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Thursday, February 26, 2009

MLL - After the Economic Dust Settles Part 1

Now that we have all accepted the smaller Major League Lacrosse structure for this summer, let's take a hopeful look to the near future. Keep in mind that this is all speculation; some of it is based on rumors and some of it based on hope.
Why the league will survive
The MLL will rebound with its current single entity business model. Essentially, the league's front office controls everything from player allocation to travel arrangements to salary caps. This model is currently is use by Major League Soccer and is rumored to be the business plan of the Arena Football League when it returns in 2010. The single entity plan strengthens the league as a whole by mimicking socialism and spreading the gains and losses evenly among the teams.
Phase 1
Bringing in new money is essential at this point. The league is operating on virtually no budget. It is basically a division of New Balance as evidenced by the restrictions on equipment, footwear, and uniforms. As such, it is limited in its capacity to grow. Two of the four teams axed this year (Barrage & Pride) were owned by the league; that is not too for success.
Adding additional team owners, each with a share of league ownership, will bring in some much needed capital. Realizing that many individuals and companies will be far more hesitant in the post recession environment, NB will have to take some untraveled roads to expansion. One of these roads will be opening up the league to other manufacturers. This does four things: 1. It lightens the economic load of NB providing all of the players' equipment. 2. It allows for more advertising money from other lacrosse companies. 3. It inspires other sports companies to get into lacrosse (even more ad dollars). 4. It paves the way for a truly professional league with real player salaries (as opposed to the $13k now). Getting owners into the MLL should be relatively easy considering current franchise fees are under $5 million compared to the relatively cheap $40 million MLS expansion fee.
What I am talking about is fairly radical in the world of pro sports, but common practice in soccer. The potential ranges from companies owning teams outright to being an "official supplier" to buying ad space on jerseys. MLS has increased its revenue significantly with its ad space sales (Xbox is paying $20 million over 5 years to be on Seattle's jerseys); why shouldn't the MLL tap into this market? The sale of the MetroStars to Red Bull brought in a new owner, a new stadium deal, and several million dollars of new money. They changed the name to "Red Bull New York" and improved the product on the field (2008 MLS Cup runners up).
If NB took the courageous first step of allowing Nike, Adidas, Champion, Monster Energy, Pepsi, etc. to buy a team, the league would benefit greatly. Do I think that "Team Nike," "Adidas Atlanta," or "Pepsi Charlotte" would be the ideal situation? Definitely not. I do think that letting these teams own the team, control their marketing, and brand them in the corporate colors may not be a bad idea. In the case of sports and apparel companies, putting the team in their branded uniforms and using their equipment would save NB a ton of money. In addition, letting endorsed players like Paul Rabil & Kyle Harrison use Maverik & Nike/STX gear, respectively, would raise the profile for those brands and increase ad revenue for the league.
New Balance bought Brine in 2006, but this press release from Brine in 2007 outlines what I envision a multiple supplier MLL could look like. The league & NB presented Brine's partnership as if it was an entirely seperate company. Four teams became "officially supplied" by Brine and any Brine endorsed players were also allowed to use Brine rather than Warrior equipment. Unendorsed players on Brine teams are only allowed to use Brine gear and unendorsed players on Warrior teams are only allowed to use Warrior gear (I am not sure how this will work in the six team league though). Expanding the field under similar restrictions to include STX, Reebok, Maverik, etc. just makes sense in 2010 and beyond.

Tribe 7