Pro Lax at Lacrosse Roads

By Michael Spinner

Perhaps Jake had it right after all.

A year ago, Major League Lacrosse founder Jake Steinfeld made one of the more storied moves in the brief history of his league when he announced that the MLL Championship Game would be held hundreds of miles from the nearest MLL City in Columbus, Ohio. Many called it an act of desperation for a league that to this day has failed to meet attendance expectations. But the league defended it as the first test in the effort to expand the fledgling league into a new market away from the traditional lacrosse hot-beds.

The 2002 Final in Columbus

Any way you saw it, putting the MLL Championship so far from "home" was risky business. If and when the wagon dust finally settles, it is entirely possible that Jake will have had it right all along. Could his hunch save professional lacrosse? Jake's own MLL may not be able to mobilize westward in time, but in the case of the indoor National Lacrosse League the answer is an emphatic "yes!"

While Major League Lacrosse (MLL) and the National Lacrosse League (NLL) share few similarities other than the obvious, their futures could equally hang on the prospect of packing up and moving out west. Over the last two weeks, we have seen the NLL make a bold commitment to westward expansion by moving the New Jersey Storm to Anaheim and folding the Ottawa Rebel with the hope of restarting it on the West Coast. The move seems to be based on the league's successful venture in Colorado after moving the former Washington Power out west. This is seen as the catalytic stimulus of one of the most successful seasons in league history. Now we'll see NLL action in Anaheim, the Bay area, San Jose and perhaps other venues on the west coast, particularly those who house NHL franchises.

Spinner interviews Jake at the first MLL Challenge event

When you combine the league's new life out west with the lack of success of many of the existing east coast markets, the day may soon be near when the NLL is primarily based far from the existing lacrosse hot-beds. Seemingly, the NLL will never see itself in the Baltimore area again. The old Baltimore Thunder are gone forever and the experiment with the Washington Power was one of the more colossal failures in the history of professional sports. With no existing NHL franchise between Baltimore and North Carolina (other than the Capitals, who foolishly held no ownership and provided no help to the Power in DC) and the total failure of the brief NLL existence in Carolina it seems that the NLL will never see the mid-Atlantic region again.

Denver crowds stunned the lacrosse world

And Long Island? While it would be hard to imagine Professional Indoor Lacrosse without the New York Saints, based on recent events one must wonder how much longer the Saints will operate on Long Island. After a 3-13 season that was marked by lagging attendance numbers, the Saints recently were forced to part ways with five of their top players-including stars Nick Carlson, Gavin Prout, and Gee Nash. While there were few specifics offered by the league, the five players were declared free agents because the Saints were found to be in violation of the players' contracts and "failed to cure them in a timely manner." Could it be that the players were not paid? We may never know. But what we do know is that there is some trouble on Long Island.

Of course we'll never see an exclusive western NLL because franchises in Philadelphia, Toronto and Buffalo continue to thrive, but it is clear that there is far more energy and acceptance for at least the indoor game out west then there is on the east coast.

Trevor Tierney to Tuscon?

And that's where Jake and Major League Lacrosse come in. Year three of MLL has offered few answers to the league's trouble filling seats. There was a time just before the league's first face-off when Steinfeld himself declared that "having 5,001 fans at games would constitute a success" since 5,000 fans per game were guaranteed to the league's biggest advertisers. Three years later, it has become a struggle for many of the six franchises to draw 3,000 fans a game and it has been difficult to watch a game without thinking that this trend cannot last much longer.

2003 has been by far the most exciting year of MLL play as with only a few weeks left in the season, five of the six teams could find their way to a Championship. In fact, four teams have won either six or seven games and Rochester, with league headliners Ryan and Casey Powell, has finally found its stride. But the fans have still stayed away for the most part. The league will hold its Final Four at Villanova Stadium, just outside of Philadelphia, the city where many seem to feel an MLL franchise is necessary. The success or failure of the playoffs in perhaps the country's best sports town could be a major litmus test for the league's future.

Columbus fans

One league executive recently said about the struggle of the teams to fill seats at home games, "We're scratching our heads a bit. We've done a lot of grassroots marketing, ticket specials, and other efforts to get fans out to the games and they're not showing up. I don't think we're ready to give up, but we have tried just about everything."

Everything, that is, but moving out west. During the recent MLL All-Star game, Steinfeld was interviewed on ESPN where he announced that up to six teams would be created out west during the near future. One would think that would have to be the VERY near future if ever.

A fair crowd in columbus

Where can MLL field teams in the West? It's hard to tell. But with Major League Soccer franchises succeeding in Colorado, San Jose, and Los Angeles, there are three attractive venues with adequate practice facilities…if agreements can be made. Add perhaps Columbus to the mix and you have four very possible locations. Texas and Arizona have also been mentioned but that region will be awfully hot for lacrosse games during the summer. The sport has grown enough in these areas that they may be possible markets.

