It’s time for NLL to expand … carefully

its-time-for-nll-to-expand-carefully

Among many in National Lacrosse League circles it’s considered a particularly vile word. More offensive than any four-letter-friend-getter you can think of, this three-syllable word causes anger, angst and animosity among league faithful. Expansion. There. I said it. Having covered this league for 12 years, I’m as familiar with the NLL’s woeful expansion track record as anyone. I understand the reluctance for many to even discuss the subject.

Defunct franchises litter the North American map, while others managed to survive — such as the Stealth — but became modern day Lewis and Clarks, criss-crossing the continent from one city to the next trying to make a go of it (Albany-San Jose-Everett-Langley/Vancouver).

It often seemed the league was more interested in expansion fees than the long-term viability of teams. Harsh criticism, but I’ve heard that sentiment from so many fans and league insiders I’ve lost count. Let’s be honest, many teams seemed doomed to failure from Day 1.

To make matters worse, many of the expansion teams were little more than punching bags, used and abused during their short NLL tenures for the other clubs to rack up easy wins and opposing players to pad their stats.

All that said, times have changed and it’s now time for expansion again. And the sooner the better.

In a perfect world, the NLL would slowly grow (note: slowly) to 12 teams with six in each division. However, that’s the long-term goal. I’d like to see the NLL add no more than one team per year and add the three franchises over at least five or six years.

Despite the whole “once bitten (more like a dozen times bitten), twice shy” school of thought, there are two main reasons for NLL expansion now.

1. There are more top-flight lacrosse players being churned out by junior loops and U.S. colleges than ever before. Players take the game more seriously and train more diligently than ever before. Many players live the game year round. They are in peak shape and always have their sticks in their hands.

2. And with the league more focused on youth than ever before, the aforementioned glut of young players provides the talent pool needed to build new franchises upon. The trend in the league right now is to go young and fast. It makes for great lacrosse and has re-energized the transition game. More and more junior scoring studs find themselves playing two-way roles, at least early in their NLL tenure.

Tonight’s entry draft will bring a good 18-20 players that can, arguably, battle for a job and likely play in the NLL this coming season.

I do admit to some trepidation when it comes to adding more teams. The parity right now in the NLL is incredible. You have stacked offences that perform with lethal, almost surgical effiecency. The defence and transition has never been quicker (save for the early MILL days) and goaltending is solid across the board for the first time in league history.

It’s nice that there are no easy marks. No pushover teams. Any Given Sunday and all that.

Yes there will be a little short-term pain for long-term gain as new teams get their footing. But that’s a price worth paying.

Where should the league look to expand?

In Canada, Winnipeg would be the best choice if they go with the Winnipeg Jets ownership group. Great fans in that city and the game is growing in popularity there. With the right backers — the Jets — the NLL could be a big success in the Manitoba capital.

If the league is still into looking at smaller venues as viable, a la Langley, Saskatoon has a wonderful arena and the game would do well in Saskatchewan, I think.

As for the States, there is a logical argument to see a team back in New York or New Jersey. Again, with the right owners.

There’s also been talk in the past of Pittsburgh. If the Pens were involved, it could work. Imagine Sidney Crosby’s head on the jumbotron cross-promoting and encouraging folks to come see the new NLL there.

Wherever the league grows, due diligence has to be paramount. No more failed franchises, please. It looks bad on the league and is heartbreaking for the small, but loyal fanbases of the clubs that fold.

With the NLL schedule being recently released, we know there’s no expansion for 2014. Hopefully we’ll see a new team in 2015. It just makes sense now.

The assistant managing editor of the Calgary Sun, Pilson began covering the NLL when the Roughnecks started in 2000. The longtime lacrosse player has been contributing to Inside Lacrosse ever since. Email him at ty.pilson@nllinsider.com or go to CalgarySun.com.

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