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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Do The Pro Lax Leagues Matter? Part 3

In the first two posts, I kind of gave some background information for the four professional lacrosse leagues - Major League Lacrosse, LXM Pro Tour, National Lacrosse League, and Major Series Lacrosse. In my opinion MLL & NLL stand out as the top leagues in their respective versions of lax; MSL is a too "Canadian" for American laxers and LXM is a concert/entertainment tour, not a league. To that end, I will give my assessment on each of the top-tier pro lax leagues.
National Lacrosse League
There was a time when I would have said that this is the preeminent lacrosse league in the world, hands down. Games were televised on Versus (then OLN), ESPN, and even MC22 in Des Moines. Rapid expansion led to a dozen teams stretched across the US and Canada in 2003, filling major NHL arenas and increasing interest in lacrosse as a whole.
Trendy names, logos, and color schemes grabbed the attention of casual sports fans. Online hockey stores, like River City Sports, carried jerseys and apparel. With the NHL lockout during the 2005 NLL season, the league was in an enviable position. Many sports analysts predicted that the league was poised to excel due to its similarities to hockey. With available facility and television time, it seemed like a no-brainer.
Then... Nothing. The league dropped to ten teams for the 2005 season and television coverage seemed even harder to come by. Instead of pressing for the available time on ESPN, the league took no visible action. Since then the league has lost the three largest US markets: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Secondary markets like Phoenix, Vancouver, Orlando, San Jose, and Portland have also vanished.
Still, the league is spread further across North America than any other professional lax league. Having a team in St. Paul makes live games accessible to us. On the other hand, the lack of a TV contract alienates most potential fans. Very few people want to crows around a computer monitor to watch Internet feed of a game...
Overall I would say that the NLL missed the opportunity to become a true second tier sports league. As it stands, I would say that it is little more than a secondary pro lax league. How long can it stay relevant given its current lack of accessibility?
Major League Lacrosse
The MLL has struggled since day one. Although historically strong lacrosse markets were targeted, the league failed to find its footing. Baltimore, Bridgeport, eastern New Jersey, Rochester, Boston, and Long Island looked like promising locations. Everything indicated that the league knew its core audience and that they targeted them successfully.
The Barrage limped through three seasons in Connecticut before moving to Philadelphia (where they won their first of three Steinfeld Cups in their first year). The Bayhawks left for Washington DC after five seasons (where they lasted for two years before moving to Annapolis). Rochester and New Jersey folded before the 2009 season, allegedly due to the nationwide recession.
A four team expansion in 2006 spread the league across the nation, although it remained East Coast heavy. San Fransisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver were welcomed with varying levels of enthusiasm. The California teams closed up shop in 2009. Chicago spent this season as a touring team; their future is unknown.
Toronto joined the league in 2009 as an expansion team, though the claimed the players and staff of the Rattlers. Long Island continues to struggle with attendance, despite consistent on field results. Boston remains the strongest of the original teams and is the pride of the league. Denver continues to blow everybody out of the water with its remarkably high attendance and outstanding play. The Outlaws represent what any young league wants its teams to be.
Despite the fairly recent contraction, rumors persist that the league is expanding again. The tours of the Philadelphia (2008) and Chicago (2010) served to test the waters in several potential markets - notably Seattle, St. Louis, Columbus, and Dallas. Every city visited is among those considered likely expansion candidates, but a return to Rochester comes up in a lot of conversations. Regardless of which cities the league eventually chooses, adding two teams to bring the league to eight would be a strong start. It would increase its credibility to a lot of people.
I already view the league as necessary. Having a top level professional league is vital for a sport to truly thrive in the US. Despite its nuances, the MLL is that league. There is a clear progression from NCAA and MCLA lacrosse to the MLL and the teams are looking more professional every year. The annual All Star game has become fairly respected with its varying formats (old vs young, MLL AS vs Team USA). This year's Championship Weekend was highly entertaining; I would say nearly on par with the NCAA finals.
Both of the top level pro leagues have made a major impact on the growth of lax in the US. In that sense, they definitely matter. As the game continues to grow, having a true top level field lacrosse will become even more important as will supplementing that league with a viable box league. Although some changes definitely need to occur, both leagues have the foundation and the tools to fulfil those roles. Regardless, I will continue to support them both as much as possible.

Tribe 7