PROMOTING THE PROS: A Major League Circus

By Michael Spinner

There was simply no excuse for what happened at Hofstra Stadium last Saturday night. It was a beautiful August evening on Long Island-one of the best weekend nights of a summer where good weather has been the norm. It was one of those nights where only a fool would be indoors-cool temperatures, low humidity, zero rain…just perfect. It was a night in which supporters of Major League Lacrosse could find no excuses for low attendance at Hofstra Stadium.

Not only were conditions perfect, but the Long Island Lizards had a date with a local rival and one of the scrappiest teams in the league, the New Jersey Pride. If ever there were a night for the MLL to show itself off, this was it.

Jesse Hubbard and the Pride upset the Lizards

But instead of something that league organizers could point to as a sign of prosperity or simply a hint that things were improving, what happened can only be seen as a disaster. The Pride put forth what was one of their best efforts in franchise history to dish Long Island a record third straight loss, but the real story of the game had to be that there was barely anybody there to see it. More people will see it during any one hour for the first week or two that the game is posted on E-Lacrosse than did live at one of the best venues in lacrosse. The crowd was so incredibly sparse that the usually hectic Hofstra Stadium parking lot was silent even moments before the opening face-off.

From my perch on the "other" side of Hofstra Stadium, across from the crowd, it became clear that something was very wrong. Not only could you see the gold "H" created by a series of gold colored seats within the blue section where the "best" and highest-priced tickets are sold, but the discussion among the players all over the field was perfectly audible.

A live shot of the crowd during 2nd quarter action

A major professional league that is prospering the way we are being led to believe should not have nights like this one. If there were 1,000 fans in attendance it was a reach. There weren't too many more people in the stands than there were on the field.

Hours after the final whistle, I was stunned to read that the announced crowd Saturday night was 3,920. Unless nearly 3,000 people paid almost $20 per ticket but somehow became so enchanted by the NY Jets training camp promotional inflatables along the Hempstead Turnpike that they stopped to watch the grass grow where Doug Shanahan last ran (only hours earlier), there was no way that the crowd flirted with 4,000. Not even close. If you add up the crowd, the players/coaches/officials, the MLL support staff/cheerleaders/owners, the food and beverage vendors, the parachutists that fluttered over the lacrosse field before landing over at a soccer venue nearby (we'll get to that later), and Hofstra security…the number can barely surpass four figures. It was that empty.

Let's face it. On a Saturday night when school was not in session, 4,000 people did not set foot on Hofstra's campus in its entirety, let alone the MLL game at the stadium. And the nearly one hundred cars in the parking lot didn't carry 40 people each.

On the flip side of the coin, the soccer game, played about a mile away from Hofstra Stadium, featured another "major" professional league with the best talent in the world, also trying desperately to make it. And with even 8 times the fans showing up for this particular contest, even soccer fans think they won't last too long. The WUSA women's professional soccer league game that night at nearby Mitchel Field, the site of the 2000 Major League Lacrosse Summer Showcase, was meaningless too. The New York Power put its 3-16-1 record on the line against the Washington Freedom in the final game of the season for the home team. Long Island sports fans had a choice between seeing the worst of the worst in women's pro soccer or the best of the best in professional lacrosse-a sport identified as a product of Long Island. 7,635 people were there to see the soccer game despite the fact that a die-hard could have viewed the game live on television (unlike the lacrosse game). In the Hofstra Press Box, the soccer game was playing on the television minutes before introductions for the lacrosse game and one reporter commented, "wow, it's packed there," after a shot of the crowd was shown.

At that moment, one MLL big-wig in attendance simply put his head down when asked if he had ever seen an MLL game with stands so empty. He simply said we all needed to be patient. "The "product" is fantastic," he said. "People will realize that eventually."

And when exactly is that going to happen?

One thing is for sure, the formula this league is using is not working and if anything, it's actually taking steps backward. And the more an MLL game is presented as nothing short of a circus and sugar-coated by stories of success and fans flocking to the games, the less success this league is going to enjoy. From a business perspective, Saturday night at Hofstra was a disaster for this league. Sure, the product was pretty incredible and the game was great, but if this was a game between the Long Island/Hofstra Lacrosse Club and Team Toyota, the product would have been nearly the same…and maybe the crowd size too. But when the League misleads the public by announcing nearly 4,000 fans, it doesn't help itself. Lax people are smarter than that. Much smarter.

