North American Lacrosse League is eager for another chance at its ‘first’ season

Tony Caruso
Tony Caruso

The North American Lacrosse League expected growing pains, but certainly not this. Getting a professional sports team off the ground, much less an entire league, is no simple task. So when organizers went public in May 2011 that the NALL would begin play to offer American lacrosse players an avenue to learn the box game, the buzz was electric. But what started as a promising venture ended up as a courtroom battle as disputes within the ranks left the NALL with a single official team playing what amounted to an exhibition schedule last winter. But as the morning of the second season dawns, that’s all in the past. “Last year was marred by off-the field-activities,” NALL commissioner Tony Caruso tells ILIndoor. “And they’ve all be resolved.”

So you can understand why Caruso, and the 4 teams set to play in the winter of 2013, are stoked to give this inaugural season thing another try. The Kentucky Stickhorses are back after playing 6 games last season and they’ll be joined by the Baltimore Bombers, the Boston Rockhoppers and the Rhode Island Kingfish.

It’s an exciting time for Caruso and the NALL, whose plans for a 2012 season was undercut just weeks before the planned start. Disagreements on schedules, venues and various other details led to the exit of 4 teams, which became the Professional Lacrosse League. The PLL wrapped up its first season this fall, and the NALL is confident it can establish its own legitimacy when the Boston Rockhoppers play at the Kentucky Stickhorses on Jan. 5 in the season opener.

With teams set, sponsorships in place and a full schedule ready to rock, the NALL is making the most of its new start. What Caruso is perhaps most excited about is the vision that’s unfolding, of giving American lacrosse players a chance to not only learn the box game, but keep his focus on the game without distraction. There’s no fighting in the NALL.

“We’re giving the U.S. player a place to play and flourish without worrying about defending themselves,” he said. “We want a fast-paced game.”

Caruso, a sports lawyer, was involved with the National Lacrosse League for years as outside council. That ended in 2007 but it was the exposure to the game there that started the ball rolling in his head that perhaps it was time for another pro lacrosse league.

“I believe there’s enough of a market in the game for another league,” he said. “And I felt the U.S. player was missing a lot of opportunities. That’s one point I observed.”

The explosive growth of the game helps, too.

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t have all the lacrosse programs we have today,” he said. “Now I can’t think of a high school that doesn’t have a team or program. There are a ton of new lacrosse players and fans.”

And that’s the market Caruso hopes the NALL appeals to, the American players who want to continue after college but haven’t had the chance to hone their indoor lacrosse skills. And while the NALL is providing that, he’s getting some bonus help from Canadian players showing interest. That not only brings in some box talent to showcase, it brings in some examples for Americans to study.

Caruso stresses the NALL is not competing with other professional leagues, and he hopes they all do well. In particular, the NALL worked with Major League Lacrosse so that the NALL season would end before the start of the MLL.

“Players can play in our league and not worry about missing games in the other,” said Caruso, adding that meetings with MLL have been “very gracious … and cooperative. Our goal is to have an outlet so guys can play almost year round. If we can get the pro lacrosse player to where it can be a full-time position, that’s a sign that lacrosse is coming into its own.”

But, first things first. The NALL is focused on itself as it approaches its first season with more than a single team. The rosters of the current 4 teams are dotted with former NCAA stars easily recognizable to fans. And many rosters are dotted with former NLL players. Still, 80% of each roster is comprised of Americans and Caruso is confident in the direction of the league. Calls from potential investors wanting to field teams boost that confidence.

“And that’s with no promotion or marketing,” he said. “We are looking to grow the game in a careful way. We’re anxious to grow, but we’re trying to make the best match. It’s going to grow to be one of the premiere leagues in the North Atlantic.”

Chavez is an avid lacrosse player in Rochester and a journalist for the Democrat and Chronicle as well as a longtime Inside Lacrosse contributor. Email him at bob.chavez@nllinsider.com or go to RochesterSports.com.

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