Today’s NLL: Younger, Faster and Cheaper

Tom Ryan
Tom Ryan

The number of rookies in the league has skyrocketed in recent years. The past few Entry Draft Classes have been rich with talent but this does not completely explain the phenomenon. 2012 was the first year without an NLL Team Folding since 2006. Despite the large crowds in Buffalo and Colorado, the NLL is a tough business to break even in, much less turn a profit. Even Bandit’s GM Steve Dietrich admitted to factoring in player costs in some of their off-season decisions. In order to get more teams in the black, GMs across the league are forced to crunch the numbers when making decisions on personnel as well as operating procedures. In June, the NLL owners exercised their right to opt out of the current CBA. In July, the NLL and PLPA announced an agreement for the 2013 season—marking one of the few times the two sides have come together voluntarily, effectively locking in the wages from 2012 (while honoring individual multi-year contracts already in play). While the CBA dictates many player related costs, what areas can be targeted to improve a franchise’s bottom line?

Personnel

The most obvious and recently popular tactic is to bring in rookies each year to fill slots on the 23 man roster. Rookies are locked in to a set salary (currently $9,200). After year one, salaries are negotiable to the max salary (currently $27K with Franchise Players making $34K). Although second year studs get a raise, their salaries tend to increase gradually over a few years, making them still cheaper than the wily vets.

Minnesota had six rookies last year. They followed that up with another five this year. Granted four were first round picks, but that is no accident. The Swarm has traded away expensive vets (e.g. Wilson, Cousins, Self) over the past few years for good draft picks (i.e. less expensive salaries). Although this is an obvious example, it is a common practice by most teams to add a few rookies each year to moderate the player salaries.

Local Players cost less. If you can eliminate travel expenses and/or relocation costs to get players in market for practices and home games you are easily looking at a few thousand dollar savings per player. Especially when you are talking about potential non-dressing roster spots, players already in market have an added advantage of making the squad. Got a car? One NLL GM suggested whether a relocating player had a car was a factor considered in their overall cost and value to the team.

Travel

For a team like Colorado that flies in a majority of their players even for home games, flights can approach $200K a year. Some airports and flights are simply cheaper than others. A flight from Toronto to Boston is at least $500. Flights from Buffalo to Boston are usually under $200. It may not seem like a lot, but multiply that by 10 trips and 10 players and you’re talking $30K. Many players who live in Toronto or farther are asked to drive a couple hours to Buffalo to fly out to reduce costs. The cost of a typical flight for a particular player can be a factor used to help make difficult personnel decisions.

Training Camp

A weekend of training camp can run $20K, especially if you are taking a look at a lot of guys. Over the past few seasons the NLL has reduced the number of preseason practices from 14-9. The Philadelphia Wings packed their preseason this year into 2 weekends. I thought this would affect their success early in the season. Their performance last Friday night suggested otherwise.

Practice Plan

Teams with a majority of out of towners typically practice the night before games. A few years ago the NLL Competition Committee debated increasing practice restrictions based on the fact that some teams could not practice midweek while others could. The closer the practice is to the game the less strenuous and physical it typically is. In 5 of the past 6 years the Champions Cup Winners practiced mid-week.

Some teams have opted to practice out of market and in a locale closer to the players in order to reduce costs and allow for midweek sessions. Think of how many teams have practiced at the ILA in Six Nations over the past few years (e.g. Rochester, Toronto, Minnesota, etc). Where a team practices can affect the makeup of the team. In this case there may be fewer “in market” players on the roster.

In Boston, we created a massive spreadsheet that calculated how much each player cost. This included salary, bonuses, appearance money, flights, hotel as well as miscellaneous reimbursement items such as parking, mileage, relocation, health insurance, per diems etc. The value we placed on a player was cross-referenced with their true cost in helping to make personnel decisions. This also allowed us to test the long-held belief that guys willing to relocate to market for the season saved the team money. In Boston this did not turn out to be true (although the benefit of having players in market for promotional opportunities and building team chemistry are hard to quantify).

How does this affect the overall culture and competition in the NLL? With the wealth of young talent lately and the need to cut costs, it has become increasingly difficult for talented vets to find homes. Over the past few years, we have seen good players at the higher end of the pay scale left on the shelf. There is a short list of teams that can afford the high-ticket vets outside of a few marquee players. Although the Swarm played well last season, their early post-season exit can be at least in part hung on the inexperience of the line up.

In a perfect world, each team would be able to dress the most talented team possible. The reality is that “richer” teams can afford to spend more on player payroll and transportation. That affects the makeup of the team. The advantage of wealthy teams stock piling talented vets is seen in most professional sports that lack a true salary cap. The parity in the NFL can be attributed in large part to their salary cap. Although the players and PLPA would likely oppose such a system, NLL owners are being forced to reevaluate the current business model to ensure the overall success of the league for years to come.

A nine-year NLL veteran and former GM and head coach of the Boston Blazers, Ryan also coached Team USA at the '07 WILC and will do so again in 2011 in Prague. To purchase Ryan's Stir It Up DVD click here.

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