MLL CHAMPIONSHIP: Go West, Young Fan


By Michael Spinner

Year two of Major League Lacrosse has probably been the exact opposite of what its supporters had hoped for: On the field, the season has been nothing short of predictable - Long Island and Baltimore continue to dominate and seem to be headed for a second Championship clash. New Jersey and Rochester have caused some excitement but still have not caught up to the elite. Boston has made some waves but the loss of their star goalie will make it tough for the Cannons to continue what was a great early run. And Bridgeport has truly fizzled.

Between the lines, year two is not a whole lot different from year one.

But off the field, the atmosphere has been as unpredictable as a "Sobe Power Play." The 2002 season began under a shroud of controversy. Around the same time as the opening MLL face-off, Team USA without most of America's top superstars prepared to defend its World Championship in Australia and the League took a major publicity hit by putting the prize at stake, not letting the best talent play for their country.



Baltimore's Mark Millon

Seemingly, the most deadly publicity bullet was dodged when the Stars and Stripes not only won the World Championship, but had an easier time doing so than the "Dream Team" did capturing the crown in 1998's overtime thriller.

Next, the league made an interesting move by moving the Baltimore Bayhawks to spacious Ravens Stadium with the draw of an attractive venue, ample parking, and adult beverages to hopefully draw more fans than Homewood Field did in 2001. Finally, the league received its first major television contract and the "Sunday Showdown" can be seen by as many fans as Major League Baseball during the summer.



Baltimore's Tom Marachek

Yet none of these milestones have made much of a difference in the one area the League had really hoped they would - the stands. Attendance figures continue to suffer as even the "improved" venues in Baltimore, Long Island, and New Jersey have struggled to improve on what was a disappointing inaugural season draw. With the exception of Rochester, where professional lacrosse in any form has seemed to strike a sense of excitement within the community, the MLL fever has simply not caught on elsewhere.

This week, the league caused yet another stir when it was announced that the 2002 Championship Weekend will be played in a city that does not call an MLL franchise its own-Columbus, Ohio. Not only is Columbus a city without an MLL franchise, but the closest MLL fan base to Columbus (Rochester) is nearly 400 miles away. In other words, minus the MLL Summer Showcase Game in 2000, in order for a fan who has actually seen an MLL game in person to attend the 2002 Playoffs, they'll have to drive a minimum of seven hours. That figure does not include Labor Day Weekend traffic. And for fans of the Boston Cannons, if your squad does make it to the post-season, expect to spend at least 13 hours driving the 750 miles to the Stadium.



Rochester's Jake Bergey

Instead of "Take it Outside", the marketing slogan for Championship Weekend 2002 should be, "Go West, Young Fan."

In the Press Conference announcing the Labor Day Weekend venue, MLL founder Jake Steinfeld expressed an optimistic tone about Columbus and seemed excited about coming back to Columbus. Several MLL employees, including actual players, have spoken outwardly about the plans for the league to expand to Columbus for next season, making Labor Day Weekend the kickoff to create a Columbus fan-base. And with lacrosse booming in the State of Ohio, there is a strong possibility that an MLL franchise in Columbus can do quite well.



However, the presence of the MLL's Championship in a site a flight away from the league's nearest fan-base has to raise more questions than answers. Namely, has the league given up on creating a legitimate base of support in its six existing locations? One way to see this move is an attempt to generate excitement in a future home of Major League Lacrosse. Another way to see it is a punishment of sorts to the areas where teams exist for not supporting the league.

The most logical location for the Championship Weekend would have been Baltimore since Ravens Stadium is the nicest home to an MLL team and Baltimore is probably the most central location available within the existing lacrosse community. Plus, the Bayhawks are almost certain to play Labor Day Weekend so a home game should produce an excited crowd. Add to the mix that the next two NCAA Lacrosse Championship Weekends will be held at that location, so a major cross-promotional campaign of high-level lacrosse in its greatest venue ever would have been exciting for lacrosse fans everywhere.



Long Island's Brian Carcaterra

However, with an average attendance of less than 4,000 for Bayhawks home games, a sparse Championship Weekend gate would be nothing short of a humiliation for the league.

