Time for NLL to rethink its playoff format

Marty O'Neill
Marty O'Neill

Back in December when training camps wrapped, I listened to chatter of teams not wanting to peak too soon or essentially place a high value on the coming National Lacrosse League regular season. The 2012 championship had been won by the 7-9 Rochester Knighthawks, plus recent past had been littered with championship contenders like the 2012 Edmonton Rush or the 2008 Portland LumberJax teams that made the pinnacle game through grandma’s storm door in the backyard with a 6-10 records. Rochester posted another sub-par 8-win, 8-loss .500 record this season and was once more rewarded with a no-pressure season until its last game of the regular slate on its way to immortality. Over the winter months, I’ve had conversations with some ex-NLL personalities and the conversation often included the talking point that the NLL regular season had become meaningless.

The past lifetime of NLL playoff participation has usually been decided by the amount of teams in the circuit. More teams in the league, more teams in the playoffs, or so I thought. My memory was foggy so I checked the history of such things.

A quick study from as far back as 2002 shows 3 teams per division, or 6 teams making the post season play downs with the division winner taking a bye for the first round. This format was in place until 2006 when the league increased to 4 teams per division entering the postseason and no byes. That means in 2002-2003-2004-2005 there were 6 playoff teams in a 14,12 or 10 team league. From 2001 dating back to 1998, the inaugural year of the NLL, 4 teams made post season in a 9 to 7 team league.

The 2005 season had 6 playoff entries in a 10-team league and in 2006 the NLL adapted the current format of 8 teams playing in a league that grew as big as 13 teams but has currently shrunk to the meager 9-team, 1-playoff omission system. With the recent announcement that the league will add 2 games to the schedule to create an 18-game schedule, I’m hoping it will also put more weight back on the regular season and cut at least two teams out of the playoff format. It’s about time.

If the league could afford the division winner a bye back in 2002-03-04-05 then why not now? There are some arguments that teams with the bye sit and get stale but very little proof. In 2002 and 2003, the top two seeded teams got first-round byes and eventually ended up dueling in the Champion’s Cup game. In 2004, neither division winner survived the semifinal as the No. 3 seed in the East and West met for Cup bragging rights. 2005 returned Toronto to its familiar role of champion after winning the East Division and taking its first round bye for the last time. Add to this argument the Calgary Roughnecks’ recent plight, the perennial West Division regular season champs who have been bogged down in the qualifying rounds the last 3 years never once making it to the final.

I’m sure the Roughies would be up for a new format next year and they make a concrete argument why it should change to enhance the division winner’s postseason odds. In the same breath you could mention the Toronto Rock’s 2013 effort. With an added regular season game on each pro squad’s schedule in 2014, teams can market that extra home game. The playoff games don’t sell enough tickets to cover the costs in most cities so who really needs them?

The bonus for coming in first in the regular season race is some game pay for the boys with the bye and two weeks for management to promote and sell a date for the division championship, a win-win in my mind.

This also relegates the 6-10 teams to the golf course instead of giving them a lifeline like some finalists we have seen. Rochester has won two championships back-to-back coming off unspectacular 7-9 and 8-8 seasons. Don’t forget that Buffalo could have made the playoffs instead of Rochester this season with 2 more goals in their final 2013 scheduled game. No team with a record of less than .500 made the NLL playoffs from 1998 to 2007. In 2013 three 7-9 teams made it and in 2012 a 6-10 team was close to winning it all.

Let’s face it, the current NLL post season model was dreamed up in the summer of 2005 by a surging league and its owners who wanted more opportunity for playoff recognition and home dates. It has taken them almost a decade to figure out playoffs do not matter when it comes to tickets sales. Promotion and scheduling does. Playoff dates, locals and teams are up in the air until the weekend before the actual game. That means booking player flights inside a 7-day window and paying an exorbitant amount for team airfares and other last-minute costs.

And here’s an unoriginal, but “jeopardy like” off the board for $50 suggestion for the playoff semifinal going forward. Give it to the team with the best attendance. Yep, right out of the MILL-Russ Cline 1992 handbook.

Who are we trying to kid here? If no teams sell a respectable amount of tickets to a home playoff game sans Colorado or Buffalo, it’s a money-losing proposition. So if an Eastern championship game can be played in front of 5,000 in Rochester or a poor crowd of 12,000 in Buffalo, the league has to do some clever business. It’s no different than the NHL in terms of who compensates the players for the playoffs, it’s the league.

Switch it over to the West. Imagine you have a Colorado vs. Washington semifinal and the disparity between attendance in those two cities could push 11,000 fans. The cost to play that game with all those flights is monstrous. The East is basically a bus league now but the West Division playoffs are a cost cow to the league and a sector where this spending damages the NLL bottom line.

Fans may say its bush league but the NLL has moved two final matches because of a circus and a convention of sorts as recently as last month. Did the general public even notice?

In search of television viewership, the NLL should put its best foot forward whenever possible and that means showcasing and promoting buildings that support the league with attendance.

Professional lacrosse is in the business of trying to become a mainstream sport and that segues into growth from creating hordes of new fans, causing the league to flourish. Indoor lacrosse is not a household sport in the USA and will never be without an extreme push in the cable television marketplace. How that happens is anyone’s guess. A hypothetical thought: a company like ESPN or Nike buys the league and essentially take over the sport to make it work inside their own business model. It would take this type of backing to push indoor lacrosse nationwide in an attempt to become a viable college and pro sport over time.

Lacrosse the sport is in a state of flux right now. The NCAA final four attendance dropped again this year after having increasingly strong numbers dating back to when the recession hit. While the sport continues to grow in participation numbers across the USA that hasn’t spawned a great appetite of viewership needs for either the indoor or outdoor variety.

In the current package of NLL playoff lacrosse why do any of us think that one extra playoff game has any significance at all? Teams need more planned home dates so why not include them in the regular schedule and cut down on playoff games? Why not have a 20-game schedule to make an extra 2 marketable game dates and then a grand championship game between the winner of the East and the winner of the West like baseball?

It would certainly put the urgency back into the regular season and it makes more sense from a business perspective; the one indoor lacrosse is going to need to push through the rest of this decade.

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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