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Why The MLL Welcomes More Manufacturers To Pro Lacrosse

Major League Lacrosse recently announced that it will be allowing more lacrosse equipment manufacturers (and general sporting goods manufacturers) into the league as sponsors next year. Equipment and apparel have been broken down into around ten different sponsorship categories, and a company can opt-in on a per category – not per player – basis. For more on the details, check out Chris Rosenthall’s Major League Lacrosse Allows Non-Warrior Equipment Into The League.

This setup means that Company A can buy in to Major League Lacrosse to cover, for example, arm pads, and then the company’s sponsored players, and a certain number of other MLL players, can wear Company A‘s arm pads. If Company A wants to put players in gloves or shoulder pads there is a separate cost involved. If more companies buy into a certain category (think gloves or heads) then they will split the total category costs, and each company will have a lower percentage of MLL players wearing branded gear.

paul rabil equipment lacrosse mll warrior
MLL gear just got bigger.

It’s a seemingly confusing and onerous sponsorship set up, but it mimics other professional sports leagues, like the NHL or NBA, and it shouldn’t come as a complete shock. Warrior remains the title sponsor, Cascade has one more year of helmet exclusivity due to an old contract, and certain companies, like Warrior and New Balance, will remain the sole sponsors of certain items, like uniforms.

So far, the focus by the commentariat has been the potential outcomes of this announcement: more players will get sponsored, an increased promotion of Major League Lacrosse (and the game in general) will take place by a broader base of companies, and that the game will grow. However, without somewhat concrete numbers to throw around, making any of those predictions is near impossible.

Two major economic factors are being overlooked here, and the rampant speculation on what will happen without knowing much about the actual numbers is disconcerting. Here are the two big questions that need to be asked before this move can be analyzed further:

1) How much will each sponsorship level cost?

If one sponsorship level is equal to, or exceeds, a college program sponsorship or individual player’s deal with the company (which can be quite low in terms of money already), how does the cost-benefit analysis work out? Depending on what each category costs, manufacturer marketing budgets could double or triple for many companies. Is this a truly viable option?

Without numbers, how do we know what the value is?

Without having the numbers in front of us, we simply don’t know. If you can sponsor a piece of gear in the MLL for $10,000, that’s one thing. If you have to spend $100,000 in total (paying for pad rights, sponsoring players, etc.) and still split the category with 4 other companies, it is a VERY different situation. And yet somehow, so many sources in the sport seem to know what’s going to happen here – who is losing and who is winning… with no numbers to work off. I find that extremely weird. Maybe you don’t?

2) Has the world’s lacrosse budget increased overnight?

Money doesn’t grow on trees; we all know that. Yet, somehow, most lacrosse writers seem pretty willing to accept that more money could magically enter the lacrosse world now thanks to this deal. Either that, or they just don’t want to confront the fact that it has to come from somewhere… but that’s exactly the case, the money does indeed have to come from somewhere.

Should Company B continue to sponsor that very good but not great NCAA Division 2 team? Or should they divert funds to cover an equipment category in the MLL and pick up a couple more professional players? Maybe they’ll have to drop 2 college teams and cut back on their product giveaways? Maybe they’ll have to cut back on their online advertising budgets? Maybe they’ll tack on an extra five bucks to each of their products?

If this is the case, it doesn’t seem like Growing The Game at all. It seems like repositioning funds within the game. Of course, the money could also come from a bigger company like Bauer (now that they own Cascade and Maverik) or Nike or Easton or Under Armour. Each of those companies could decide to put additional funds into lacrosse, and enter the MLL in a big way, but it is in no way guaranteed, and has not even been mentioned as a real possibility.

The first option has the potential to actually do some serious harm. The second could, in fact, Grow The Game. Yet somehow, and without any numbers or any information regarding a larger investment pool, many people seem to know what’s going to happen already.

So the point still stands: the money has to come from somewhere. No one is close to offering up any real ideas.

The Real Deal? Extrapolating Answers

Whenever the MLL talks about the future, they talk about the league turning 25 or 50 – not 12. That means it’s not all about the money now, or the players now, or the league now… instead, it’s all about the future. The one motive that underscores all of the league’s moves is simple: Think long-term.

In order to do this, the MLL must, one day, be viewed by the majority of the lacrosse community as the best lacrosse on the planet, just like the NBA, NHL and NFL have all done in their respective sports. There are certainly college purists in each of those games, like there are in lacrosse, but outside of lax, all pale in comparison to their professional counterparts.

Could a lack of new funding hurt college lacrosse?

Obviously, lacrosse is a little different. Ultimately, Major League Lacrosse is simply not viewed by the majority of the lacrosse population as the “best the game has to offer.” I may think it is superior to college lacrosse in many ways, and there are some who would agree with me, but if you don’t think the MLL is still fighting the stigma of being a “glorified Summer league”, you’ve got another thing coming.

Yes, attendance is up, expansion is going well and things are looking good. But the league isn’t there yet, and the MLL brass knows it. The MLL has, especially in the last few years, chipped away at the college lacrosse pedestal, and like any good business, they are always looking for new ways to get a leg up. With this new “more gear concept” they found two:

1) The current generation of lacrosse playing kids is the most gear obsessed EVER. What better way to increase interest in the league and grow their base for the future?

2) Gear manufacturers have a lot of pull in the lacrosse world, so why not get more of them involved in the MLL directly? More companies involved means more companies need to see the MLL succeed. It’s an opportunity to form a larger mass, and get more people invested in the success of the league.

Now, not only would the kids buy in to the MLL because the gear will be the best, but the companies would also have to buy into the MLL as a marketing vehicle (especially if they are paying through the nose, which is possible) and promote it to their followers (introducing Company C player and MLL All-Star, Johnny Rockets!), which reinforces the MLL as the best lacrosse around. That is happening RIGHT NOW in the college lacrosse advertising world, and it’s something the MLL probably aims to have happen as well.

After the announcement was made, people came out and said that Warrior has to be in trouble or that the MLL has to be in trouble. They have said the move was done purely for the fans, or the players of today, or because one manufacturer really wanted in. People have even said that the move was done with the simple goal of the killing off LXM PRO!

But without solid numbers and real details, people really shouldn’t be saying any of that. For now, all we know is that Major League Lacrosse thinks this deal will allow the league to stay afloat into the future and that it will benefit the league 15 years from now. The underlying motive behind all of the MLL’s moves involve both goals. So until we see the numbers and how they will impact the present, we should really just leave it at that.