the case of the PLL and MLL merging, there are plenty of answers we may never know to some important questions. For example, how much money changed hands; how will personnel within the league offices be affected; how are current MLL contracts with venues, players, and sponsors affected; what league assets move over; does the PLL assume any debt obligations (if there are any); and how are MLL investors affected?
For understanding the financial impact, it’s highly unlikely that will ever be made public, but I’ve been surprised before. It would be important to know if there was anything spent up front by the PLL to make this happen, as it would be more capital out the door in a year where income is already lowered. For league office personnel, a merger like this usually only makes sense if the overall headcount is decreased. Given that these two headquarters are on opposite sides of the country, it’s hard to imagine there will be too much needed in the PLL office from the MLL side for this merger. Since it was also announced that there would be just a single expansion team, the administrative workload will not increase significantly.
How are current MLL contracts with venues, players, and sponsors affected? This is a really interesting one to ponder. For players, it seems to be straightforward. With one expansion team and an already-announced expansion draft, there is no current Cannons team. Therefore, any player contract or rights by the team are likely to start from scratch under the PLL.
The flipside of this is how PLL contracts will be handled. More players became unprotected in 2020 leading up to the championship series, and many players signed two-year deals back before the first season. Anyone who was signed also signed under the context of negotiating with an option of going to another league. So without that, these things can become very interesting.
Venues and sponsors add a different level of complexity. It’s reasonable to assume these deals are not going to stay intact given this news, but imagine if the PLL was forced to play in Quincy, Massachusetts, and the Cannons’ stadium instead of Gillette? Unlikely, but it would certainly be a twist. The same goes for sponsors. Could the MLL bring over existing sponsorship deal that could be fed into the PLL’s marketing team in this merger? Possible, but still unlikely. The terms of everything have changed.
Assets & History
For me, a really interesting thing is what league assets move over. I heard an interview with Lance Armstrong a few years ago where he talking about a major hurdle in professional cycling is the lack of assets. If you own a pro cycling team and it folds, all you have to show for it is likely a nice collection if bikes. In pro field lacrosse, this is very true. There are no stadiums, no practice facilities, and likely no owned office space. The assets the MLL does have is of course gear and merchandise, which will likely be sold off and donated, but what I’m most interested in are the soft assets that could help build the long term story of pro lacrosse. Do MLL league records, all-star appearances, historical franchises, and coaching records come over to the PLL in the merger? How much do they have for historical footage, photos, and audio? And how much of all this can be worked in to tell the PLL story beyond the two years they’ve had.
The two final questions from the MLL’s perspective as a league are: does the PLL assume any debt obligations in the merger, and how are MLL investors affected? Both of these are going to be big shrugs right now. The way the MLL historically worked, teams usually shouldered most of the financial risk while the MLL was profitable at the league level. That’s at least how it was presented in the past. But the MLL did some shuffling between the 2019 and 2020 season that centralized ownership a bit more, which is also why its investors are the next big question. When the MLL made its changes to reorganize, it lost a few owners and was seemingly more consolidated. It will be interesting to know if any of the current MLL backers are now also PLL backers and to what degree. Are they still interesting in being a part of pro lacrosse, and if so, at what level? Some of those involved are likely part of who said no to Rabil back when he approached league early on prior to starting the PLL, which adds another dynamic to the mix.
How does this affect all the teams?
For MLL teams, the answers are easy. If you played in the MLL last year, you better hope to be an expansion pick or later signed as a free agent. For PLL rosters, it’s just another year of change. In year one, rosters were centrally created. With the Waterdogs expansion, the standard procedure of having protected lists, drafting, and then resigning players was followed. That could happen again, but it will be very interesting to see how small the protected rosters are for these seven teams. There are A LOT of available players to pick from. Significantly more than there are spots for. I would love to see protected rosters go all the way to something in the 5-8 range, personally. Something that would fundamentally remake teams while still allowing coaches to keep a core group of players to maintain a team identity.
How does this affect players?
No matter which league you were in for 2020, you have some work ahead of you. After this merger, MLL players will want to find a new home, and PLL players will want to keep it. There were some PLL players who were teamless leading up to the championship series, while some didn’t play but had their rights kept. What was already going to be a crazy offseason of movement just got crazier.
Anyone who decided it was in their best interest to ignore the MLL for the past two years is in for either a rude awakening or some excitement. The MLL was holding a ton of talent. Each year, it took a few of the PLL’s top draft targets or even picks. This league-versus-league battle was so heated that the PLL would even delete social media posts when a drafted player signed with the MLL.
