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Saskatchewan Rush NLL 2018 NLL Championship

Random Thoughts: CBA Woes and More

It’s been a long time away from the keyboard, and given all that has happened in the lacrosse world the last several days, there’s no time like the present to get back at it.  But to lead off, there’s an important piece of business to take care of.

Farewell My Friend

It was with extreme sadness a month ago that we lost a man that truly grew the game in Saskatchewan, and everywhere else he left his footprint, my good friend, Casey Guerin.  Casey was just 33 years old and passed away from a rare lung disease, something he had been fighting for years. NLL fans would remember him as the colour commentator for the Saskatchewan Rush.  Junior lacrosse fans will know him as the former coach of the Saskatchewan SWAT, and the man that led them to their first RMLL Junior B title.

Finally after a month, I’ve slowly come to terms with the loss of my friend.  Making the trip to Peterborough, even if it was only for a day, helped bring that closure.  The loss was tough. I guess in the back of my mind, his passing was always a possibility, but he had beaten it before, and he was fighting so hard, harder than I ever could have, that I was holding onto hope that everything would work itself out.  It wasn’t to be. Even though I wasn’t in Philly, Casey made it like I was in Philly like him. We would chat as long as he was able to. He would tell me details and send photos as to what was happening. Thank goodness I have a strong stomach.

It was perhaps the last few months that I’ll remember most about Casey.  He wasn’t well, but before he left for Philly, he would call me for rides to Saskatchewan SWAT games.  We wouldn’t talk much about what was happening to him. We were instead talking about the small details of the game that was about to happen.  We would talk about Casey’s old SWAT stories. He would talk about how proud he was about all the players he helped mould, and how he was so excited about the future of the SWAT.

When Casey was in the hospital, he would spend many a night watching any lacrosse he could and we would text back and forth as to what was happening.  Casey’s dad, Pete, would tell me about the nights the two of them would spend in Philly watching the Peterborough Lakers.

Not many people know this story, but it goes to show just how much Casey loved lacrosse and cared about the growth of the game in Saskatchewan.  When Casey had to deal with his diagnosis a few years ago, his dad Pete would tell us that he was sitting in St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon. In the room there is a white board that has a bunch of information such as the patient’s, doctor’s and nurse’s names, treatments required, and amongst the information, an expected discharge date.  Pete told us that there was a date, well into the future on the board. Casey got up, erased it, and changed it to the date of the next Rush home game. He was bound and determined to be in that broadcast booth.

And then the date of the game came.  Casey wasn’t in proper condition to be discharged.  But he got a pass. He temporarily checked himself out of the hospital, because he was going to call that game.  If you look closely at photos of him in the broadcast booth, some of the photos show his medical tubes if you look closely enough.  Now for those that have never been to the broadcast booth at the Sasktel Centre, you can’t take an elevator to the broadcast booth level.  You can only take them up to the mezzanine level, around the height of the 5th row of the upper bowl.  From there you have to take several flights of stairs, to get up to a catwalk and take that up a few more stairs and walk half way across the arena to get to the broadcast booth.  There was Casey, lifting his oxygen tanks up all those stairs, in clearly a weakened condition to get to that booth. He wasn’t missing that game. Talk about dedication.

Casey was one of my biggest supporters when Random Thoughts began.  I miss our weekly chats about everything lacrosse, that would sometimes go for an hour or two.  We would talk about details, minute details in games as to what went right or wrong.

So it was tough to get the news a month ago that the end was near.  He had fought hard, and it was time to go. But he left this world with a lot of friends, changed a lot of young players’ futures, and improved the knowledge of thousands of fans.

And you know how I said I was slowly getting over his death.  Well I’m in tears again. I miss my friend. Rest in peace Casey.  I hope you have a stick ready for me when I see you again.

CBA Woes

Game 2 of the NLL Finals Rochester v Saskatchewan 6.2.20181``
Photo: Micheline Veluvolu/ Rochester Knighthawks

When the PLPA released a statement on October 19 talking about how far apart the players and owners were on a new collective bargaining agreement, it finally became apparent to the whole of NLL fans what only a minority knew up to that time, there was a real possibility that NLL training camps, and perhaps the start of the NLL season, might be delayed.  

The reasoning for most fans not knowing about this is quite simple, both the league and the PLPA have been very quiet about the players’ opt out of the previous CBA and the ongoing negotiations.  In fact, there has been very little inside information as to what has been going on, which is highly unusual, but is in the best interest of getting a deal completed. Speaking to individuals on both sides of the equation, details are few and far between, which makes analyzing what is happening all the more difficult.

