Keep the faith despite instability, NLL fans

When NLL teams partner with NHL teams, it's formula that's proven to work toward stability. (Photo: Calgary Roughnecks)
When NLL teams partner with NHL teams, it's formula that's proven to work toward stability. (Photo: Calgary Roughnecks)

I’ve never been big on sports memorabilia. Despite working in and then running the sports department of a major Canadian daily newspaper, I haven’t collected or kept much stuff over the years. I do, however, have a t-shirt hanging in the closet of my office at home. I got it at the press conference more than a decade ago to announce the NLL’s newest franchise — the Calgary Roughnecks. The shirt has small NLL logo on the front and on the back and it reads:

Next Stop … Calgary
The tour continues … 2001-2002
Albany Attack
Buffalo Bandits
Columbus Landsharks
New York Saints
Ottawa Rebel
Rochester Knighthawks
Philadelphia Wings
Toronto Rock
Washington Power

The tour continued with the addition of the New Jersey Storm, Vancouver Ravens and Montreal Express. Of that group, three franchises have relocated and five simply ceased to be. Franchises folding in the NLL has simply become par for the course. As expected as death and taxes.
Last week we learned the Boston Blazers were the latest to go dark, suspending operations for a year. They hope to be back the following season. Pardon me if I don’t hold my breath. I’ve heard that one before.

Some fans are viewing the Blazers demise as another sign of the impending NLL apocalypse. One more nail in the coffin, so to speak.

Not the way I view it.

Colorado, Buffalo and Calgary are now owned by NHL teams. Philly and Rochester still draw well, the later recently signing a new lease. Toronto and Minnesota have good deals with their landlords and good attendance, while Edmonton has an owner committed to making things work. And, in a worst-case scenario, could likely sell to the Oilers, if need be.

Washington, given its low attendance, may be the most likely to fold next. But who knows.

That said, it’s sad that in 2011 folks are still debating whether the league will go out of business. But who can blame them. It’s gotten ridiculous. So, what happened?

Back when I got that t-shirt, the outlook was rosy for the NLL. Get a TV deal, gain in popularity, become the ‘fifth major sport.’ The last item a pipe dream, to be sure, but optimism abounded.

Instead, the exact opposite has happened. TV has taken a step back from when Sportsnet and the Score carried games in Canada and NBC looked promising in the U.S. The league has gained and lost franchises more often than a kid trading Pokemon cards, and they’ve stumbled through two CBA debacles.

What exactly went wrong? Plenty of things.

But, to me, the biggest problem was ownership. Or, more specifically, the type of owners the league welcomed into the fold.

A year or two before the New York Titans and Chicago Shamrox came into being, the league said it wanted future team owners to be either NHL teams, NBA teams, arena owners, or a combination of all three. It had worked in Colorado. The Mammoth were the league’s flagship franchise when it came to how it was run off the floor.

The NLL had learned its lesson, we were led to believe. Too many teams were going belly up. They needed more stable ownership groups with deeper pockets for the league to grow. That mantra didn’t last long. Soon after, the Titans and Shamrocks came to be with owners that weren’t any of the above three. Not long after, both clubs ceased to exist.

Sure, some teams can survive with a single owner/small ownership group, but they can’t thrive. For some reason, the league’s head office has constantly tried to make that failed scenario work.

Albert Einstein gave us a great definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

If the NLL wants to grow, they need to go back to that big-three ownership model. It’s not rocket science. Between parking, tickets and the almighty concessions, NLL teams can be successful almost anywhere as another revenue source in a bigger picture. Of course, if Bill Gates wants to buy a team and put it in Seattle, you can make an exception. If Brad Pitt or George Clooney decide they want to buy a team and use their star-power to sell the sport, same goes.

But that’s it. Period. End of story.

Use the current Buffalo, Calgary and Colorado models to sell more franchises to other NHL/NBA teams who can market and cross-promote them and make them a success. That type of ownership also gives the league more credibility which should help land the much-needed national TV deal.

While we wait to see if that will happen going forward or if the league will drop the ball again and go for owners doomed to fail, there is a silver lining to the situation. The parity and overall play this season should be incredible. The greatest lacrosse players in the world condensed on to nine teams.

This season should be the finest in league history when it comes to the on-carpet product.

Sure makes you wish you could watch it on TV, hey?

The assistant managing editor of the Calgary Sun, Pilson began covering the NLL when the Roughnecks started in 2000. The longtime lacrosse player has been contributing to Inside Lacrosse ever since. Email him at ty.pilson@nllinsider.com or go to CalgarySun.com.

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