Less than 24 hours later, I tuned into the MLL "Sunday Showdown" between the Baltimore Bayhawks and Rochester Rattlers. The sour taste generated by the inability of this league to gain steam did not go away. Pro lacrosse's "Game of the Week" should be the one opportunity to present everything this league offers that sports and variations of lacrosse cannot. It really should showcase why fans should make their way to the games and eliminate the need to inflate crowd sizes. It's really the one legitimate marketing tool this venture has. But instead of presenting Major League Lacrosse as a weekend entertainment alternative, the "Sunday Showdown" has evolved into another ring in the circus, another exaggeration of reality, an infomercial for a league that has not met expectations. Despite all of their efforts, the broadcasts have only hurt the image of professional lacrosse. Some examples:

Instant Replay?

During Sunday's broadcast of a tight 10-7 win by Baltimore, the game's turning point was a third quarter goal by Jake Bergey that was disallowed when the officials ruled that Bergey was in the crease. The importance of the call was highlighted by announcers Quint Kessenich and Joe Beninati several times and even League Founder Jake Steinfeld mentioned on several occasions in the second half the importance of the call. When this happens in any televised sport, we see several replays from different angles to analyze the play-an especially useful tool for the fan who missed the disputed play. On Sunday, not a single replay of the disputed play was shown from any angle. So we were all left to imagine the play and at no point was the dispute settled in any way by showing a replay…but we saw plenty of instant replays of cross-checks, pushes from behind, and shots on goal. Was this yet another effort to sugar-coat the league and make everything seem so wonderful that even the officials were perfect?

Quint interviews Greg Cattrano of the Bayhawks

Didn't Dennis Miller Get Fired?

Every week, fans are treated to a dose of Jake Steinfield during the second half of each game. Not a five-minute cameo, not a sideline interview, but a third-man to the party. For the first game, Steinfeld's presence was a cute novelty…but weeks later it is wearing thin. Steinfeld's charisma and enthusiasm for the league and sport can not be questioned, but is his presence on the air really helping the broadcasts? He has a habit of screaming "ooh" and "ah" after every shot, check, and pass and making every play seem like it was the greatest moment in lacrosse history. The overselling grows old, like a T.V. pitch for a fitness machine, particularly to a new fan of the sport. Which was really an amazing play worthy of the spotlight and which was simply good execution? It is impossible to know when Jake is on the air.

Jake and Quint

Steinfield on the air is a cross between a less cerebral Dennis Miller during Monday Night Football telecasts and the "boy who cried wolf." His efforts to jazz up the broadcasts only take away from the games and his tendency to make every play seem so incredibly exciting that the fans should be at the edge of their seats takes away from the excitement of the truly spectacular plays. When you scream "whoa!" after every save, how is a novice fan able to make a distinction between the routine save and the showstopper? If the first groundball a fan sees is so overblown with praise, he might just turn the channel before the next actual moment of brilliance.

The worst part about Steinfield's presence on the air is that it takes away from a solid effort by the broadcast team. Beninati is quickly developing into the best play-by-play man in the sport and truly makes the telecasts enjoyable to watch, particularly in the first half. And Kessenich, who's color commentary is well-known from his NCAA games, has come a very long way this summer and he is usually right on-target during the MLL telecasts-even more so than he is for the NCAA games. The problem is that after a usually wonderful first-half performance, the duo in the booth are reduced to roles like Ed McMahon of the old "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson:

JAKE: Wow, that was UNBELIEVABLE!!!!! The referee just blew his whistle REALLY loud! Only in Major League Lacrosse can you hear whistle-blowing like that!!! Whoa!

BENINATI: You are correct, sir.

QUINT: Astute, as always, Jake. The only way to hear whistles like these are to catch Major League Lacrosse games in-person. Don't miss it.

