New National Lacrose League season reveals some new delights, new concerns

Marty O'Neill
Marty O'Neill

With 3 games on tap this past week we saw 2/3 of the new-look National Lacrosse League at play. The 2014 season brings new hopes to the NLL for exposure and attendance. The product is usually exceptional but the first weeks can sometimes get sloppy and this past week’s affairs were consistent with that trend. The Rochester/Minnesota game was pretty tight and gave us the most bang for the buck. Going into this season I’m a big fan of the new CBA for everything it has done to solidify the future of the game. Practice rosters can now be used to develop and keep players in season, something the NLL has always needed more of. The lack of minor leagues or abilities to own the development of players inside the organization was an issue that is now more controlled. You can reap what you sow without passing players through “waivers” via release like years gone by.

I have had a strong voice supporting the league and owners in their cause in articles past. I now have a beef with the new CBA and a problem it is already creating and a bigger one I believe it will create. Dressing 16 runners per game and cutting back 2 runners is not a good idea for either side of players/owners argument.

Roster sizes were restricted to 20 players and an extra practice player was granted with holding rights on all 4 practice players … GOOD.

Playing the high-tempo brand of lacrosse that was born out of the past 2 years of NLL rules and evolvement with 16 dressed runners … BAD.

The pace of the track-meet style games in 2012 and 2013 is due in part to roster size and the ability to stay fresh. This past Saturday night, I already noticed instances of players coasting and coaches coaching toward more settled offense. This additionally plays into more referee decisions for penalties and more flat-footed power play situations, which need to be avoided whenever possible from an entertainment perspective.

Less emphasis on transition and what has made the NLL the great entertainer it has become these past 2 years is a step backward. I know the ownership side would have considered this when making their decision but I believe it isn’t too soon to have another look.

One obstacle may be that I’m not sure all owners and GMs collectively see “transition” as a way to win and what is good for the league as a whole may not be for a certain team or system now in play. Saturday I also noticed more tired offenses not having the ability to work hard at their 5-on-5 attack as games wore on, settling for outside Hail Mary shots way too often. Can you say boring?

I played in the MILL with 16 runners and experienced that 16 dressed runners was do-able in that era. In 1994, defense wasn’t as developed and USA-based teams weren’t worried so much about selling older established marquee players. The MILL worked with lots of younger players with fresh legs and if you couldn’t keep up you fell by the wayside.

An in-game injury now means BIG trouble as it will make the 16 dressed runner benches even shorter. The added exposure to more injuries compounds then, because some players were over extending themselves at that game speed already. I see this as an issue that the league needs to look at this year.

Wily aging players trying to play an up-tempo style meant for younger men will find ways to slow the rhythm down to their liking, especially as the season marches on and nagging bumps and bruises set in. Ultimately, the cost or gains of a shorter bench can’t be measured until June. I would predict that injuries will be up 20% this year and that will cost more on workers comp than the gains on the salary/travel cost/dressed player expense side.

I did not like dressing 18 runners when the rule got passed a few years back. I felt it would add up to a goon show and it did for a while. Ultimately, the NLL cleaned up headshots and rules around fighting forcing teams to go in a more skill-based direction. That is where we left off last year.

It’s not too late to change rules this year. My wish would be to add a rostered player and a dressing player to every team now. Or similarly, add another practice player and one more dressed player for games. Seventeen runners ensures consistent pace and recharging while costing the teams about $22,000 more each per season give or take.

For that amount of savings I see much more exposure on the injury/man games lost/workers comp side of the coin over the long haul. Don’t forget to factor in an extra 2 games for a longer 18-game schedule. The math doesn’t work, at least for me.

The cost of entertainment is arbitrary. The cost of cutting some entertainment value out of the NLL for 2014 is not. The NLL needs to continue on its own pace and high tempo of sports entertainment this year because its future relies on attracting new fans. I have to admit I’m worried about the long term effects of less dressed soldiers after watching the first 3 games.

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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