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Friday, November 28, 2008

National Lacrosse League - Part 5

The other professional lacrosse league in North American plays a version of box lacrosse. There are slight variations from the traditional Canadian version, but for all intents and purposes, the National Lacrosse League is an indoor box league. Of course the NLL follows Major League Lacrosse by having an exclusive equipment and apparel deal. In this case, the deal is with Reebok.

It is with this exclusive deal that we will start. Prior to RBK's entry into the NLL, teams were folding left and right. Then the vector came in and providing some stabilizing income. As a result, every team began wearing Reebok jerseys and footwear. Around the same time, RBK purchased The Hockey Company and re-branded some Jofa helmets with their logos for the NLL. Originally, that was the extent of RBK's involvement in the league's equipment.

A couple of years ago, Reebok introduced new shafts and pads (Great Atlantic Lacrosse) has their gear in stock). The vector even signed Brodie Merrill to promote their gear. Once this deal debuted, the league required every player to switch to it as well. Players could still use whatever head they desired. That will change this season as Reebok has created new heads. Now all gear used in the NLL has to be Reebok. Whether this is good or bad, I don't know.

Obviously, I could suggest the the NLL follows my suggestion to MLL by allowing sponsored players to use the gear they endorse. This is obvious. Without doing that, however, I see other ways to allow the players more choice without bringing in actual competition. For starters, I think players should be allowed to use Adidas gear and shoes as well. This works because the trefoil owns the vector. In theory, it is the same as Warrior and Brine being the choices in MLL. However, the Adidas gear is technically licensed to a third party company, The Henson Group, while Reebok's is made by the company itself. Still, allowing even one more option gives the players some control of their gear.

There is talk of an outdoor league from the NLL geared toward competing with MLL. Considering that the current league is strapped for cash, bringing in another field league may not be a smart move. Logic dictates that the NLL will set shop up in cities in which they currently have indoor teams. This means that several teams will be in the same markets as existing MLL teams. Most of the speculation points to the field teams carrying over the same names as the indoor teams as a brand extension. I feel this would cause confusion and dilute the quality of the product because field teams require more players than box teams. Also, some of the higher quality players may choose to participate in the more established MLL rather than the upstart league.

For the time being, the NLL would be better served by staying indoors. Ideally, the NLL could be to MLL what Arena Football is to the National Football League - a pseudo minor/development league. Players should be able to hone their skills indoors before going outside and performing on (what should be) the bigger stage. Of course the NLL would still have high quality players and career pros just like the AFL does. A few MLL players could still hit the indoor turf under a deal similar to the American Hockey League, NBA Development League or minor league baseball. They could opt to be full time box players or full time field players. Of course, this assumes that either or both leagues would take the necessary steps to have their players be full time professional lacrosse players...

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

NCAA - Part 3

Where do I begin with fixing NCAA lacrosse? Well, for starters, I would undo the restructuring done this year. There had been a conference known as the Great Western Lacrosse League. Teams in this league included: Air Force, Denver, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Bellarmine, and Quinnipiac. Notre Dame left the conference to join the newly formed Big East lacrosse conference, which is their conference in every sport but football. With only five teams, the GWLL would lose its automatic tournament bid. This led the remaining teams to join the Eastern College Athletic Conference Lacrosse League (even the Colorado-based schools).Pushing all of the teams into eastern conferences reinforces the perception that lacrosse is exclusively an East Coast sport. This pushes lax back a few decades. The western US teams have a responsibility to the game to increase the presence of the sport from the Midwest to the West Coast. Is it fair that a half dozen teams are stuck with this responsibility? No, but since these schools are not traditional lacrosse powerhouses, they are in the unique position to capitalize on the growth of lacrosse across the country. Their proximity to these new regions gives them access to more fans than other more established sports programs can gain.

Even if a western lacrosse conference returned, the NCAA is left with a bigger problem. Title IX legislation is largely responsible, at least indirectly for the lack of lacrosse programs at many big time, well-funded universities. Enacted with the most noble of intentions, Title IX was designed to provide equal opportunities in education for men and women. Originally, the legislation targeted math and science education, which had been primarily aimed at male students. Before long, the legislation spread to health care, work study programs, and extracurricular activities - including athletics.

In the case of athletics, Title IX requires that equal opportunities must exist for both men and women. Some sports, like basketball, track, and baseball/softball, easily compliment each other and create equal opportunities by providing a team for each gender. Lacrosse and soccer also fit into this category, but one or the other is typically used to balance the only major male sport without a female counterpart. Unfortunately, this single sport is the primary money maker and recruiting tool. In case you are still wondering, I am talking about football.

Football is quite possibly THE SPORT in the United States. Most schools require them to promote themselves and draw major attention. Not many people could tell you which programs have the highest enrollment at Boise State, but they probably know about the "Smurf Turf." However, this behemoth of a sport requires sacrifices elsewhere - usually in lacrosse or soccer. Schools like Michigan State have had to drop its men's NCAA varsity lacrosse program to be in compliance with Title IX.

Forcing schools to drop sports programs to allow perceived "equal opportunities" is unfair to the schools, athletes, and fans. First of all, football is unique in college sports because there is no female equivalent. Second, football generates more revenue than every women's sport combined at a given university. Third, women's sports in general are less attended than the equivalent men's sports. Fourth, by removing a men's sport to be in compliance with a misapplied socialistic piece of legislation limits the schools' abilities to recruit high quality student athletes (or even student fans). Should a specific program not be available at a given school, an interested student is likely to find another school where it is. Because of football's irregularity, it causes all interested parties to be screwed over. It should be granted a special exception to Title IX.

Would exempting football from Title IX bring more schools into NCAA lacrosse? Maybe. Some schools, Michigan for example, would most likely jump at the chance to play with the big boys and dominate on another field. Testing this concept out is at least a small step in the right direction and a giant leap for lacrosse's national presence.

Continue to Part 4

Tribe 7