If 2012 is to be remembered for anything in the world of box lacrosse, it would have to be largely for the push to start two professional leagues in the US of A. In January–February–March, we had an original NALL member Kentucky Stickhorses push through some legal battles to host a series of exhibition games in Freedom Hall funded solely by owner Anthony Chase and his desire to bring lacrosse to the city of Louisville. Departing from NALL original membership before ever playing a game were the Wilkes Barre Shamrocks, Charlotte Copperheads, Jacksonville Bullies and Hershey Haymakers. Lousiville Kentucky’s Stickhorses produced contests with the New Jersey Jesters, Lehigh Valley Flying Dutchmen and the Boston Rockhoppers. Showcasing most of the unproven talent in America, the games were a credible start to building something concrete for the future.
None of this was earth-shattering news but it was a refreshing alternative to consider players with little experience in boxla but loads of drive and potential.
The NALL, the mid-west men’s club league and then this autumn’s other half of professional lacrosse, the PLL, has given American born players an outlet to learn and grow with the sport. It is a win-win situation for prospective growth of the game where it needs to take place, the U.S.A.
Unfortunately the two leagues have been embroiled in a battle from the onset that wasted resources and energy that could have been harnessed for the good of all. One clear vision was not in the start-up plan. Teams and owners were not in sync. Instead the emphasis was placed on gaining a winning edge, NOT ON building a league one step at a time. Butts in seats should have been the mandate.
In my experience with Russ Cline and Chris Fritz’s MILL model I came to understand a little more about the business behind lacrosse. A plan, direction and commitment to advancing that model is what made the MILL and it is the only way the NALL or PLL can make it to years beyond their inaugural seasons. The bottom line for them is the same as the NLL, they have to get some paid attendance to justify what everyone is doing, otherwise why all the fuss?
The MILL is the only reason the NLL still exists. If professional lacrosse started out as the version the NLL is now it would have been messy and short-lived. Years have gone by to implement a competition committee and properties committees along with other development groups inside the NLL’s operating structure. Rules that police a whole league have been defined over time and through trial and error and cheating.
The single mindedness/ownership of the early years of the MILL allowed itself to make adjustments on the fly while adhering to its own vision for the sport built out of a fan’s needs for flash and excitement instead of the needs of lacrosse people inside a sport. Things like spandex shorts, no fighting, no wood sticks or goal sticks, rock music in game would never have happened otherwise. Thank god it did.
In 1998 the PLPA (Professional Lacrosse Players Association) wrestled the power away from the league’s creators Fritz and Cline to form the NLL with a bunch of AHL owners from the East coast. More border city teams entered the league, including the “Hamilton” Ontario Raiders who were ironically owned by the MILL owners out of the USA. While Canada and the Raiders joined the American regional league, the Canadian explosion of players and coaches and their mindset crossed the border from summer lax to professional lacrosse, changing that landscape forever. Canadian talent brought with it Canadian politics that have been evolving for decades. Those Canadian elements of competition and the inception of a players union stunted the forward momentum the MILL had built for lacrosse on its own without the help of Canada or the CLA.
Cline and Fritz had some packed houses and advertising trade back then with the big boys: ESPN, Coors Light, Budweiser, USAIR to name a few. Those deals died in 1997. Those are the kinds of things the MILL could get done from a business perspective as a single entity. Professional field lacrosse, or the “MLL,” has been operating in a similar manner now for 11 years and they have accomplished TV and sponsorship deals although rumours persist that a players union is close at hand for their outdoor league.
Evolution of the MILL to the NLL was inevitable and the game has ebbed and flowed from early Toronto Rock clutch and grab to speed and transition brought back to life by Darris Kilgour’s Bandit ball and Chris Hall’s run and gun championship Roughnecks. The game finally resembles the speed and excitement of the old MILL days on most nights.
In hindsight, a proper Canadian professional league would have been a good partner for the MILL back in the mid-1990s. That still would have taken a promoter with big balls, deep pockets and a TV deal with a Canadian sports network. It could have been the answer to the issues of today’s NLL television problems. The two countries and their potential television partners and advertisers don’t mix. Heck even the NHL has crippling issues with this.
Many of us wish away at what we want/hope/dream lacrosse could be but don’t have a clue about the speed bumps and drawbacks facing down box lacrosse advancement into mainstream sport. There is no unified plan and directive AS A SPORT to get from where we are at now to where we’d hope to be in 3 or 5 or 10 years from now. The CLA has infighting and dictatorship across the country stalling Canada’s credibility and US Lacrosse still doesn’t want to recognize indoor lacrosse as its own entity. Indoor lax will have to continue its growth without help from head office in Baltimore while the PLL and the NALL have decided to go separate ways fragmenting their chance at creating one stable direction for a U.S. league that could work if done right.
The NLL had teams in Portland, Minnesota, Arizona, New York City and Chicago in the winter of 2007 and life was good. The potential for television and advertisers was at its height but those teams were ill-prepared for battle. All but Minnesota is a memory. The NLL got caught up in growth and selling franchises without giving new franchises the tools to get their models set for business. This is a setback that scarred the league forever and ultimately cost Jim Jennings his job.
Jennings surfaced with a vision for a new league a few years later. Obviously there were issues. With Jennings being boxed out of the league he created I have to wonder whose vision and direction this belongs to now? Obviously Tony Chase has stepped up to take the lead. I applaud what Chase, Graham D’Alvia, Tyler Low, Chris Milo, Hunter Francis and the Reading Rockets are trying to accomplish with their respective leagues and teams.
I don’t agree with their format of including Canadian talent as this leads to competition issues. For the sake of developing USA box players and local players to keep costs at the very minimum I’d say let’s make this a one-country league. Building local business interest and fan support through local players is the best-laid plan. Canadian players already have lots of outlets to play. In the end these owners are providing young players a chance to pursue their dreams and I respect the crap out of that.
My main talking point is lacrosse and especially start-up leagues can ill afford to put the cart in front of the horse. Survival before competition. For the future hopes of giving the PLL and the NALL their best plan for longevity and growth, I suggest you guys track down Russ Cline’s cell number, quick.O'Neill is a three-time Mann Cup winner and former general manager of the Philadelphia Wings (2001-2004) and Minnesota Swarm (2004-2010), where he was twice named NLL GM of the Year (2007, 2008).
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