Carc's sporting the new REBEL/STX Uniforms!

In the real world, it is important to kiss up to the boss and Beninati and Kessenich really have no choice so they can't be blamed, even if they do it really well. But recently, Quint went as far as calling the MLL Championship trophy the "Steinfeld Cup" and repeated this claim on the air several times on Sunday. Jake admitted, without really being asked, that the trophy is being engraved with last year's champion only this week before the armored car trip to Columbus. Is it called the Steinfeld Cup because it sits in Jake's closet at home or because the name Steinfeld is written on the pawn tag which is attached to it for 11 months of each year?

Giving it up for Gary:

It only took two years, but the MLL brass has finally taken notice that the Gait Brothers are responsible for the sport being as popular as it is today and are seemingly trying to make-up for slapping the Gaits in the face during the last two years. First, the Gaits did not participate in the Summer Showcase because they did not use Warrior products. Then, the greatest duo to ever pick up sticks were drafted way way low in the first MLL Player Draft, with Paul in particular going in the ninth round.

Baltimore's graying Gary Gait is still the best

We are lucky that the Gaits ever bothered to play after such antics. Especially when you consider that during an interview with me shortly before the Summer Showcase in 2000, the former Director of Operations for the league and suspected hand puppet for Warrior's Dave Morrow described the Gaits as "dinosaurs" who could not keep up with the younger talent of the league and fast pace of the MLL game. That same year, even Steinfeld disparaged some of the non-Warrior stars as too old or not up to the task. Since then, Paul earned MVP honors of the 2001 Championship Game while Gary has been his usual dominant self, ascended to Player/Head Coach of the Bayhawks, and single-handedly made the 2002 All-Star game an event to remember.

During Sunday's broadcast, Gary Gait was spotlighted five different times for his outstanding play, earned an on-the-air interview, and was the MVP of the game. After the game, Quint basically declared that he will name is children "Gary Gait" one day and the league itself is seemingly trying to save face by finally honoring the greats it once put down-even though Gary works for STX and not the wonderful world of Warrior.

As a lacrosse fan who has admired the Gaits since I first saw them play more than 12 years ago, this new effort to finally give Gary his due makes me sick. These same folks made him wear another number while his Syracuse heir apparent Casey Powell, a paid Warrior celebrity, adorned the 22 which would have no meaning at all without Gary's legend attached. This alone, likely turned off thousands of potential fans.

Long Island's Casey Powell and Baltimore's Gary
Gait now each wear the number 22

On The Bus To Columbus:

At halftime of Sunday's broadcast, Jake announced that there would be special transportation services to attend the MLL Championship Game in September. Perhaps it was finally realized that people in Columbus may not care about Major League Lacrosse and, as a result, fans in other areas can get a special price on bus-fare and a ticket to the championship game. So now, people from the lacrosse havens of Cincinnati, Lansing, Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and South Bend-all of which have been renowned for their vast wealth of lacrosse communities-can live out their dream and spend their holiday sitting in traffic on a bus and watching two teams from nowhere near their homes battle it out for the Championship of a league they probably never heard of. Never mind that the league has done nothing to try to appease the fans of the cities who's teams will actually play on Labor Day and perhaps offer travel packages to fans from the cities participating in the Final. I heard that next week, the league will also offer bus service from Mudpit, Mississippi just in case there is an MLL market there, too. They buy lots of Abasizawhatchamacallits, in any case.

The kids who come to the games seem to have fun

Overall, the one area where league execs have it right is that they offer the best product in the sport. But, as I have noted in my last two columns, the way this product is being offered is what is hurting the league. By perpetually misleading the public as to the state of fan support and general success and happiness of the MLL and then presenting the games on National Television as nothing short of a sideshow, the league has approached the end of year three (including the Summer Showcase) in worse shape than it was as a concept. There is something that the women's professional soccer has done (other than the yellow referee jerseys obviously) in order to gain support that men's professional lacrosse has not done. The question asked all over the league and that will not go away is how long can this league last with such poor attendance figures. And that's the soccer league. In lacrosse, the answer may be all too obvious on nights like these.

August 13, 2002

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