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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Major League Lacrosse - Part 4

Now we get into the real meat and potatoes of lacrosse - the professional ranks. Perhaps the most obvious way of improving professional field lacrosse is to increase its national presence. Major League Lacrosse expanded to four western cities (if Chicago can really be considered "western") in 2006 and that was a strong move. 2008 saw the league bounce the (Philadelphia) Barrage around the country to test markets for potential expansion and/or relocation. A desire to add two more teams by 2010 has been expressed repeatedly. Logic dictates that the expansion teams will be not be on the East Coast but further west.

Many cities have been mentioned as possible expansion sites with Dallas, St. Louis, and Seattle leading the charge. Rumors of a Toronto move have also come about. This would undoubtedly be great for the league and would provide better geographical rivalries for many teams. It would also increase interest in lacrosse in the regions surrounding those cities. Many of the possible expansion cities are known for having rabid sports fans. Three of them already have Major League Soccer franchises and two have soccer specific stadiums, which are also ideal for lacrosse.

Creating full time professional athletes is the goal of MLL. Unfortunately, salaries are lower than most minor league sports in the US with a salary cap of $13,000 per season. Players are forced to supplement this income in ways drastically different from other pro athletes. Most have "real" jobs and participate with their respective MLL teams on a part time basis. Others round out their salaries by playing in the National Lacrosse League during the off season. A fortunate few, like Kyle Harrison, land superb endorsement deals with companies like STX and Nike. However, their deals are severely limited by the structure of the league.

For all its sponsor ship, the league could easily be named the New Balance Lacrosse League. NB owns both Warrior and Brine, the only equipment lines allowed in MLL, and sponsors the league's jerseys. Because Dave Morrow, the founder of Warrior, was an original owner of the league, he was able to set up a deal to make Warrior the sole equipment supplier to the league. When New Balance bought Warrior, they were allowed to require only NB made footwear (branded as Warrior) to be worn. After Brine was purchased, NB decided to allow their gear in MLL as well.

Having an exclusive equipment deal is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, it allows the supplier to advertise their products on a national stage as the only choice of the pros. On the other, it limits competition and possibly creates the impression that NB built gear cannot compete with other lacrosse companies. Also, it severely restricts the amount of income players can make from sponsorship deals.

To remedy this, I believe MLL should allow players with endorsement deals wear the gear they are paid to wear. Harrison should come out with STX and Nike gear when the LA Riptide take the field. Everybody else should come out wearing NB gear. It has been suggested that this would not work because NB, through their agreement with the league, would get nothing from any companies who endorse players using their gear. In response to this, I say these players should forfeit their salaries in favor of endorsement deals. The league could then use the remaining dollars to boost the pay of everyone else. At the same time, these sponsors would have more incentive to advertise during televised MLL games, which would increase revenue for the league. Would it work? The only to know for sure is to try it.

MLL currently plays a short 12 game schedule. If they were able to stretch their season to 14 - 16 games or add another week of playoffs, they might be able to get more money through ticket sales and their TV deal. More games means more advertising opportunities which translates into more money in the bank. This money can be used to increase player salaries and get the league one step closer to having full time professional athletes.

Maybe even sponsoring an "Open Cup" competition featuring amateur and semiprofessional lax teams around the country vying for the chance to take on an MLL club in a major competition would boost the league's image as well. I see it working like a scaled down version of the Lamar Open Cup in soccer. Of course, there are fewer levels of leagues to choose from in lax.Combining a couple of the ideas above would potentially increase the league's revenue and bring them a couple of steps closer to being a well known and truly professional league. At this point they need to do something because the NLL is planning a field lacrosse league of their own...

Continue to Part 5

Tribe 7