Baker: In MLL Pick Your Spot…Carefully

In my last column I discussed how the foundation of Major League Lacrosse provided field players with the opportunity to play professionally after graduation.  The league is entering its fourteenth season despite naysayers predicting the dissolution every year.  Fourteen years may appear to be the miniscule compared to the history of the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB.  The MLL proves that it is the league that just will not fold.  What does the future of the league hold for the fans and players?  In one word the future is expansion.

Expansion gives the MLL more exposure and opportunity for television revenue.  Money is the life blood of any sports league.  Ticket sales, merchandising, and TV dollars made the NFL the financial giant it is today.  Have you priced any authentic NFL team merchandise lately?  The same holds true for any of the “big time” sports leagues.  I am not advocating a shotgun approach of placing a “splash” franchise in every city.  “Splash” franchises are teams placed in cities with the hope that they will catch on and prove profitable.  Hope has yet to prove a sound business strategy.  The league learned its lesson from franchises that either folded or relocated.   The L.A. Riptide, San Francisco Dragons, Bridgeport Barrage, or New Jersey Pride all played some incredible lacrosse and fielded some great teams.  These were all cities with large population bases and or close to lacrosse hotbeds, but for whatever reasons could not sustain teams.  The MLL’s current strategy of careful research includes holding the All Star Game and showcase games in potential cities.  In addition to gauging the interest and attendance of these games, there is market research including average income, ownership solvency, facilities, community interest, and location.  Location means everything in business.  A good one almost assures success, but a bad one dooms you.  A potential franchise needs all of these elements

What makes a good location?  It has to be easily accessible by air and ground transportation for players and fans.  Players often have jobs in cities outside their team’s city.  They are flown in with their gear before weekend games and the price of airfare adds up quickly.  If a player moves to a location where the cost and flight time are prohibitive then the harsh reality of business sets in and a decision must be made.  Players that live across the country are almost limited to either the Denver Outlaws or Ohio Machine.  Realistically will a player be fresh and ready to play in Rochester or Florida after flying in from the west coast?  Maybe, but more often than not it will eventually wear down the athlete.  The most recent draft saw many selections based on not just pure talent, but where the player planned to live and commitment to the field game over the indoor game.  If you think that travel does not figure into selection and retention of players guess again because sports is a business.

Fans are less likely to make the trek to a game if the stadium if difficult to get to or find parking.  If the field or stadium is not lacrosse friendly then attendance falls.  Point in case, the first MLL game my fiancé and I attended was the Rochester Rattlers versus the Chesapeake Bayhawks in St. Petersburg, Florida.  The location was on the water, but it was a baseball stadium and the sight lines were not conducive for view lacrosse.  It was hard to see what was happening on the field.  Parking was difficult at best as you had to fight the downtown traffic.  The Florida Launch game the following year at FAU stadium in Boca Raton provided a better view and more enjoyable experience.  Tickets were cheaper than an NFL or NHL game here in the Tampa Bay area and parking was reasonable.

The player pool exists for at least two more teams without a drop off in the current level of play.  Lacrosse is the only sport to sustain increased participation levels.  More colleges are adding lacrosse as an NCAA sport or MCLA team.  High school teams are no longer limited to the northeast and they fill their rosters with players from the increasing youth lacrosse programs.  Not only does this increase in the number of players provide potential candidates for MLL rosters but produces the fans upon which the league depends.

The MLL is the best version of lacrosse today.  The college game has tradition and the pageantry of championship weekend, but needs some work to break from the stereotype of elitist white niche sport.  The offense has a shot clock that is arbitrarily applied by the referees and hits are almost illegal in the college game.  The faster pace and physicality make the MLL more appealing and break the elitist image.  The players that make it in the league are those that keep themselves in shape year round.  They are the best of the college players dedicated to their craft and sport.

Expansion for the MLL will not be fast or furious.  In ten to fifteen years there will be twelve teams and two divisions with the top eight teams making the play offs.  Game day rosters will be expanded to twenty or twenty-one players.  The all star game will keep the current format to stay true to the origins of the league instead of the traditional division A versus division B.  Players will no longer be able to miss games due to indoor commitments.  As the league grows and TV money grows teams can no longer afford to keep waiting for the indoor season to finish.  As revenues grow the business aspect will take over and some of the closeness of the league will disappear.  The one thing that cannot change is the players and league connection to their fans.