Commentary

Why Has Major League Lacrosse Struggled? What Is The Solution?
By Eric Ulis

 

Major League Lacrosse is about to wrap up its 17th season. After 17 years it is fair to expect that the league would be much bigger, more viable and more lucrative, particularly for the players. But it is not. Why?

For years I have been frustrated that the significant growth of lacrosse at the youth and collegiate levels has failed to translate into increased interest at the professional level, in particular, with Major League Lacrosse. This disconnect, ironically, comes full circle and ultimately negatively impacts continued growth at the youth and collegiate levels. After all, young players want to believe there is a future for them in the game. To be sure, this is not the fault of the lacrosse community, a problem with the game itself or the result of stiff competition from other professional sports leagues. Rather, it is the fault of Major League Lacrosse and the way it does business.

One could argue that September 11th and The Great Recession fatally impeded MLL’s growth during the early years. However, the reality is that even through this troubling time the MLL showed signs of growing interest. Nonetheless, over the last decade, as national issues have improved, Major League Lacrosse has continued to wither as measured by average game attendance and accessibility of free viewing opportunities. The irony of all ironies is that the on-the-field product has improved and is outstanding.

All of this said, what are the problems, and more importantly, what are the solutions?

The primary issues with the league relate to its business structure. Specifically, the league operating as a “single entity” with its salary cap, the league monopolizing broadcast-rights distribution and the league significantly restricting individual team sponsorship opportunities have hurt economic viability. This in turn has led to franchises folding, relocating, having no money for capital projects such as lacrosse-specific stadiums, little revenue to increase player compensation and an “on-the-cheap” league policy that has players feeling taken advantage of and disrespected. Of course, all of the aforementioned contributes to waning public interest, low attendance and means you won’t see an MLL game on ESPN anytime soon.

It is important to note that the above scenario also means that players and coaches are required to maintain other jobs, play for other leagues and coach other teams just to make ends meet financially. This then leads to MLL teams having incomplete rosters and coaching staffs until the collegiate and NLL seasons are finished a full six weeks into the MLL season.

Simply put, the problems are many and this is a mess.

Is it any wonder that fans have failed to fully embrace Major League Lacrosse? Is it any wonder that top collegiate players have failed to fully embrace Major League Lacrosse?

To me it’s obvious that a new professional outdoor lacrosse league that plays in the fall is the only solution. Additionally, this new league needs to be made up of franchises that are actually owned and operated by individuals or ownership groups. Furthermore, this new league needs a generous salary cap that affords franchises, willing to pay the price, the opportunity to lure top talent at an appropriate “professional athlete” rate. Also, this new league must possess individual teams with the ability to hammer out local broadcast media deals that will bring their games to local viewers free of charge and will ultimately translate into increased attendance. Finally, this new league must allow individual teams, and players, to pursue sponsorship opportunities without restriction.

To be sure, Major League Lacrosse could implement these changes. But they won’t. There is a certain amount of inertia that has built up over the last 17 years and it is unlikely that a complete reorganization of the league will take place even though the current commissioner is leaving at season’s end after a lengthy tenure. Too bad though, the MLL game is really very good and is going largely unnoticed to the detriment of us all.