The bottom line here is that whether you are a staunch supporter of professional lacrosse or a purist, like me, who views lacrosse as primarily a college game, it is becoming increasingly clear that in order for professional lacrosse to survive, some sort of commitment to a western move has to be part of the business equation. It could even be viewed as a "last resort" since, despite all of the efforts of each league, success in the east has been infrequent.

League icon Mark Millon

And, the time is now, right now. For the NLL, there seems to be a push from those with vested interest in the National Hockey League to co-exist with NHL franchises-thus, the commitments in Anaheim, San Jose, Colorado, etc. With the opportunity to field teams in many of the best indoor venues in the world, if the league strikes right now, there is a strong possibility that the league can enjoy some success in these markets. Being too patient with the existing franchises could hold back the league and be very costly.

For MLL fans, the situation is not all that different. Right now, the league is not surviving because of ticket sales, but instead is relying on major sponsorship to keep it afloat. For 2003, Gatorade has (thankfully) replaced SoBe as the official sports drink of the league and New Balance has also come aboard to join Bud Light as major sponsors. Was SoBe a sports drink? Add to the mix the commitment of ESPN for a "Game of the Week" and there is some money flowing into the league…for now. But it will be very difficult to convince these sponsors to stay aboard if there are more fans watching Minor League Baseball than Major League Lacrosse, and there are.

For the league to stay "major" in terms of sponsorship and public perception, it seemingly has little choice but to test the western waters, whether it means new franchises or moving some of the existing ones-particularly if there is a commitment from major venues. Right now, the biggest difficultly seems to have been venue related since four of the franchises have played at up to three different home fields in three years. The league has tried homes as small as a High School Stadium and as big as Raven's Stadium to house its teams and the fans are staying away. Perhaps a move out West is the only answer.

The 2002 home of the Lizards, Hofstra University

A combination of franchise relocation and expansion is the key for this league to survive. Right now, there is simply too much clutter and perhaps even this mini-market is saturated by too many teams. There seems to be a rule that Long Island has to have a franchise because it is Long Island. The same is true in Baltimore. It is hard to imagine a league without franchises in both locations. Boston is the league's only representation in New England, a good lacrosse market. They should stay put. Keep the Rochester franchise in upstate New York for the same reason.

But it is hard to believe that MLL franchises could continue to exist in New Jersey and Bridgeport. Bridgeport has been the doormat of the league for three years and any effort to gain a solid fan-base seems to be failing because the team is not winning. Barrage GM Ken Paul is one of the nicest, hardest working people you will find, but it just is not working out in Bridgeport. One of the biggest problems the Barrage will see for the future is that Connecticut's lacrosse hot-bed is in Fairfield County in southern Connecticut, an area with access to Long Island as convenient as access to Bridgeport. In other words, any Connecticut lacrosse fan could go to both, so having two franchises so near to each other may not be in the best interests of the league.

Similar story for New Jersey. While the elimination of a New Jersey franchise will not give Pride fans easy access to games, if the league ever adds a franchise to the Philadelphia area (or moves the New Jersey franchise to Philly), there is still MLL access for the New Jersey die-hards. As it is, having teams in Bridgeport, Long Island, and New Jersey is having three teams as virtual next-door neighbors in a market that is not as big as league execs originally thought. It's time to spread out to increase demand.

The men in yellow

Personally, I favor two conferences, East and West. The Eastern Conference's five teams could be Long Island, Boston, Rochester, Philadelphia (moving from New Jersey), and Baltimore. This hits all of the major markets and gives each franchise a larger space to market from. In the Western Conference you could have teams in Denver, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Columbus to start and then build from there. These four areas have a Major League Soccer franchise to perhaps share a venue with and they also have a growing population of lacrosse fans. Lacrosse in Colorado and Ohio is beginning to reach the heights that have been attained in New York and Maryland and perhaps the addition of the league could put a bigger charge into the lacrosse booms in these areas. And, many will say that California is the next lacrosse hot-bed. There is a ton of lacrosse out there and having two California teams could be a positive step to building a fan base that is not used to having as much big time lacrosse as we see in the East.

In any case, the league's only current commitment is to expand out west with any further specifics. But any way you look at it, professional lacrosse is at a cross-roads and during the next 2-3 years we'll know if there is a viable future for both the NLL and MLL. Whatever formula has existed, the east is not working and it is time to leave that dream behind and go west. With a rising lacrosse market out west, the time could be now to make the move and give professional lacrosse it's one shot to really make it.

Jake Steinfield may have had it right to begin with. But, now he must follow his instinct and make very bold and perhaps expensive moves westward to keep his ship afloat.

August 3, 2003

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