Net Impact: Will Indoor Leagues Ever Merge?

The indoor lacrosse landscape is dotted with leagues right now, each with its plusses and minuses, each competing to retain as much of the available talent as possible, and each fighting to survive in a sports world that barely knows lacrosse exists.

The granddaddy of them all is still the National Lacrosse League, which is now more than a quarter century old and seems to be enjoying some much-deserved stability.

Since the demise of the short-lived NALL—which managed to make it through only one season in 2013 before folding—there is really only one other active indoor pro league, the Canadian Lacrosse League.

But there is more coming. The National Indoor Field Lacrosse League—trying to bring the flavour of the outdoor game to an indoor environment—and the United States Lacrosse League are both poised to get underway in the coming months.

It seems inevitable to me that this sport, like all the major professional sports in North America, will eventually have just one ruling organization, with the others either folding or being absorbed by the dominant system.

Part of the complexity for indoor lacrosse is that it still hasn’t found a true coast-to-coast audience, as evidenced by the fact that CLax is located entirely in southern Ontario, Canada, the USLL is looking like it will be focussed in the northeast US, where lacrosse is best known, and the NIFLL likewise seems to be developing as an Ontario-based organization.

With all the teams focussed into a fairly small region of the continent, there really isn’t much room for teams to get swept into one single body.

If, as is most likely, the one league that eventually rules all winds up being the NLL, they already have a significant presence in those areas. Four of the five East Division teams—the Toronto Rock, Buffalo Bandits, Philadelphia Wings and Rochester Knighthawks—chew up much of that territory already, although getting teams back into the Boston and New York City areas would still be options. The addition of perhaps one more Ontario-based team—maybe in Hamilton or Ottawa—could also work if managed correctly, but the area reaches a saturation point very rapidly.

The upshot is that all these leagues fighting for attention in basically the same locations will make it hard for anyone to remain successful without something else happening. That something, in my opinion, would have to be expansion by one or several of the leagues into other places. The Canadian prairies and California both have rapidly growing lacrosse communities and will become more and more viable for pro teams as the years go by. Budgetary considerations may make it impossible for CLax or the USLL to try to expand in that direction, but the NLL has, or has had, a presence in both of those areas and could be looking in that direction for further growth.

If someone can expand into otherwise unoccupied areas and make a go of it, it’ll be a game-changer for the entire sport. As it currently sits, the little leagues that are continuing to try to establish themselves are simply chopping up what is already a pretty small pie. That means teams and leagues will continue to come and go until someone big enough can unite the strongest parts into a whole. With so many different agendas on the table right now, it seems unlikely that this will happen any time soon.

But it will happen, sooner or later, with the little fish joining up with the big fish or just going the way of the Dodo when they can no longer remain competitive.