The MILL and NLL
Lacrosse Becomes
a Business

Throughout the history of lacrosse, the game was played outside and on a field. It's modern incarnation is played by ten men on each team on a field 120 yards long.

Photo by Jerry Shifflett
However, another form of lacrosse, box lacrosse, was created in 1931 and played inconspicuously in Canada. Box lacrosse is different from field lacrosse in that the field is much smaller, usually a hockey rink covered with astroturf, and there are six players on a team. The Canadians developed this variation of lacrosse and played it more than traditional field lacrosse so that they could make use of idle hockey rinks in the summer.

This form of lacrosse was not played or even well-known in the U.S. until 1987, when two businessmen from Kansas City, Chris Fritz and Russ Cline, formed the Eagle Box Lacrosse League in search of a sports promotion. The two men, who usually promoted rock concerts and mud races, were searching for a fast-paced game to be played indoors. They did not know anything about the origins of lacrosse, so their first idea was to play the game on roller skates, thus producing an action-packed game. After all, Roller Derby and "Wild World of Wheels" truck shows were among their earlier successful ventures. Soon they decided to play the game without roller skates, and the Eagle Box Lacrosse League started competition with teams in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Jersey.

The first year of competition, in which Baltimore won the championship by beating Washington, the Eagle League was very violent and promoted just that. This was what Fritz and Cline intended when forming the league as a way to attract fans and make money. Television commercials for the Eagle League glorified the violence and promoted the object of the game as to "not only win, but survive". The violent play in this league resembles the way lacrosse was first played in Native American tribes, when the strategy was to disable as many players as possible. The way this league was described in the media, lacrosse had become "only slightly less violent in the centuries since then."

Photo by Jerry Shifflett

Many lacrosse purists felt that the Eagle League was detrimental to the game of lacrosse as a whole because of its violent play and its vast differences from traditional field lacrosse.
Famous Baltimore Sun lacrosse columnist Bill Tanton said that, "In the beginning it was pure savagery...I still prefer field lacrosse." The league's violent play has subsided since its first year, but it is still far more violent than field lacrosse. Although the league had a shaky beginning, it soon changed its name into the Major Indoor Lacrosse League (MILL) and grew into other cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Charlotte, and Boston. In the early 90's the league still experienced financial problems, and many teams, such as in Detroit, Washington, and Pittsburgh, were forced to stop operation or merge with other teams.

Because of the financial problems of the MILL, players who played in the games were paid very little. At the beginning the salaries were between only $125 to $300 per game per player, depending on the number of years a player had served. However, this small amount was more than enough to attract lacrosse's best athletes, including both Gait twins. Lacrosse players play for the love of the game, not the money.
As Jim Huelskamp, author of Indoor Lacrosse and former MILL player, says, "the rush that players get playing in front of a full arena is payment enough". Teams only practiced at night, so players could handle day jobs, thus financially supporting themselves.

1998 League MVP Gary Gait (Baltimore Thunder)
By 1997, a few teams were owned by individuals other than the Fritz-Cline group, but they still controlled most of the teams and the league itself. The monopolistic management and player discontent finally clashed in a major players strike in 1997, while a new league, called the NLL (National Lacrosse League) was being formed by some of the individual MILL owners and some outside investors. With the strike getting nasty, most of the players, led by the Gait twins, who signed the first substantial player contracts in lacrosse history, jumped to the new league. This forced the MILL to merge with the NLL, giving up the league ownership structure for an individual team ownership model.
A few years later, all of the NLL teams would be under autonomous management. The league is now in a stable financial position in its 12th season and is attracting more fans than it ever has before.


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