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The Truth About Player Endorsements & The Pros

We’ve been hearing a lot from former players, current players, our fans, and even an agent for lacrosse players, about player endorsements in the pros, with a special focus on field lacrosse, and specifically, the MLL.  So far, the key change a lot of people want to see is that individual players can wear the gear from their respective sponsor company.  Paul Rabil can wear Maverik. Ryan Powell can wear Nike. Brett Queener can use Easton.  Anthony Kelly can use STX.  You get the picture.  And the idea is that this direct sponsorship opportunity could increase the cash in the pocket of the professional player.

Now, I’m not a professional lacrosse player.  I’ve never played a minute in the MLL or NLL.  I’m not an agent and I haven’t worked for a pro sports team.  But I like to do my homework, I like to talk to people, and I like to listen to opinions from everywhere, so I’m going to break down why these two sides are so far apart.

Connor Wilson Wesleyan Lacrosse
I played D3 ball. Not in the MLL.

As usual, it all comes down to money.  The players want more of it, the league needs more of it (to stay viable and keep growing), and the manufacturers want to spend less of it.  Of the three groups, two are companies eventually motivated by profit, and the third group is made up of humans.  You have 3 major partners with monetary interests, and not quite enough to go around.  So who is going to be left wanting more?  The party that is most replaceable.  And in this specific case, the same people bringing the fans in; the players, are the same ones who get the least out of the deal because right now, they are the most replaceable.  As a league grows, especially in the early stages, this is what tends to happen.  And it comes down to economics and scarcity.

If you were to erase the top two professional leagues, the MLL and NLL, pro lacrosse would suffer a major blow.  Yes, the LXM, Canadian Summer teams, Aussie State Leagues, and clubs like the Crease Monkeys would still exist.  The cupboard wouldn’t be completely bare, but it would looking a lot more empty.  If Warrior and Cascade both disappeared, the lacrosse world would feel it in a major way.  But if Mike Powell leaves the MLL to focus on his music career, or Brendan Mundorf takes a season off from the NLL to focus on the World Games, the leagues go on.  People talk about it, for sure, but no one is saying it’s the end of days.

This is not a knock on the players whatsoever.  They are the reason fans go to games.  Period.  There is no other reasonable possibility.  They put on a heck of a game, stay and sign autographs and talk with fans long into the night.  The players put their heart and soul into it.  But the fact is, there are a LOT of talented players out there, and a new crop of guys in great shape come into the leagues each year.  I don’t see either of the leagues expanding rapidly for at least a couple of years, and until that happens, even star players are somewhat replaceable… by other star players.  In the beginnings, the league has to be bigger than any one player because of the reason I laid out above: there just isn’t enough money to go around.

Some see this as a cutthroat approach to things, and to a certain extent, they’re right.  But it’s necessary as well and is a product of our own consumption habits.  All I hear about in the lacrosse world is EXCLUSIVITY.  I hear it from players sometimes, but mostly I hear it from manufacturing companies.  Companies want an event or relationship to be theirs. If they’re going to pour money into something, it had better work, and it had better only help them, and not their competitors.  Otherwise, they’re just not willing to really pay up at the same rate.  One company will pay more to be the exclusive sponsor than 10 companies will combine to pay to share a sponsorship.  If the event isn’t there, it’s enough to sponsor their top guys and leave it at that.  If they can’t do that cheaply, most manufacturers seem content to just wash their hands of any effort.

Now, as others have pointed out, player sponsorships would still put more money in player’s pockets.  Especially those players that were sponsored.  And that’s a good thing.  I’d like to see the players get paid more too.  For what they are asked to do, they aren’t paid enough.  And the companies would be on board because they can play players less than they’d have to pay in league fees.  But for now, increased player endorsements can’t come at the expense of the league because without the actual MLL, there isn’t a pro outdoor league to play in.