In the past weeks we have seen a few cracks in the silence that has surrounded the negotiations.  The odd player was posting on social media about staying united or mentioning the odd frustration.  But the frustration finally blew open on October 19 when the PLPA issued its press release, in which some of their frustrations finally came out.  The owners did make an new offer that weekend, but it was unanimously rejected. Now the owners’ October 26 deadline has passed, there still is no deal in place, and the season starting on time on December 1 is in real jeopardy.  Luckily, unlike in 2007, the league hasn’t gone to the extent of cancelling the season (only to reinstate it two weeks later). But from an owners’ prospective, the thought of lease dates going unused has to be unsettling.

For the average fan, the issues that could jeopardize the season aren’t overly obvious, so let’s take a step back and see how we got here, and the issues at hand.

‘I thought the CBA expired in 2020?’

The prior CBA was a 7 year agreement signed in late 2013 to start with the 2014 season.  A lot of fans have asked why the CBA is an issue when it goes until 2020. The simple answer is that there was an opt out clause in the CBA, that either side could enact after four years, with one year’s notice.  So when the players exercised their opt out clause in January 2018, the 2018 season was not in jeopardy, and was supposed to give both sides plenty of time to come to a new agreement for the 2019 season. Unfortunately, negotiations have been slow to get underway.  In a statement from the PLPA, the owners were twice supposed to make proposals before the opt out clause had to be enacted, which never happened, and in a statement from one player, a proposal from the players made in June was not responded to by the owners for 10 weeks, well into August.  

Salaries

Rochester Knighthawks Georgia Swarm NLL Playoffs 2018 NLL expansion draft
Photo: NLL

Salaries are clearly an important issue in the negotiations.  There’s a lot of fans that have little idea how much players make in the league (especially when you can’t locate a copy of the CBA in the public domain).  But had the 2019 season been played under the prior CBA, here’s what players would have made (in US Dollars) for the season:

Practice Roster: $1,000

Rookies: $10,565

2nd Year: between $12,623 and $17,213

3rd Year and beyond: between $15,696 and $31,186

Franchise Player: $38,983

The salary cap would have been $420,000 per team, or an average of $21,000 per player.  Teams could exceed the salary cap, but had to pay luxury taxes. If a team was less than $25,000 over the cap, the tax was 25%.  Less than $50,000 was a 50% tax, less than $75,000 was a 75% tax and if they were more than $75,000 over the cap, there was a 100% luxury tax on the overage.

Needless to say, players weren’t making much off the game, and were truly playing the game out of love.  The income from playing was supplementing their regular employment income.

The players were asking for an increase, but it was made clear by some players that the increase wasn’t that large.  The PLPA is quick to point out that player salaries per game haven’t returned to their levels from 2012. In the 2013 agreement, the players agreed to take significant pay cuts and cuts to the number of roster spots to help attempt to keep financially struggling teams alive.  When looking at fans’ reactions on social media, the low salaries are a common reason the majority of fans are supporting the players in this debate.

The flip side to this is the economics of the game, which are critical to the owners.  I don’t have access to the financial statements of the teams, but its not difficult to conclude that five of the nine teams from last season are breaking even or losing money.  In an interview a few years ago, Jamie Dawick indicated that the break-even point for the Rock is approximately 12,000 attendance per game, and the Rock averaged 9,700 per game in 2018.  Furthermore, since late 2013, the only team that would have seen a significant increase in revenues in ticket sales is Edmonton/Saskatchewan. For owners that are breaking even or losing money, higher salary costs will be difficult to deal with.

Another issue that was mentioned in the PLPA press release was issues related reimbursement of lost wages.  I won’t get into this too deep, but according to a tweet by Stephen Stamp, this existed in the prior CBA, but there appears to be some disagreement over its application and what qualifies as an eligible day to be reimbursed for.

Salary Growth

In the past CBA, the salary growth was very limited.  There were no increases to the individual caps for three years.  The last few seasons there were 3.5% escalators in the salaries every year, but the salary cap for the team only goes up $5,000, or approximately 1.25%.  

The PLPA has made it known that they want future raises in the caps tied to future growth in league revenues.  On the surface this seems very reasonable. As the owners’ revenues increase, so do salaries. Its what the NHL has in its CBA.  But its not as simple as it seems. What NHL owners realized was this meant audited financial statements had to be produced every year.  I won’t pretend to know the financials of every team, but if they are not audited, there is a significant cost to the teams to have this performed, and its in the tens of thousands each year.  A price tag this large is easier for an NHL team with over $100 million in revenue on average than it is for an NLL team.

