By Budd Bailey
News about the National Lacrosse League has been hard to find in recent months. Thanks to the pandemic, the NLL hasn’t had a game played since March of 2020. That’s an eternity in the sports business, of course, and the break probably won’t end until December 1 or so of this year.
However, there have been some interesting tidbits come up in terms of the franchises during those 14 months. In some ways, it reflects a shift in the preferred business model – and therefore warrants discussion – especially after Wednesday’s news about another expansion team coming soon to the NLL.
We here in Buffalo knew first-hand what the best method was to run an indoor lacrosse league team. The Buffalo Bandits always have been owned by the group that owned the Sabres. While the Bandits have been the “little brother” of the family – that’s what happens when you play fewer than 10 home games as opposed to the Sabres’ 41 – they have worked with the hockey team in a number of ways.
The Bandits don’t need an entire organization to run their business. They can piggyback on the Sabres’ efforts in such areas as marketing and communications. The lacrosse team has a powerful voice on its side to make sure it has a reasonable collection of good dates for the season. There’s also a bit of cross-pollination involved, since there are ways to connect the fans of one sport to the other through discounts and other marketing ventures.
The formula has worked quite well here. You also see it in such cities as Denver (Colorado Mammoth), Vancouver (Warriors), and Calgary (Roughnecks). Two of the relatively new expansion teams followed that formula. Philadelphia is owned by Comcast Spectacor (the owner of the Flyers), while Terry Pegula serves as the owner of both the Rochester Knighthawks of lacrosse and the Rochester Americans of hockey.
Other new owners have gone in a different direction. New York is run by GF Sports, an entertainment company formed by a private equity firm. San Diego’s expansion team was granted to Joseph Tsai, one of the 10 richest sports owners in North America. Halifax was doing well in its first season since moving from Rochester – at least in terms of percentage of capacity filled – when the pandemic shut everything down.
A busy year
That brings us to the four franchises that have newsworthy so far in the break. New England has moved to Albany to become the Albany Firewolves. The Black Wolves didn’t have the market size or arena size to compete with the big boys of the league, and was something of a loss leader for the gambling complex. When the ownership group changed and priorities shifted, a move seemed rather inevitable.
There’s the strange case of the Toronto Rock, which is moving to a new city but does not have a new name. While I’m sure the mayor of Hamilton is happy to have another tenant for the city’s arena even if the city name won’t be on the shirts, it seems as if this in some ways is a step backwards. The epicenter of indoor lacrosse in North America, particularly when it comes to talent, is Toronto. The NLL should have a strong team there. But the Rock’s attendance rarely reflected that. In 2020 it averaged 8,339 in announced attendance – and honestly the numbers coming out of games there often seemed inflated to me. The team will have better dates, at least, in Hamilton, and it will be an easier drive for Bandits’ fans to go to a game there instead of Toronto.
Finally, there are the two expansion teams that are in the pipeline. The Panther City Lacrosse Club will play out of Fort Worth, Texas, next season. It is owned by the group that runs the Dallas Wings, a WNBA team. Fort Worth is away from the sports spotlight in the Dallas area, and it’s easy to wonder how much attention the team will receive.
Then came Wednesday’s bulletin that Tsai will be granted another franchise in the NLL, with this one playing in Las Vegas. It is a little surprising that Tsai is doubling down on investing in lacrosse. The Seals’ attendance dropped by more than 2,500 per game in 2019-20, and there was some talk circulating that the experiment there wasn’t working. I would guess that if nothing else, this particular news bulletin was greeted with a certain amount of glee from the players around the league. Vegas, baby!
When those new teams start playing, that will bring to four the number of Sunbelt cities in the league – Georgia (Atlanta area), Fort Worth, Las Vegas, and San Diego. Indoor lacrosse always struck me as something of a “cold weather” sport, and thus a better fit for cities in the Northern United States and Canada. At least you might bump into some non-professionals playing the game north of the border. My skepticism is bolstered by the way that the league has tried to play in warmer climates in the past – Orlando, Phoenix, Anaheim – and most became footnotes to the league’s history in practically no time. One question looms – can these teams avoid the fate of their predecessors?
Meanwhile, it’s not completely fair to compare average attendance per game between 2018-19 and 2019-20, as the numbers usually go up as the season progresses and the latter season was stopped prematurely. Still, nine teams saw their average drop in 2019-20, while one team (Georgia) went up. Halifax and New York were new cities. For the record, the league’s average attendance per game went from 9,596 to 8,035. Those aren’t numbers that are trumpeted on team and league social media accounts – which is about the only place to catch up on any news about the league these days. I can’t blame those sources for being endlessly positive, of course. But the figures reflect reality.
Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz set out to improve to increase the sport’s footprint across the continent, and he has done that. The NLL boss also has done a good job of finding strong ownership for the league’s teams. Those are steps forward.
Still, it’s difficult to know if the NLL is headed toward some sort of logical niche in the nation’s sports scene. Perhaps soccer might be the best comparison even if it isn’t a perfect one. Major League Soccer will never catch up with MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL, but it is doing reasonably well. The MLS averages about 21,000 per game and has some television presence nationally. It also has the advantage of having a generation of people who have played the game and therefore are a natural target to follow the sport. The NLL doesn’t have that pre-sold audience.
In short, two existing NLL teams looking for financial stability have moved to places that don’t exactly scream “major league.” And two expansion teams soon will land in places without much lacrosse tradition and with plenty of competition for the entertainment dollar.
We’re clearly headed somewhere in the world of indoor lacrosse, as the league reacts to a difficult couple of years. I’m just not sure where that is.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB).