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fighting in the pll
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The PLL: Fighting for Viewers

Covering pro lacrosse this summer has been a little bit of a challenge as there have been some major quirks this year. Each league has two different sides of every issue that need to be covered. There’s the on-field side of things and then there is the off-field. Given the number of changes in the MLL and the complete newness of the PLL, I have decided to focus on the on-field to begin the season. Each league deserves their fair shot at getting the 2019 season off and running.

Fighting in the PLL: Pros and Cons


Both have had bumps in the road. Both have had great successes. But this week, some things occurring on the field have finally reached a boiling point in the social media world that seems to need some addressing.

That is, fighting in the PLL.

Now, the entire reason that this has become an issue is that right away during Week 1, some yelling matches started between the Chrome and Archers. Nothing major. Since then, things have escalated slightly to full-on shoving matches weekly until this past weekend’s gloved punch for the helmet from Nick Ossello to Blaze Riorden following a bodyslam. And apparently this is all fighting that’s over the line? Why?

First of all, none of this has actually been fighting. We need to stop calling it that. Fighting happens in the NLL and the NHL regularly. Helmets come off, gloves are off and two players have a chance to sort out their differences. There’s a structure to it and it works.

It also has its place, which is when players feel that:

  • their team need an energy boost,
  • the fans need one,
  • someone did something that’s “over the line” and the refs aren’t addressing it to their liking.

Now, with these games all being as close as they are, that rules out Reason A as a factor. But B and C are certainly considerations, but really, it has been C. If B were an option, you’d have to players in the middle of the field just square-off. Nothing resembling that has happened…yet. Where these “scuffles,” “altercations,” or whatever you want to call them actually manifest is after violent slashes, high hits or rough crease play.

That’s been what’s happening. What has the reaction been? Mixed to say the least. There are certainly many in my camp which is that I personally don’t care if there is fighting in the PLL. But for me, if they’re going to have it, have the proper rules around it to keep things sane.

Have extra penalties for being the third person in, or for instigating with someone who wants no part of it.

Being the one player who throws down your helmet and gloves then chases someone down doesn’t end well, either.

In the ideal world where fighting is allowed, Player A slashes Player B. Player C comes over and shoves Player A, likely with some choice words said. They reach an informal agreement to the tune of “let’s go”, and they begin their scrap. What has been happening is Player A slashes B, then C comes to shove A. Player D then steps in front of A while E and F grab C. G and H are off to the side deciding if they want to be involved while I and J are being held out of the original scrum by the refs. Not exactly orderly.

The other reaction is that this is supposed to be a family event.

This is an honest question… is it?

Is the target market for the PLL actually families? It has historically been for the MLL, and if you’re a family there, you would assume it’s a family event.

But the PLL off the field is courting business investors, going on Barstool, seeking out highlights exposure like nobody else, and their personal player content is all about weights, superior athleticism and gear. Which part of that screams “bring your family of four for a night at the stadium?” The target market really seems more like two different groups. Those would be young adult general sports fans and kids that are in their teen years and up lacrosse players.

Breaking those down, the lacrosse players were the ones I personally felt like they were courting all preseason, not casual players who picked up the stick in the spring, but the year-round “I have six favorite players and will buy a jersey for all of them” type of players. They wanted to build a small, enthusiastic base to grow out of and be highly engaged.

Their focus on social media followers, impressions and engagement rate are were all geared towards this. It’s also similar to the Barstool model. Barstool’s CEO is an advisor to the PLL in case you were not aware. Barstool’s success derives from a highly engaged fan base who consumes their content voraciously.

The reason why this is important is that advertisers look more towards engaged fans than passive fans.

Facebook was in trouble with investors when they had millions upon millions of users, but all they were doing was checking a few things and then going to another site. It wasn’t until they found ways to keep them on their site and engage that advertisers could start working their way in. That’s a little bit of a rabbit hole, but the point is these fans who were buying shirts and demanding yellow PLL hats could not care less about fights. They’re going to games no matter what. They are going to copy moves and replay highlights 300 times before moving to the next one.

Then, you get to the casual sports fans. They see a random highlight through non-lacrosse channels like SportsCenter Top 10, House of Highlights or YouTube and decide to check out the next game. They’re not going to care that the two-point line is a yard close to the goal or that ten yards are missing from the middle of the field. They wants something exciting that will being them back a second time.

These are the fans that will be drawn in by having fighting in the PLL.

They’ll tune in to check something out, and their main takeaway will probably be the fight during the game. Maybe over time they’ll start learning the intricacies of the game, but that’s something that will not be immediate. The hope for the PLL to grow is that this initial hook is enough for those fans to tune in week after week as well as for them to get a friend to do the same. Repeat a few hundred thousands times and you have yourself a nationwide audience.

So that’s the growth, what are the risks? The group that I haven’t mentioned are the “older” or “traditional” lacrosse fans. So far, the attitude from those associated from the league is along the lines of Dewey in Malcolm in the Middle saying “The future is now, old man.”

Chances are that if you saw that episode when it originally aired, you’re in this group. The reason I say this is that the PLL was created with the startup mentality and out of the main idea that the MLL was not sufficient to support top-down growth of the sport.

Even though all these players — minus the rookies — played in the MLL, some of them for over a decade,  they felt the on-field product could be better in addition to how it’s marketed and sold. For many of us, and I’m including myself here, the MLL was fine as it was. I found it exciting and enjoyable to watch. But even the MLL had detractors for not being traditional enough with things like a shot clock and two point line. So even if you enjoy lacrosse for being lacrosse in whatever form that means to you: too bad. They’re going to be doing it differently.

What’s funny about this whole thing becoming a debate is that these sorts of things happened all the time in the MLL and they happen in the NCAA as well. It was just a few years ago the Wes Berg, a PLL player, was ejected from a game for doing exactly what Nick Ossello did, but without all the surrounding activities. He even signed autographs on his way to the locker room. The same players were repeatedly involved in this type of stuff and there were occasional full fights. Fighting in the PLL is nothing new to pro lacrosse and it’s not some new-found competitive nature taking over.

From what I’ve been told by others, Paul Rabil has all but said in various interviews that fighting in the PLL is encouraged in this league, so the penalties are reduced for similar actions.

That’s the difference right there. In American field sport culture, fighting is not condoned. It results in ejections at a minimum, and usually is paired with suspensions to varying degrees.

The PLL changing this norm is well within their rights. Their league, their rules.

But in doing so, they are running the risk of alienating certain fans. They will lose “traditional” lacrosse fans who don’t want this to be part of their game. They will lose the box fans for hyping what they don’t view as “real” fights. And they will lose some families who don’t view this as a good influence on kids.

But, as I said previously, it will drive marketing and engagement and WILL pull in new viewers. It is a risk that the league is taking. They are banking on the brand of sport  that they are marketing is what the largest groups of viewers will want and those that turn away are in small enough numbers. It’s not enough for me personally to turn games off, but I roll my eyes when I see it. I tune in just to see good lacrosse, and this sort of thing means I’m not watching lacrosse.

But if there were already millions like me, we wouldn’t be talking about needing to grow the game. It’d already be there.