In the PLPA news release, they stated their frustration in attempting to receive reliable, audited financial information, which they feel is necessary to make proper decisions.

Expansion Fees

The owners are asking the PLPA to reduce the cut the players receive from expansion fees.  When the players took a huge hit in the last CBA, the one item they retained was that if there was future expansion, the players received a healthy cut.  Needless to say, when two expansion teams were added recently with expansion fees of approximately $5 million, the owners didn’t get anywhere near $5 million between them.

Now that the league is on an ambitious plan to expand, this request could have major financial ramifications.  The decision to expand is more difficult for the owners when the amount each team receives from the expansion fee is smaller.  By the same token, for the players that have been asked to take a number of cuts, this would be difficult to give up when they’re just now starting to see the rewards of it.

Expense Reimbursements

The other stumbling blocks listed by the PLPA include reimbursement of expenses while travelling.  There are set items in the CBA as to meal allowances, mileage in lieu of flights, bus travel and the like.  I have heard from some players that the reimbursement rates do not cover all of their expenses. According to one player, the expense reimbursement rates were set in 1993 and haven’t changed.  This remains an outstanding item at this time as to what qualifies and how much the reimbursement is.

National Labour Relations Board Decision

On October 29, the NLRB released a decision that the owners violated federal labour law by continuing to negotiate standard player agreements after the CBA’s expiration in August when the PLPA gave notice to the league that all agreements had to be negotiated through PLPA agents instead of directly with players.  What this means in terms of fines or penalties isn’t clear. What is clear is that the PLPA has stated prior to the decision is that player contracts are on hold until the CBA is finalized. The decision may also invalidate a large number of contracts signed since the expiration of the CBA.

Whether this decision will bring the sides together or drive a wedge between them remains to be seen.  However, with the league unable to negotiate contracts directly with players, it takes a small bargaining advantage away from the owners.

Where do I stand?

Now of course everyone wants to know my opinion on all of this, and let’s start with something simple.  I’m on the side that gets lacrosse back into NLL arenas on December 1.

While I understand that this is a business first, and the NLL needs to be a viable business in order for it to survive, there’s a few things that don’t sit well with me from the owners’ perspective.  First off was a so called “deadline” of October 26, which made a lot of people uneasy, only to find out the deadline was that if the players accepted the offer by October 26, they would receive signing bonuses of $1,000 each.  The amount is sad, and a little insulting to both the players and the fans. If the offer was for 5 years, the bonus ends up working out to less than 1% of the players’ total compensation over that 5 year period. Its moves like these that make more and more fans take the side of the players.

But I also have issue with the league having five years to correct its path and get its revenues up so that both the owners and players can benefit.  As I stated before, only one team has managed to grow its ticket and merchandise sales to any great extent, the Rush. In 2013 there was a small television deal in place.  In 2018 there is no television deal. As much as the league wants to focus on its digital strategy, a television presence is still necessary for growth in my opinion. While the owners have made strides to deal with low attendance numbers in Vancouver in the recent sale and arena relocation of the team, seeing games in Georgia being played with only 1,000 actual people in the seats on a regular basis is disheartening, and something the league has yet to correct.

I have heard complaints from a few that the players are being opportunistic in that there are two new expansion teams, that have owners with significant bases of capital, and that the timing of the opt out that jeopardizes these two new teams new operations, is poor.  My opinion on this is that this is a business. In business you need to act when you have the advantage, the same way you would on the floor against an opponent as well. So to this end, I have no objection with the timing, especially when the players had to give notice in January, and not in the last few months.

We are all hoping that a solution can be found.  The NLL going through an extended labour stoppage would be detrimental to the league, and ultimately everybody loses.    That’s a fate we all need to avoid.

Making A Big Splash

BONUS: Read Ryan Conwell’s thoughts on the PLL here.

premier lacrosse leagueA week ago, the Premier Lacrosse League, the brain child of Paul Rabil, dominated the lacrosse headlines, making the official announcement of its formation.  For the news that had come out about the NLL’s CBA problems, this was the type of positive news the lacrosse world needed. But what was even more impressive was that the new league had signed 140 players, and amongst them, most of the best in the field lacrosse and box lacrosse world.