The "other" logical choice would have been Rochester where the MLL has flourished. As a reward for attendance, having the Championship Weekend there would make perfect sense as an incentive for support would be the Championships.



DID YOU SEE THOSE JERSEYS?
They're sporting the new REBEL/STX Uniforms!


But the League chose to take it West and it can only be wondered if things have become so bad out East that this is a move of desperation. In any case, this move is a risk. If the MLL Championship Weekend draws, say, 3500 people for each date and receives only lukewarm interest, does this league have a future? After all, why would the MLL want to expand just to have another franchise draw only a few thousand fans per game? In that case, where can the league go to get a great fan-base?

For two seasons, those who have taken interest in the future of professional lacrosse have heard nothing but optimism from League brass that the glass is half full and that the league is on firm footing-even if the attendance figures suggest otherwise. In many ways, this move can be interpreted as a sign that things are not as good there as we are being led to believe.



MLL's Jake Steinfeld

I have been to more than two-dozen MLL games in two seasons and I've taken as many opportunities to speak with league execs about the state of the MLL as possible. Behind the scenes, a lot of the discussion has been of frustration at the amount of fan support and the steps the league is taking to filling the seats. Seemingly, nothing has worked. More than a year ago, I had the opportunity to interview Steinfeld at halftime of the MLL College Showcase at Johns Hopkins just days before the league's first game. He made it clear that the goal for year one was an average attendance of 5,000 and said that "5,001 fans would be a success." I still have never attended a regular season game with 5,000 fans and it seems that nearly two full seasons into the MLL, the initial goal is nowhere near being met.

It's hard to imagine that moving the Championship Weekend to Columbus will help this situation in any way. Truthfully, while the league has lived up to its claim of fielding the best lacrosse product on Earth, it really cannot claim to have done whatever it can to bring a fan base to the league. A season and a half of MLL action can only lead to the conclusion that relying on traditional lacrosse fans to fill 5,000 seats per game will not allow the league to survive and the only way for this thing to work would be to seek a fan base that does not have a lacrosse background. The best support for this sentiment is that the two lacrosse meccas of Baltimore and Long Island have moved to the greatest possible venues in their locations for the 2002 season and the attendance figures have not improved. If lacrosse natives from places where lacrosse is a way of life do not attend MLL games, how can lacrosse fans from other areas be expected to go to the games?

The problem is that the one thing the MLL has not done to get fans in the stands is market this product properly. I live in an area that is less than an hour's drive from the home stadiums of the Long Island, Bridgeport, and New Jersey franchises and to this day I have never seen an ad in the newspaper for an MLL home game, I have never seen a commercial on television to get fans out to the games, and I have never seen any type of promotion whatsoever for MLL games that exist outside the realm of traditional lacrosse avenues. If you go to a lacrosse store or on a lacrosse website, you can see advertising for games. But that means marketing is only being done for traditional lacrosse enthusiasts and no effort is being made to get new fans to the games.



Long Island's John Gagliardi

Let's face it. This is the third summer that Major League Lacrosse is on the field somewhere, including the Summer Showcases of 2001. By now, every lacrosse fan who wishes to attend a game has attended. But, from the perspective of a consumer, the average non-lacrosse person has no way to know anything about the existence of the MLL unless they happen to be flipping through the television stations on a Sunday afternoon. For all of the money the league has spent, its marketing dollars have not been well spent by any means and expansion will not solve this problem. If you expand to Columbus, or anywhere else for that matter, but you make no effort to get people to the games, how can it be expected that people will show?

Proverbially, the horse will never drink if you do not lead it to water. If MLL execs market its product in Columbus the same way it has been marketed in its current locales, how can there be any expectation that Labor Day 2002 will provide any momentum for the league? Are lacrosse fans in Columbus any different from lacrosse fans in every MLL city except for Rochester? Probably not. But are there a lot of sports crazed people in Columbus, Ohio who would be turned on to an exciting, new product? Probably. The question is whether or not the league's marketing effort will reach those people and get them out to the games.



Baltimore Bayhawk Gavin Prout

The Photos above are by John Strohsacker.


July 30, 2002


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