In recent years, the professional indoor lacrosse world has suffered from a bottleneck of labour since the departure of the Orlando Titans and the Boston Blazers. The feeder system to the pro ranks of lacrosse has cut back 100 National Lacrosse League jobs since 2009. The cause for this job reduction was a perfect storm. A few problematic ownership groups met with a recession and then their expiry date. These franchises were brought into the NLL during better financial times from a past commissioner who was keen on selling hype. Partnered with an unrealistic players union trying to get their hands on riches that are only with the few “haves” of the NLL while escaping the “have nots” has made for lack of franchise stability in the NLL. The recent demise of the Washington Stealth, NALL and PLL only adds to the mix of failed teams and communities trying to make a go of “pro” lacrosse.
The effect that has surfaced is less hope for all players 25 years of age or under who haven’t cracked an NLL lineup yet, haven’t been drafted or have had limited action and are primed for replacement by the upcoming draft.
I’ve noticed the energy and focus of younger players shifting over the last 5 years from “hopeful” to “resigned,” especially in the West. Nowadays guys leave junior thinking they have a minimal chance to get to the next level. These players end up turning their backs on the game and a possible stint in Senior “A”or Senior “B.” The local scene in British Columbia is competitive, but players are checking out of the game sooner these days. With no prospects of an NLL audition and even less for an NLL career, the allure of making it as a professional lacrosse player has been downgraded for the rank and file.
A decade ago, the Canadian lacrosse scene was ripe with growth due in large part to the success of the NLL and the Toronto Rock in Canada. South of the border teams that willfully experimented with USA born players (like the Mueller-O’Neill era of the Philadelphia Wings and Mueller’s N.Y.Titans, the Tom Ryan-led Boston Blazers or the Mouradian-Locker era of the San Jose Stealth) have long since passed, voiding indoor jobs for USA talent.
Mouradian has employed as many Yanks as possible in his latest gig in Philly. This direction is mostly out of budgetary measures coupled with the Wings having to maneuver out of a lack of draft resources from past trading. The Wings have corralled most of the American box lacrosse vets at bargain prices over the last three years. Final score is a lack of opportunity for new USA jobs and less focus from NCAA grads on the indoor game than ever before.
In Southern Ontario we have the Paul St.John/Jim Veltman creation of CLax that has been a breath of fresh air for the Canadian lacrosse scene and for the graduating seniors looking to prolong their lax dreams. The ability for CLax to sustain itself is highly questionable without a major sponsor and more paying customers.
Sponsorship is the crux of all professional lacrosse issues for sustainability and growth. Cash flow to buy turf/equipment and secure rental agreements with arenas while having a little extra left over to give the players some reward and gas money is needed for all leagues on a sliding scale. Bumps and bruises don’t come for free; neither do torn ACLs.
NLL player costs have gotten out of hand but were reared out of the need to expand to cities with no base of players to support a pro team in the USA. The NLL model of flying players in to play games is fast becoming the issue that will render the league unsustainable at some time in the foreseeable future.
Player costs are killing the NLL, which just lost its Reebok sponsorship deal. That will increase operating costs across the board. Lack of national TV recognition in both countries dictates regional television opportunities and the sponsorships that come with them. These deals can’t cross borders and therefore bind the league to be divided between countries, and then regions. The NLL has come to realize it is pigeon-holed in this way of doing biz after all these years. Process of elimination is a fact of life for the NLL. So where does professional lacrosse go from here?
There are fan perspectives, those who have investment in their team and always want to see the best for their city. Then there are the perspectives of us types who have played and worked at the pro level who have dreamed for years of that “next level” that the NLL hasn’t been able to attain.
The constant that is shared by all is the protective nature of our professional game. We all desperately want to preserve this sport and see it grow. I have been of that train of thought for the last 22 years but my perspective is now shifting. The way I see it, it has to. Not because I’m down on the NLL. I think the product is at an all-time best.
Rather, I’d suggest the model isn’t working anymore. The league went through an era of peaked interest from some NHL franchises with clout to potentially bring in growth and sustainability. That has given way to more private ownership groups collectively fighting an uphill battle while fighting a good fight. Still, the league as a whole is losing ground without TV revenue or major sponsorship. We are not attracting enough new fans and the expectation level of the players association is distorted. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is all headed.
Can we draw some positives to light? Yes we can. Growth of lacrosse as a sport in the USA continues to climb and mainly in affluent households with the kind of disposable income the sport is crazy to tap through camps, recruitment, clinics and leagues. New American growth in start-up areas brings a refreshing acceptance of “all things lacrosse” so box lacrosse is not viewed as “strange” or as a “threat” like it has been in the past on the U.S. Eastern seaboard.
Indoor is simply another outlet to learn the skills of the game. Joining this growth of the field game in the U.S. and gaining widespread acceptance would be a monumental task but a project indoor lacrosse needs to aggressively pursued while this opportunity is still on the table. I know of one program doing it very well in Northern California and it’s the type of model that needs to be blueprinted and made available across the USA.
Professionally, the NLL can go on and we can continue to hope it gains momentum or catches fire with attention from a major network. Country-wide, it would be a goal to set up semi-pro like state leagues or regional leagues for young adults with natural rivalries to support the player growth cycle and supply teaching of the game to the youth in these USA communities on a broader scale.
Taking a few steps back to create these regional lacrosse and youth leagues all over North America would build the game in pockets of the country while working toward a 5- to 10-year plan of growth and structure. The ability to establish, market and promote USA Indoor lacrosse would be put in the hands of capable types recruited from other walks of sport while the lacrosse X and Os could be manufactured and taught systematically in unison across the board to introduce indoor lacrosse in the USA over that period.
It would take this type of business thinking and vision with some financial backing to get our beloved game to a higher level. Input from mentors who have worked this magic in other sports and business would be welcome.
The last 25 years of indoor lacrosse have shown us growth of the game is not possible without wider appeal and acceptance, which hasn’t come yet from a couple of decades of NLL play. Don’t get me started on Canada. Eighty percent of the Senior “A” and Junior “A” games every season are played in arenas dotted with around 250 family and friends year after year.
This game needs to expand its foundation to go big-time and there is only one country with the kind of population to drive that expansion.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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