For those not overly familiar with the world of professional field lacrosse, here’s the basics of the situation.  Paul Rabil is the biggest celebrity there is in the lacrosse world right now. A rare millionaire player based on the business he has built around himself.  For years the MLL has failed to grow and has had a history of management blunders, including the accidental release of confidential player information a year ago.  What Paul Rabil has done is obtained some major investors, brought the NBC Sports Network onboard to televise games, start up a six team league in which players are paid full time salaries with medical benefits and players receive equity in the league.  In effect if the league makes money, the players make even more. That’s the power of Paul Rabil that not only has he created the league, he has the investors to allow players to be paid full time, to attract most of the best in the game and to instantly have a television deal, something the other professional leagues don’t have.

More details were revealed about the league.  Each team will play 10 regular season games, plus there will be an all-star game and playoffs over two weeks.  The league will start on June 1 and end on September 21, which in effect allows NLL players to for the most part be finished with their season (other than the two finalists) with minimum overlap.

But here’s the biggest difference with the PLL and other professional leagues.  None of the six teams will be based in any city. Instead, games will be played on a tour of 12 cities.  Why would you do this? Rabil admits this is a unique system when it comes to team sports, but it allows you to see all of the best players in the sport all at the same time.  It reduces overhead costs by transporting players all to the same location, being able to lease a stadium for just a few days to play multiple games, and being able to cut down on overhead by bulk hotel, transportation and meals costs as well as having all league staff in one location.  This means that players and the league will have to focus hard on selling their players to the public, much in the same manner that athletes in individual sports have to work on their own PR. The hope is that even though teams are not based in cities, fans will follow the league and attach themselves to their favorite players.

This concept of fans following their favorite players isn’t a stretch by any means.  Look at sports fans in Saskatchewan. When it comes to the big 4 professional leagues, we don’t have any teams in Saskatchewan but yet as sports fans, we attach ourselves to teams in each of the leagues, and often this can be based on our favorite players at the time.

If you wonder why they are foregoing the city based approach, here’s a quick reality check.  In 2018, the MLL averaged just 3,743 fans per game. Even in their best season in 2011, the average attendance was 6,417.  Last year’s final was played in front of just 4,000 fans. The Denver Outlaws had the highest average attendance with 7,758 and the Charlotte Hounds the lowest at just 1,364.  Roster sizes in the MLL are larger. Simply put, fewer fans plus more players means lower salaries for each player than in the NLL.

Clearly the MLL model of professional lacrosse isn’t sustainable.  For professional lacrosse to work with full time players, it needs to be played in front of crowds of 20,000 and have a higher concentration of top talent to attract fans.  By having a tour, fans only have to concentrate on making it to one day or one weekend per year when the circuit is in their city. Between the one off concentration and the concentration of talent over those games, the hope is that the larger crowds are achievable.

With games on television, albeit NBCSN, this will also help build the fan base.  With Paul Rabil’s massive fan base, the league has a chance. If anyone in lacrosse can make this work, its Rabil, and I’ve learned over the years, never underestimate his ability to sell and grow.

This leaves the MLL in a massive bind.  Most of its top players have just bailed and flocked to the PLL.  There is still some talent in the MLL, but its thin, and in many cases, reliant on those players that can’t put their careers on hold for full time lacrosse employment.  There is no question that the MLL will struggle to survive this year. But it is the more established league, and it will give fans in the cities it operates in more lacrosse, a minimum of 7 home dates.  All I will say is don’t count the MLL for dead just yet. They did adjust their schedule as well and increased their salary cap by 51%. But the biggest reason not to count the MLL out, is that there is the possibility, as with any start-up business, that the start-up falls flat on its face and goes bankrupt or ceases operations.  You can’t expect the MLL to compete in terms of salary or competition, but perhaps holding on and continuing on as the top pro field lax league for the MLL lies beyond their control, and has everything to do with the health of the PLL.

But the MLL clearly hasn’t learned from its mistakes of the past.  Its reaction is to put out a press release saying that their owners are worth $9 billion, that there are still a few superstars left in the league, but then they turnaround and hold a supplemental draft without as much as a press release about it.  The results of that supplemental draft aren’t released for a week.

The PLL appears for the moment at least to have learned from some of the MLL mistakes.  It has a huge social media presence. It has conducted interviews with most every media outlet that has wanted them.  And they’ve been very transparent about the details they know with the fans. The PLL has given the players what they’ve always wanted.  They’ve given the fans what they’ve wanted. Now its time to look and see if that combination will lead to fans and sponsors forking out the cash needed to support such an operation.

Until next time…

For all the latest updates, follow me on Twitter @evanschemenauer

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