If 5 or more lacrosse companies, not currently in the MLL, would all split the costs with Warrior, and everyone could sponsor one team and stack it with their players, MAYBE it could work, but even that is extremely unlikely because their is no single sponsor in control.  Or you let the stars get sponsored and then the teams have to pay for the non-endorsed players gear.  Either way, the league is still out a LOT of money.  And without these sponsors paying the league decent chunks of change to allow their players to use their equipment, the pro lacrosse model just isn’t big enough to work.

We would go back to a single event and tournament style post-collegiate career, and all of the money would shift right back to the college game.  Making a career out of lacrosse would go back to being one in a million, if that.

Without a single sponsor that not only sees a lot of value in the MLL, but that is also willing to pay to sponsor the league exclusively, it just doesn’t work.  More cash directly into the players hands is definitely the goal, but at this point, there just doesn’t seem to be enough to go around.

Nike can promote Max Seibald without him using their products in the MLL.  And it’s a lot cheaper than what they would have to pay in to the MLL to make it worthwhile for the league.  And the fact is, Nike isn’t making a killing in lacrosse… yet.  So they’re not going to pour tons of money into something that seems to be growing just fine on its own.  They can get in on the ground floor still effectively and cheaply.  Like Lee Southren said, it’s just good business.

The bottom line is that lacrosse companies aren’t exactly making money hand over fist right now.  This is true of manufacturers, the pro leagues, and a lot of other higher food chain type businesses.  When the economy was good, the MLL grew a bit, and then contracted.  Please remember, this was still in the league’s first 10 years.  The NLL has also seen teams drop off, but the fact that the league is still going, and is as competitive as ever, bodes well for the future.  If you look at the early years of almost any pro American sports league, you will see contraction periods and tens of teams folding.  It’s all a part of progress.  And until those pro leagues were selling out venues and getting multiple sponsors, players weren’t rolling the dough.  The NFL was a league of part-time players for quite some time.  Why do we expect lacrosse to be magically different?

We all have our personal views on the pro leagues, and most of these views arise because we want to see the Pros succeed.  I’ve proposed my own crazy ideas in the past because it’s fun… and I’ll continue to do so.  But at the same time, I realize MLL Commissioner David Gross doesn’t live in my lacrosse fantasy world.  He lives and works right here in reality and has to work with what is in front of him.

He, and the rest of the MLL, have to make tough decisions, and sometimes these choices hurt people financially and emotionally.  Sometimes it means guys have to stop playing because better opportunities came up.  It’s all a part of trying to do something new in a small market, but on a big stage.  The MLL, in my eyes, is still very much a young professional league that has covered a lot of distance in a short time, but still has a long way to go.  Big time demands are going to be placed on players early on.  They’re going to be paid very little and it’s going to be tight to make a living.  Careers will last 3-5 years instead of 7-10 years for more players because the dollars and cents just won’t work out.  And it’s a shame that more guys will have to give it up.  But until attendance starts rising and other revenue streams solidify, a multiple manufacturer sponsorship deal probably isn’t on the near horizon.

The league could do it, but then they’d cease to exist.

I would hope that more players will be able to build their brand and name in the pros for 5 years and then start up businesses related to the sport, or pursue other careers.  But even this “short” pro career will require an inordinate amount of sacrifice.  But it’s the same thing that’s been asked of a lot of the start up pro league players before them. Some guys will stick it out for much longer but they won’t be as common as in other sports, simply because the money just isn’t there.

The above situation will hold the league back a bit, as fans will have a harder time connecting with their team.  Players will be hard pressed to develop really strong followings that quickly, but the MLL has to be banking on the consistent flow  of high-quality new players for now.  Guys will tire out, or find better opportunities, but the primary focus of the MLL for the next ten to twenty years should be survival and sustainable growth.  And I hope going bankrupt to keep the star players of today happy is not their solution.  I’d like to see the MLL, and all pro larosse players, be very successful by the time I’m old and wrinkly, but for that to happen, there is still a lot of sacrifice to make in the meantime.