Sellout Crowds Make the Game Grow

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Buffalo Bandits at New England Black Wolves NLL 2017 Photo: New England Black Wolves
Photo: New England Black Wolves

It goes by many names, but they all tell the same story. Packed house. Standing room only. Capacity crowd. I am of course referring to the sellout. This past weekend in New England, the Black Wolves were able to experience their first ever sold-out game since relocating to the Mohegan Sun just two seasons ago.

With the debut game of their third season reaching this milestone, it’s safe to say that things are looking good in New England.

The Art of the Sellout

Normally, a fact like this becomes just a small note in a larger article or game summary. Something you casually notice and get excited about if you want to, but it hardly gives the accomplish the attention it deserves.

It’s important to bring up because we here at Lacrosse All Stars love to Grow The Game. And when you sellout every ticket you possibly can in a new market…consider the game effectively growing.

Buffalo Bandits at New England Black Wolves NLL 2017 Photo: New England Black Wolves
Photo: New England Black Wolves

We in the lacrosse world tend to be a negative bunch. Just spend some time engrossing yourself in the world that #LaxTwitter creates on a weekly basis and you’ll understand. We (and I absolutely include myself in this!) tend to argue over small differences that in the end, don’t really matter. One of the hottest of hot takes is declining attendance at Memorial Day weekend. Look at the empty seats! Terrible TV!

This is just one example of a larger theme that takes place all too often. Lacrosse crowds do tend to be smaller than people want. Whenever a crowd underperforms against expectations, you better believe someone is pointing it out. That is why I feel it’s so important to take a stroll down Optimism Lane this time and really look at what’s happening in the NLL. The Rush captured lightning in a bottle with their new location in Saskatoon. They have become the hot ticket in town and have now had multiple sellout crowds in the 15,000 seat SaskTel Centre.

While I’ve witnessed plenty of games online of their fluorescent green wearing, chest thumping crowd, LAS’s own Mark Donahue was able to actually make it there in person last season for the Champion’s Cup and take it all in first hand:

A Religious Experience

"Saskatchewan

It only took Saskatchewan’s new pride and joy eight home games to achieve their first sellout and they’ve been hitting record crowds since. This is happening in an arena, when full, that encompasses around 6% of the entire city of Saskatoon’s population. Arena size alone, they’re in the 5th largest building. But with their fans coming from much further than city limits, they finished 3rd in average attendance in 2016 and are 1st to start 2017.

When I flew in to the city for Game 2 of the 2016 Finals, I was greeted by a larger than life advertisement calling all visitors to come see Saskatchewan’s new team. Surrounding the airport where dozens of employees buzzing about the weekend’s big game, asking every out of place face if they were in town to watch lacrosse. I’ve been to dozens of lacrosse games in British Columbia and Ontario, true box lacrosse hotbeds, but nothing like this. Rush flags flew on buildings all over town, the news put emphasis on the weekend’s events, people were walking around town in green and black. It felt like any major city preparing for their team’s championship finale, except it wasn’t. We were in the unpopulated plains of Canada, for a sport that barely had a presence in the community just six months prior.

Saskatchewan LOVES Lacrosse!

Approaching the SaskTel Centre on game day, it wasn’t just wheat fields as far as the eye could see. It was a sea of rowdy tailgaters, posted up all day to get hype for that night’s chance at hoisting the Cup. Barbecues were painted in Rush colors, green and black cupcakes along with other snacks covered tables, and banners were proudly waving. The anticipation built for hours on end until their energy was liberated alongside thousands of other crazies; from Regina to Prince Albert, from Edmonton and beyond.

The Rush released 500 extra, standing-room only tickets somewhere around game day and they were gone before you could think twice. It all added up to arguably the most religious lacrosse experience of my life. The building shook. Eardrums were pierced with deafening roars. For a moment, I almost considered picking up everything and moving to Saskatoon just to feel that again.

There is nothing like what a sellout does for the team’s motivation on the floor. I argue that what it does for the game itself and it’s presence in the community is even more unparalleled. It’s a huge leap towards breaking into the mainstream. It legitimizes things to the average sports fan and catches the attention of major media outlets that recognize the appeal and the fact that people actually care about this stuff. Don’t forget, this wasn’t because of a TV contract, or any other marketing gimmicks. It’s because people bought tickets, drove to the arena and cheered their hearts out.

Whether or not they understood the game, they bought in completely. The passion became contagious and the whole province got infected. Ever since, there has been no turning back for the people of Saskatchewan. That’s how the game grows and it’s exhilarating to see the Black Wolves taking steps toward matching feet.

Saskatchewan Reflections via Mark Donahue

It’s Not Always Overnight

Turning it back to New England, things were a little slower to get going in terms of crowd. I’ve been to all but maybe one game since they moved the franchise, and the improvement has been noticeable.

Their game day operations had plenty of kinks to work out, but they won their debut. Unfortunately, the rest of that season did not go so well. After some off season moves that included new coaches and Shawn Evans, the off-field quality improved just as much, if not more, than their on-field results.

sellout crowd Buffalo Bandits at New England Black Wolves NLL 2017 Photo: New England Black Wolves
Photo: New England Black Wolves

Being in a Casino offers a very different atmosphere that you just don’t see anywhere else in the league. From day one, it was great seeing the TVs in the gaming area showing NLL action. Eventually, more posters promoting games alongside their other Arena events started showing up. Now, you have the signs outside on the Casino promoting the games, the schedules are posted on large ads along the highways through Connecticut, and local TV stations are having team starts like Shawn Evans and Bill O’Brien on during the week.

It also has means that after games, fans have a chance to mingle with players and coaches at one of the restaurants on the property. It’s a great feeling to walk into a place after a game and see jerseys everywhere, kids walking up to their favorite players for autographs or photos, and everyone much more relaxed after an intense game. Being able to change the scenery with a new location almost weekly also means it’s a little different each time.

Eyes on the Future

Getting back to this week’s sellout crowd, it has been remarkable to see the crowd as a whole mature. The first year was filled with people trying to learn what this game was all about. Last year saw better results on the floor and more dedicated fans turning out to take it in.

This season has seen them getting on their feet more often during key moments. Chants of “Let’s Go Blackwolves!” ringing throughout the arena subsequently build a much higher level of energy for all four quarters. It is also obvious that they have developed a crowd favorite in Bill O’Brien. Each time he steps on the floor and is lining someone up for a check, the crowd gets ready to cheer. They love all breakaways, but there are a few extra decibels when he’s leading the charge after grabbing a loosie.

sellout crowd Buffalo Bandits at New England Black Wolves NLL 2017 Photo: New England Black Wolves
Photo: New England Black Wolves

A formula is really there for a great fan base in New England for the next several years. The location is a destination, the fans know the players, and the product is good. Fans are going to the Mohegan Sun looking for an enjoyable evening, and the Black Wolves are delivering. What made this particular night even better was a report that NLL Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz was hosting a group of potential owners and partners with their eyes on expanding the league. When you can have a group like that in the middle of a team’s sold-out crowd in just their third season, it is more powerful that just about any PowerPoint presentation you can  put together.

So, as a lacrosse community, let’s cheer these teams on and applaud what they’re doing. These are two teams in some of the rawest locations, already filling their arenas to the max. If they keep this up and others do the same, there is a bright, bright future ahead for us all.