A couple of days ago, I complained loudly that I couldn’t watch many MLL games this season. I blamed the MLL and ESPN out of frustration, which wasn’t fair of me to do, and I also blamed Cablevision in Brooklyn. The MLL and ESPN were casualties of my mood, and to them I apologize. But to Cablevision? No apology forthcoming. They block streaming from ESPN3.com because they have bandwidth issues, even though I pay them for internet. Cablevision gets a Big old “F” in my book. I’ll be switching to Verizon Fios soon if they don’t fix it. And if a man being willing to switch cable providers just to watch MLL lacrosse isn’t enough, read on for more reasons why the MLL is the best it’s ever been, and only getting better.
The Summer MLL season of 2011 has been one heck of a wild lacrosse ride so far, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Right now there are only two weeks of regular season lacrosse left and the race for the playoffs is coming down to the wire. In a league with only 6 teams, and 12 regular season games, the potential for two teams to be bottom dwellers is VERY real. Especially in hotbed heavy lacrosse, where elite players tend to congregate in certain areas. And if that were the case, the playoff races would be decided MUCH earlier… and just like Major League Baseball, we would have an almost meaningless second half of most seasons. For the MLL this would be suicide, as 6 exciting regular season games per team simply isn’t enough.
So without seeing many games this year, I can still say it has been an exciting year, because as the regular season winds down, I still don’t know exactly who is even making the playoffs! It means games are important to everyone, even to a team like Rochester, which has already been eliminated. Why? Because they can play spoiler! They get to face some of the teams that beat them earlier in the year, and mess with their playoff hopes. It makes for exciting lacrosse either way because that competitive spirit is still there. And with all the other teams still vying for playoff seeding and spots, they will bring it too, and Rochester isn’t the kind of team to just lay down for an opponent.
So we’ve got parity. But that means nothing without quality. So does the MLL have that too?
Granted, I have not watched a ton of games this year, so truly assessing the quality of play overall is hard. Actually, it’s hard no matter what, and unless you get into a deep statistical analysis of dropped passes, assisted goals, unforced errors, etc it can tough to REALLY know what’s going on. And even then, stats can lie. But from an anecdotal perspective, it comes much easier, so for now I’ll stick with that. After all, perception is as powerful, or more, than fact.
In the past, the “great players” could come on to a team at the last minute, step right in, and dominate. It didn’t really matter if they had been training a ton, practiced much with the team, or even knew their competition. The best players were the best players and you knew who was going to be good, and who was going to be a featured player. This made for somewhat of a glorified Summer league, where the top guys showed up when they wanted, went out and played some lax, and then headed home to wherever they were living. No one really knew, or cared, who the role players were, and no one expected much from them. Wow, how things have changed! It was time for professional pros.
Photo courtesy MLL and Getty Images and Jim Rogash
There are guys playing in the MLL right now who I basically didn’t know anything about while they were in college. But they are just as good, if not better, players than their MLL counterparts of 5-8 years ago. How is this possible you ask? It’s simple: The MLL is better now in its organization, ownership groups, venues, exposure and quality of play, and these guys simply HAVE to keep improving. If Paul Rabil didn’t drastically improve from where he was as a college player, we wouldn’t be talking about him so much. Because he wouldn’t be leading the league in scoring like he is now.
If Rabil had stayed where he was at the college level, he’d be a decent MLL middie. But he kept at it and got MUCH better. In the past, a guy like Zack Brenneman could have come into the league and just played, and seen success. But from what I’ve seen from him this season, he has a LONG way to advance if he wants to stay in the league. Forcing players to keep improving is paramount to the league’s success. Simply put, if the MLL wants to be a legit pro league, their players have be better than their college counterparts. And in the last year or two, we’ve definitely seen that change.
Players like Peet Poillon, Jordan Hall, Martin Cahill, Connor Martin, Jeff Colburn, Greg Downing, Matthew Smalley and JJ Morrissey were all good players in college. No one doubts that. But they didn’t have MLL written all over them. How did they make it happen? Simple. By working their tails off and continuously improving. And players like this have forced other guys out of the pro game. And sometimes those guys were college STARS and big name players. If a team is willing to take a player like Martin Cahill over a big name player it tells me something. And it’s NOT that those big name guys aren’t good anymore. It’s just that Cahill can CLEARLY ball and is willing to put in the work and time to be a pro.
Photo courtesy MLL and Larry French
Some would argue that a player like Martin Cahill being in the MLL is a bad sign. They don’t really know who he is, probably didn’t hear too much about him in college, etc. But if you look at the curious case of Tom Brady and Ryan Leaf, you start to see why what I’m saying makes sense. Ok, so you were a great college QB. That doesn’t mean you’ll be a good pro. So you were a back up at Michigan and barely got drafted. You’re going to win a bunch of Super Bowls and marry a model. So when people tell me the MLL can’t be that good because certain big time college players drop out, I just laugh. That happens in every pro sports league on the planet. And it is, in fact, one of the MAJOR markers that the MLL is here to stay.
Now of course, there are those guys who don’t play in the MLL, but who “could”. They’re in shape, have great sticks and are great guys. They love lacrosse, and for whatever reason, have decided the MLL is not for them. I respect that 100%, but it in no way means the MLL is diluted. In fact, the league is probably strengthened by NOT having players in it who are only in it for a paycheck, like the NBA and other pro leagues experience. Remember Iverson’s practice rant? He didn’t want to be playing pro ball, but he did it for the money and fame. It wasn’t about basketball, it was about him. I’m actually glad we don’t have to deal with that… yet.
So we’ve got parity, excitement, and better players now than in the past. Not a bad start. But the biggest sign telling me that the MLL has only improved is this: people are NO LONGER talking about “when” the MLL will dissolve. In fact, people are only really talking about “when” the MLL will expand again!
The importance of public perception is extremely important. It’s kind of like consumer confidence when reading our economy. Right now, our consumer confidence in the US government and economy is pretty shaky. And yet the public perception of the MLL’s status as a pro league is not. No one talks about the MLL folding anymore, even though we used to hear about that topic once a month on the Laxpower forums and Inside Lacrosse comments. And that is a HUGE step.
Kids growing up right NOW view the MLL as a legit pro league. They will graduate from HS and college with a dream of playing in the MLL someday, and they won’t be worried about the league disappearing, like I used to. The MLL was never a pro league in my mind when I was in HS or college. It simply didn’t exist when I was in High School, and it was only around for a year or two by the time I graduated college. To me, it was glorified Summer ball. I played against a lot of guys in the league in Placid and Glastonbury and Cape Ann tourneys, I knew a bunch of them personally. They were my peers, and while I loved the idea of a pro league, I just didn’t see these guys as real pros.
Well 11 years down the line and things have changed in a major way. Teams have identities, they look for the most dedicated players they can find and will take a D3 guy over a D1 All American if they think he’s going to work harder and want it more, and eventually be a more valuable player. Stephen Berger, Eric Martin and Kyle Hartzell have all proved D3 guys can STAR in the MLL, and Matt Casey of the Boston Cannons (who I played against in college) has had a long career in the MLL. Why have these guys made it? Because they view it, train, and act, as if they are pro athletes. They drink the Kool-Aid and work their butts off. They don’t rely on who they were, they rely on who they ARE. And that alone is the mark of a successful league that should only continue to improve.