(Editor’s note: This is the first in a 3-part series)
In an ideal National Lacrosse League world, a series of games decides postseason winners. Best of 5, best of 7 and we’re on our way. Simple, right? Sure. But ideal and real are 2 very different worlds and it’s the reality part of this equation that’s been the source of frustration for many an NLL fan through the years. Frustration in perhaps seeing their team do well in the regular season, only to see it lay an egg in the single-elimination playoff format and have the season come to a grinding halt. But the NLL took a step toward the ideal in August, announcing a new playoff format that essentially is a compromise. “We have to crawl before we walk and walk before we run,” said NLL commissioner George Daniel. So, starting in the spring of 2014 for the division finals and the Champion’s Cup, it won’t be a single game to decide the winner, and it won’t quite be a series, either. Reaction was swift and sometimes harsh, so ILIndoor set out to find some answers and the thought process of what went into the new format.
Bottom line: The top 3 teams in each division advance to the playoffs. The No. 1 seed receives a bye for Week 1, while No. 2 and No. 3 meet in the first round for a single game. The winner advances to play the No. 1 seed in a 2-game series, followed by a 2-game series for the Champion’s Cup.
The 2-game series goes like this: the first game is at the lower seed and the second game is at the higher seed. If the teams split, a 10-minute “game” follows Game 2 to determine who advances. If the teams are tied after 10 minutes, it’s on to sudden death.
“We have been looking at this for 10 years,” says Steve Govett, general manager of the Colorado Mammoth. “We’ve tried for years to modify the playoffs … the 2-game series is not our favorite, but this way, we could get a home game at the highest seed. The fans deserve this. We’re trying to do something for the fans.
“Is it perfect? No. But it gives teams in the playoffs a better chance to host a game.”
In looking at changes to the playoff format, the NLL had a few big hurdles, 2 of the bigger ones being arenas and their availability and cost, and the cost of transporting a team on short notice.
“It’s not cheap and it’s not easy,” said Govett, adding that NLL teams fly commercial (try booking a cross-country ticket for yourself for this week, then do the math for an entire lacrosse team). “If you connect all the dots, travel, ticket sales, building dates, etc. … The NFL has a billion dollar TV deal. We’re not the NFL.”
Since 1987, 27 NLL champions have been crowned and of those 27 titles, 26 have been decided by a single-game format. But in 1998, the league gave the series format a try, a best-of-3 setup that saw the Philadelphia Wings beat the Baltimore Thunder.
“I was there for that one,” said Govett, a player for those 1998 Wings. “We had 1,500 in the stands on a Tuesday night in Baltimore to watch the Wings win a championship. Baltimore couldn’t get the building.”
That’s just one example in a long line of scheduling challenges for the NLL. More recently, the 2007 (Rochester) and 2013 (Washington) Champion’s Cup games couldn’t even be played at the arena of the team that earned the right to host. A circus uprooted Rochester in 2007 and a youth conference pushed the Washington Stealth out of their building in May.
“Fans understand it. They’ve been around long enough,” said Daniel. “We just don’t get priority dates.”
In its attempt to grow over the years, the NLL has tried to boost its professionalism by playing in bigger arenas. But while bigger arenas can bring bigger payoffs, that doesn’t happen until the bigger costs are covered.
The 1998 Thunder played in Baltimore Arena, which seated 14,000. The Wings played in what is now Wells Fargo Center, which seats nearly 20,000 and also was home to the 76ers and Flyers. The New York Saints played in Nassau Coliseum (16,000), the Bandits played in what is now First Niagara Center (18,000) and the Ontario Raiders played in Copps Coliseum (19,000).
Needless to say, these arenas were not built solely for indoor lacrosse teams. Management of these facilities was not standing by, waiting for the lacrosse teams to figure out their schedules on a week-to-week basis.
Fifteen years later, it’s not all that different even with NLL teams in different cities. Buffalo, Colorado, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Philadelphia and Minnesota all play in major venues that are shared with other teams and other events. Renting arenas for 8 home dates — and now 9 with the expansion of the regular season — is a costly sum for teams. Securing the dates for home games for the regular season is worked out well in advance, so when it comes to scheduling playoff games with very little notice, the chore can be challenging. And even if a playoff date is secured, there’s the matter of getting people to the games.
“Teams are going to struggle to sell tickets with 4 months notice,” said Govett. “How are we going to do it in 2 days? We have to be fiscally responsible. It’s hard trying to do a 7-game series when you don’t even know the date for the third game.”
With no huge TV contract or other big sources of revenue, the NLL remains a ticket-driven league, said Daniel. So the league loves the idea of more games, but the reality of essentially being a weekend league introduces dynamics other pro sports leagues don’t encounter. As it is, the NLL continues to work on how to schedule the rounds of finals and the final for next spring. Can the games be played in the same weekend? Will they need to be stretched out over 2 weekends? These are answers the league doesn’t yet have and Daniel says “it’s a wait-and-see approach.”
So if arena availability is such a challenge, what about the price tag of getting a team to another city? Once you factor the cost of flying commercial — not just for players and coaches, but staff as well — and throw in lodging and meals, the bill gets big in a hurry.
And this is where the NLL differs greatly from other sports, including Canadian lacrosse in the summer. Neither the NLL nor the Canadian leagues are swimming in cash-flow, but it remains much easier to play long series in Canada than it does in the NLL. And the reason is simple: locations.
In Major Series, all 6 teams are no more than a 3-hour drive away from each other, and that’s being generous by taking traffic into consideration. In the Western Lacrosse Association, the longest drive there is in the 3½-hour range, including some trips that include a ferry experience. That obviously makes it much easier to play a 7-game series, when all it takes is a bus or two to get the teams to where they need to be.
But in the NLL, getting teams from Rochester to Calgary, or Edmonton to Toronto, or Minnesota to Colorado is a different story. And even if that were possible, there’s the question of player availability in some cases as work commitments don’t always allow for time off to accommodate a longer playoff series. For the Canadian series, it’s not always necessary to get the time off of work when you can make the quick drive to the local barn.
“A lot of the guys have full-time jobs outside of lacrosse and we have to be sensitive to that,” said Daniel.
(Tomorrow: A closer look at the 2-game format and why that was chosen)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 email@example.com or go to RochesterSports.com.
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