Side note: I really want to see where those guys who publicly picked the MLL wind up. Combining all those active rosters with a bunch of rookies and non-rostered players means those roster spots will be very hard to come by.
The other wrinkle that absolutely must be considered here is the NLL. The NLL already had more teams, and it has the earlier start date of April. Assuming it stays on schedule, the NLL will be in full swing when the PLL would likely be starting, unless it pushed out all the way until the fall. A big selling point of the PLL back when it announced was that there would be minimal overlap between indoor and outdoor, thus maximizing its earning potential. This is a large reason why more Americans are choosing to show up to NLL training camps now, with 10 making rosters. There are naturally more opportunities due to NLL expansion, but the desire is much higher. That has led towards some major American field players, like Matt Rambo and Myles Jones, opting to play inside when they previously avoided it. This has reversed a trend that was created, oddly enough, by several PLL players. Prior to the 2014 World Field Championships, players like Rabil, Ned Crotty, and Kyle Hartzell left playing in the NLL and focused on playing field. That kicked off several years where players typically were making a choice, and most field-first players stuck with what they knew.
Looking forward to 2021, the same may wind up happening. If the leagues do overlap, players may be forced to pick: PLL or NLL? For some, that will be an easy choice. For others? Not so much. Matt Rambo, Trevor Baptiste, Tom Schreiber, and Blaze Riorden are all players who have established themselves as NLL players but are all top PLL participants. Then there are others who are trying to establish NLL careers and may not be able to just take a year off. Some names that come to mind there are Joe Nardella, Eli Gobrecht, and Jules Heningburg. All these players and more may be put in a tough spot. Both leagues are incredibly competitive and difficult to crack a roster in but for different reasons. That means some players may be put in an ugly spot.
What does this mean for the future?
These questions are definitely the toughest to answer. The biggest cloud of uncertainty for me with the PLL has always been longevity. It absolutely corrected many things the MLL was failing to execute on, especially in the marketing and branding area, but the one thing that still isn’t clear is if it can do it all and be profitable. Pro lacrosse has always been good at spending money – it hasn’t been so good at making it.
Back when the MLL first launched, it had major national sponsors and national TV broadcasts on ESPN. The more recent MLL that gets all the attention is the one that came out of the Great Recession. The MLL was looking up and had just expanded with several teams prior to the recession, and then all of sudden, disposable income across the US tightened up, and there wasn’t as much demand for things like lacrosse games. It was felt everywhere, but it really hurt the MLL and led to contraction and much more focus on simply surviving. That left little stomach for making investments without immediate return, which included the type of marketing push the PLL now has. So when you look at the MLL’s lifecycle, it tacks directly to U.S. economic recessions. It was founded while emerging from the dot-com bubble, it was hurt by the Great Recession, and the pandemic was finally too much.
For the PLL, it has to avoid the same fate. It was founded before the pandemic recession, and current signs are definitely now pointing to the PLL making it through to the other side, even though we don’t know for sure when large crowd events will be allowed, let alone attended. But assuming all goes well, it now is in the position of being the only show in town and get all the attention and support of the field lacrosse community.
The biggest takeaway here is now official: the PLL cannot fail. If profitability is the goal, that has to happen. If it is not, then whatever acceptable level of loss must be maintained while still finding a way to support the growth of the game at the grass roots level on a long enough trajectory to carry it to a top professional sport. But it cannot fail. The damage that would do to professional lacrosse in the long term is almost too much to imagine.
So, that brings me to the final question.
Is this good a thing?
That answer is up for you to decide. In many ways, this is a step backwards with the hope it puts pro field lacrosse in a position to make a gigantic leap forward. Lots of people are likely losing their jobs as a result of this, and even more players won’t see a pro field next season. But, it may be possible that in one year, maybe two or more, all those jobs and all those rosters spots reappear. It may be that the hurdle that kept sponsors from pulling the trigger on signing a deal with either league now will. It may be that lacrosse fans will flock to PLL games after a season of only being able to see them on a screen.
These and more are all unknowns, but it’s actually up to you, the fan, reading this. If you want a future for pro field lacrosse, it’s going to be the future of the PLL. Go to the games. Pick a favorite team and a favorite player. Get excited about the college seniors you want to see compete for a spot after graduation.
And most importantly, find someone who isn’t a lacrosse fan and make them one. If this PLL and MLL merger can help create new fans, then it can definitely be called a good thing.