This past week I found myself attending a Victoria Royals Major Junior Hockey game in downtown Victoria at the 7,500 seat Save-On Center. The outing was a treat for my two sons and for me it was just about taking in the atmosphere. Tuesday night games are usually dogs for attendance and the announced crowd of 4,000 was hopeful at best. The action was quite boring as I studied the crowd and their call to arms or claps. Bursts of action and noise was certainly lacking in comparison with the two Vancouver Stealth games I have attended this year. All aspects of game presentation and in-game entertainment paled when measured to NLL standards. Could this be every Junior “A” hockey rink across Canada? The Calgary Hitmen were in town, apparently one of the best teams on the Western side. Again my mind wandered to what the National Lacrosse League has to do to become the 1-B entertainment option in Vancouver and other pro lacrosse sites.
The NFL has just wrapped with its un-super Super Bowl and the NHL will take a break for the Olympics. The chances for more media attention for the NLL remain slim because the Olympics are a worldwide phenomenon that anyone can get behind for a 2 week investment in the name of their country.
The National Lacrosse League remains an enigma. Those who know it love it for the most part. Two cities demand regular crowds close to the 15,000 fan mark, indicating those two USA cities love their NLL action. While Buffalo was an instant success in 1992, the Bandit crowds dropped from 1999 through 2004 before they resumed their place at the top of the heap.
Other teams of past glory in Philadelphia and Toronto have struggled with an attendance slide since the 2006 time frame and the league really needs them to regain their mojo. Last week in Philadelphia the crowd looked scarce for a Saturday night.
It was 1996 when my Boston Blazers lost in the MILL semifinal in the Spectrum on a Sunday afternoon in front of about 14,000 rabid fans. Philadelphia regularly got crowds of that nature BUT I DID SAY Sunday afternoon and a playoff game with one week to market as the kicker. Fans flocked to the action-packed MILL games pre-dating the internet and cable TV in what is now a sea of entertainment.
I do believe the powers that be have done a top notch job delivering the product that we watch every weekend on the budget they have. Kudos also bestowed on the players of the NLL who still show up to work when the most recent NHL player salary average published was over 3 million per season.
Pro lacrosse is in a tough spot. A sport is not a sport without a foundation and that is what holds us back from being a recognizable pro game and it keeps us in the entertainment business.
Devoid of youth box lacrosse in the USA makes it near impossible to succeed long term and in Canada more emphasis needs to be on the grass roots of recruiting young players to start playing the sport all across the country and not just in B.C. and Ontario. We need participation by more of the masses before we can say we have a culture for our sport. Wider appeal must be gained throughout the continent.
In Canada there could be a pro league of substance but it would generate the same issues without a strong minor presence with Major Junior A. Just like the hockey game I attended earlier this week, I think the focus on showcasing our game in Canada needs to be the Junior “A” age group. I think it works toward developing play in provinces instead of cities and boroughs and it might move us from local to national.
The CHL is a polished business that got its act together in the 70s and again in the 2000s to push it to the 1-B or 1-A sports entertainment piece in many a Canadian city. I ask, how much hockey do we need?
Ken Wood has pushed for a Western League of junior lacrosse and I applaud his vision. I don’t see a different name of the same version or league we have now, the BCJLL, as the answer. Teams in Kelowna and Kamloops are a must to bridge the territory between B.C. and Alberta if we are to have a true Western Junior League. The minor lacrosse in those associations would need mandatory recruiting and resources for making that happen so that they could spawn a decent Junior A program in about 5 years.
Strong emphasis would need to be dictated that we are nowhere without building leagues that are competitive for all and not just the rich. That means everyone chips in to help out your brother to ensure a long future. Competition can’t be the focus; building has to take precedence because box lacrosse is way too territorial. Pushing into the Maritimes and the Prairies would be a challenge of the largest kind but necessary if this sport wants to flourish.
Box lacrosse needs to take a few steps backwards to go forwards. Growth as a mantra. Why would anyone take themselves that seriously when competition is sub-par?
Ontario Lacrosse is the best we have to offer right now, and that is a numbers game. There is no challenge from Montreal, Quebec or Western Ontario. British Columbia and Alberta are having trouble calling themselves good company. We call box lacrosse Canada’s national sport but it’s really B.C.’s, Alberta’s and Southern Ontario’s Provincial summer sport. The rest of our country dabbles in lacrosse and that is what we will have to address if we ever want to be a serious contender on our national stage of athletics.
What all this talk is about is a 10-year cycle to grow the game, anywhere and everywhere that will have us. Of course those resources are not in the game but if lacrosse is one of Canada’s national sports, isn’t it high time we get a campaign started to bring that awareness to all parts of the country?
Seeking out national sponsors to help the cause would be a godsend. This all sounds lofty I know. Still the issue at hand is here to stay unless someone starts to think about it and do something about it. I worry that lacrosse will never reach its potential, not just in my lifetime, but ever!
Isn’t it time that some of the leagues and provinces use their resources with a different strategy than the current status quo that is barely getting us by? Since I started playing lacrosse in 1970 the game has really ebbed and flowed. The high points have been the early 70s boom and MILL flourishing in the early 90s to drive pro lacrosse. The mid 80s were a real low point in participation and another downturn appears to be around the corner.
So I ask, who is in charge? And, what is the plan? We need one now.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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