Professional lacrosse has carved out a very interesting niche in the lacrosse and larger sporting worlds, and now we can welcome professional women’s lacrosse to the fold.
When talking pro lacrosse, there is of course the MLL, which has successfully asserted itself as the top men’s outdoor league. You can also look at the NLL, which is the latest iteration of a series of related indoor leagues, going back to the Eagle Pro Box League and the Major Indoor Lacrosse League. There has also been a handful of smaller upstart leagues, both indoors and out (primarily for men), which have each seen varying degrees of success. Each of these leagues does something in common, which they all succeeded at, and that is:
They all gave college players a way to continue to compete against the best players in the game after graduation.
The above is why I was immediately interested when it was announced back in May of 2015 that there would be a professional women’s lacrosse league in the summer of 2016, called the United Women’s Lacrosse League (UWLX). The women getting a chance to continue to play after college only seemed fair, and as a fan of the college game, I was curious to see where the pros would go.
Things were quiet for a few months, but as 2015 came to a close, details about leadership, cities, format, and a draft came out and made it clear that this league was definitely going to happen.
Without a professional and semi-professional league, the only hope for most women to keep playing lacrosse after college was in a summer tournament or two, or a local league, or for only the very best, on a national team. The UWLX would finally be that outlet for top level players to extend their playing careers.
Most of the readers on this site are players and/or fans of the men’s game, either field or box, maybe even both! So this means that most of you are aware that Men’s NCAA division I lacrosse makes major news whenever a new team is added to their ranks. But while fans of the men’s game have celebrated breaking 70 total teams, women’s lacrosse had 111 in 2016. The women’s game is huge.
At the division III level for women’s, they had 273 teams. The men have 227. The sheer number of teams points to a huge opportunity gap in the post-collegiate ranks. Year after year, the men’s lacrosse world points to the large volume of unused talent in the MLL and NLL as a need for the leagues to expand. With even more college programs on the women’s side, the untapped talent for a professional women’s lacrosse league is definitely there.
Sure, many of former players still teach in camps, coach college and high school teams, or even play internationally… but, as anyone with a year round competitive spirit knows, that just isn’t the same.
Another big thing that happened along with the UWLX being announced was a few rule changes that they would be playing under. Similar to what the MLL does for the men’s game, the UWLX is able to act as a sort of testing ground for rules designed to speed up the game and increase excitement. Without digging into the details, they include a more narrow field, fewer players on the field, a shot clock, a two point shot, and fewer whistle interruptions.
Now, before I go into my impressions of the game, I should give you my background in women’s lacrosse. Don’t worry, this won’t take long at all. I have only been watching the women’s game for a few years now at the NCAA level. It’s one of the only forms of lacrosse that I watch as a pure fan. This means I definitely get confused by some of the rules at times (a “dangerous shot” call blew my mind when I first saw it), and I don’t do a deep dive into the Xs and Os.
Honestly, watching it from this perspective makes me absolutely love it and appreciate what it has to offer rather than just getting hung up on saying “they can’t even hit each other!” (even though they can). Sure, I have some opinions on how things could be different and flow better, but it’s nothing that I’ll try to argue with people. I simply enjoy the game for what it is right now, and I like that.
That being said, I LOVE the rules that have been put in place with the UWLX. There are two major things that they create, which I feel greatly enhance the game.
The first is that the flow of the game is significantly improved. A typical women’s game is full of whistles and referees constantly repositioning players, moving the ball back five yards, taking a defender from the side or front to behind a ball carrier, etc. In between those whistles is a ton of speed, precise passing, and some great plays, but they really break up the continuity of the game. The UWLX, by a combination of the rules and probably to some extent the skill of all players involved, really flows significantly better and is truly great to watch.
The second outcome of the rules is a more aggressive offense. I have watched many of these same players in college and in USA games play these same positions, but they seemed more free to create offense. The college game can get stagnant at times, especially if you’re up against a good defense, because there is only so much space available and you have to be able to shoot from specific angles without causing a dangerous shot or shooting space violation.
In this game, I loved how many players were able to take the ball to the goal themselves, or create more draw and dump situations with a cutter through the middle. The score was not drastically different than what you normally see, but types of shots you see were. There were not many two point attempts in this game, but I have to give a ton of credit to Long Island’s Halle Majorana who finished with three goals and unleashed more strong outside shots than I think I’ve ever seen in a game from a single player.
The game day atmosphere also lined up perfectly with what the UWLX said was one of their goals in the first year. Most of their games are being held simultaneously with girls lacrosse tournaments in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. They want to build strong ties to the youth and high school players as they build for the future. This resulted in a standing room only turnout which gave an electric feel to the game. The lacrosse world likes to debate the whole partially filled big stadium vs. overflowing small stadium idea when it comes to venues, but I have to say for this game, they nailed it.
Filled up stadiums rock.
Before the game began, both teams were paired up with a few teams of youth players, with whom they walked onto the field, like you see in international soccer matches. They lined up at midfield for introductions and the national anthem. I personally thought it was a really cool way to start things off and it was great seeing the younger players interacting with their favorite players. Discussion of younger players having role models in sports is often an overused cliché, but seeing the smiles and excitement on that sideline isn’t something I’ll soon forget.
The game itself was never far out of reach for either team, but they each had their own runs on each other. It made it exciting from start to finish and neither team really slowed things down at any point. Play was still physical and very, very fast. Speaking of speed, I have to mention that Boston’s Tanner Guarino is almost too fast. She embodied one of my favorite things about women’s lacrosse, which is how quickly the ball moves down the field between the lines.
In what was a great treat for the hometown fans, the game went all the way down to the final minutes. It was tied up and with about two minutes left, Kristin Igoe buried the game winner for Boston. Long Island tried a little too hard to force a scoring opportunity and turned it back over to Boston. There were a few close calls, but Boston was able to run out the clock and secure not only the home victory, but also the first loss for Long Island this season. That may matter a lot with a big championship on the line, but to the fans in attendance, this game is likely what they will remember from 2016.
From my perspective, the UWLX and the Boston Storm were wildly successful in a number of ways. They are pushing the women’s game with rules experimentation, they are building a good local fan base, they put a great product out on the field, the players enjoyed it, the fans enjoyed it, and they are inspiring the next generation of players. If you are anywhere within driving distance of Richmond, VA for July 15th or 16th, I highly recommend you check out one of these games. If you can’t make it, it should be streaming online.
Make the effort to see for yourself. You will be glad you did.