Editorial: MLL, PLL tournaments provided necessary dose of medicine during pandemic

Curtis Dickson reflects after Chaos falls to Whipsnakes in the 2020 PLL title game. (Photo credit: Premier Lacrosse League)

March 8th was my last great day. I worked for the NLL at the Toronto Rock game, got a hug from my favourite Calgary Roughneck and took a ball in the chest from Tom Schreiber during warmup (he apologized; I thought it was hilarious). It was a great day. It was the last great day, because then COVID-19 hit.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably as nuts about lacrosse as I am, and suffering some bad withdrawals. Lacrosse always makes me feel better. Not having it to look forward to is difficult.

My Arena Lacrosse League team wasn’t able to finish our season, our first in our own home arena; my NLL gig was put on hold when the league suspended the season; and my Lakers never even took the floor at all with the MSL cancelling the whole season. We even ran out of things to write about here for a while. (I lost a good full-time job too, but that’s not what this is about)

There was one bright light this summer, however. Can we go back to those glorious 22 days in July and August when there was lacrosse every day, multiple times a day?

Lacrosse has always been about medicine and healing, and if ever there was a time when widespread healing was needed, it’s now. For months, we’ve been cooped up in our homes, terrified of a virus that could kill us or our loved ones. We’re social and active creatures who need human contact and the freedom to move our bodies, but we’ve been restricted so long that it’s taken a toll on our mental and physical health. And who knows how long it’ll be before we can be back at the rink or on the field again, with a second wave still to come with no ready vaccine?

Major League Lacrosse and the Premier Lacrosse League provided us with three weeks of much needed medicine with their tournaments this summer. These games were necessary in our current state of pandemic emergency. The staff of ILWT (especially Tracey and Rocco, you two were the real MVPs this summer) was run off our feet but it felt good. We felt like we had a purpose for the first time in a while (well, I did, anyway). It felt good to know people were invested in our stories again.

So, which tournament did you watch?

A lot of fans are divided on the issue of the MLL and PLL and prefer one over the other, but not me. I’ll watch peewee lacrosse and love it because it’s impossible to watch lacrosse at any level and not see the skill and the passion in the players.

The MLL’s recent poor history has caused a lot of players and fans to jump ship. I, however, have loved the MLL since I began watching in 2015 and I desperately want to see the league continue. Each year I see it stabilize a little bit more off the field while continuing to put on a great show on the field. Bringing the Barrage back was a solid move, and Denver, Boston and Chesapeake seem locked in for the long haul. The level of play is as high as it’s ever been despite the departures of a lot of talent to the PLL. Doesn’t that just show how much lacrosse talent is out there?

It’s incredibly unfortunate that the MLL was hit by COVID and the playoffs were affected. The players that respected the bubble deserved better, but we are in unprecedented times and things happen. Perhaps the right two teams played in the final, anyway. Boston was able to beat an insanely strong Denver team even without three of their top offensive guys. It was still a memorable tournament and I’m grateful for it.

As for the PLL, last season I wasn’t all that impressed with their fancy new camera angles and on-field interviews. The field was too dark; the uniforms too bright. It was an adjustment from the more polished MLL broadcasts I was used to. It was raw, and different. The biggest hurdle for me was not having regionally-based teams. I told myself I would cheer for Chaos because it had the most box guys, since I primarily cover the NLL and MSL. But when play started, I found I just wasn’t that into it. I didn’t care who won each game, and I only two or three games on the free Sportsnet here in Canada.

But this year. Oh, this year. I LOVED the PLL. I think they really benefitted from the condensed tournament style. I know they want to travel around and showcase lacrosse around the U.S., but unless most people are already diehard PLL fans, the lack of regionally based teams hurts the model. Having every team together, playing every day, built drama and excitement. It allowed fans to get to know every team and choose their allegiances. It allowed us to become more invested in the action.

I would assume that the numbers of people who purchased the NBC Gold Pass skyrocketed this season to satiate those of us who were lacrosse-starved. (Shoutout to Kat here for purchasing a pass for our team!)

Sports tournaments are like summer camp. It’s an emotional experience. You bond quickly and strongly with the people you’ve been thrown together with. And though fans could only bond through their TV or social media, the effect was the same. It felt like we’d been given a dose of badly needed medicine.

I immediately found that the Archers LC was the most exciting, with Tom Schreiber throwing bombs from everywhere on the field and Grant Ament turning literal cartwheels. When it came down to it I did cheer for Chaos in the playoffs because I was able to spend more time getting to know their identity as a team.

Even if it worked this year, the tournament format probably isn’t financially viable for the PLL going forward, because they need fans in the stands. Social media and TV coverage can only bring in so much revenue. Though nobody can argue with their engagement numbers, the real magic happens when there’s a real crowd there cheering.

After the Whipsnakes were crowned champions, the withdrawal hit, and I hate to use that analogy because lacrosse is a healing drug, not one that gets you high. Lacrosse gives me the opportunity to be out in the community, meeting new people, learning new skills and working on my craft. This game makes me better. It makes me feel positive and empowered, and it gives me a sense of purpose. That’s not a high – it should be a god-given right. Everyone deserves to have their own sense of purpose.

But now I’m back to daily pandemic life, waiting anxiously for the next game. I don’t know when it will come, but it will, someday. We all just have to hold on until it does.

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