By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Leave it to the National Lacrosse League to come up with some unexpected news.
The league is expected to announce on Tuesday afternoon that the New England Black Wolves are about to join the list of defunct sports franchises. According to a report from the Albany Times-Union, the team has been sold and will move to Albany to play in the Times Union Center.
So ends a curious chapter in the history of a league that has had more than its share of them during its history.
Back in 2014, indoor lacrosse fans were all a little shocked when the announcement came that the Philadelphia Wings were moving to Uncasville, Connecticut. You couldn’t really write a history of the NLL without mentioning the Wings, an original franchise that had some great teams along the way. But it was difficult for the franchise to sustain that success, especially when it was sharing a building with the Flyers and 76ers.
In July of 2014, Wings owner Michael French announced the team would be going, well, somewhere. But we couldn’t have guessed where. A month later, the news came that French had sold half the team to the Mohegans, and the team would move to the Mohegan complex in Connecticut.
Uncasville wasn’t exactly on Main Street of the sports neighborhood. However, the complex did include a large casino as well as an arena that could hold up to 10,000 for events. It had been the home of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun since 2003, and the team has done well in that location (three conference titles but no championships).
The catch of the facility, of course, was that it was small. The standard lacrosse field wouldn’t fit into the space, so adjustments had to be made in that area. Capacity was said to be a little above 7,000, and a few of those seats had obstructed views. With such a limited capacity, it never was going to be able to compete with the big boys in the league like Buffalo and Colorado and their large arenas. But the idea was simply to get people to the arena, where they might linger and spend more of their money. It would be cruel to describe the team as a “loss leader” – like when a supermarket offers a 99-cent two-liter bottle of a soft drink to get you into the story and buy other things – but you get the idea. Besides, having a Native group be part of the ownership of a lacrosse team seemed fitting, considering the game’s roots.
The first reaction of the rest of the lacrosse world was to look at a map and gasp. Uncasville was located between Norwich and New London in southeast Connecticut. That meant it would be playing in a very small market by the standards of pro sports leagues. It certainly wasn’t going to help the NLL’s chances of getting national attention from advertisers or television networks.
More practically from the point of view of participants, there was no easy way to get there. You had to fly to a neighboring airport, and hop on a bus for a while. One time the Bandits flew into Boston, stopped for a Red Sox game, and headed down the Interstate for a game the next day. Another time – when faced with a home-and-home with the Black Wolves – they played in the KeyBank Center on the first night, jumped on a special bus with beds for about 24, and rode overnight to Uncasville.
The Black Wolves played five full seasons and part of a sixth. After a slow start in 2015, they rose to float around the .500 mark from 2016 to 2019. New England was 8-3 in 2020 when the season was cancelled due to Covid-19. But attendance was never that good. Even in 2020, the high point in attendance was 6,089 for a game with the New York Riptide – the first of five straight home games, which probably didn’t help. It looks as if the regular-season all-time high for attendance was a 2017 game with the Bandits, which drew 7,074. The franchise put some money into marketing along the way, although such efforts are said to have gone down in the last couple of years. By all accounts the team treated its players like honored guests instead of hired hands. But the Black Wolves always had a tough hill to climb if it wanted to thrive.
It’s been almost a year since the Black Wolves and the rest of the league have played a game, thanks to the virus. The NLL won’t return to operation until December or so. Even worse, the pandemic must have taken a toll on the casino business in the past year. Add that to the fact that competition for the gambling dollar has increased in recent years, it’s clear that the facility no longer is the proverbial license to print money that it used to be. Besides, there are reports that the Mohegans’ new leadership wasn’t as enthusiastic about the lacrosse business as the former executives.
Those must have been factors in the Mohegans’ decision to get out of the lacrosse business, as the plug is about to be pulled. The new ownership group reportedly is led by Oliver Marti, a hedge-fund founder who played college and pro lacrosse in his younger days. The new bosses decided to move the team to Albany, which represents something of an experiment on its own.
The Albany Attack played in the NLL from 2000 to 2003. It was under the breakeven mark in three of those years, but had a brief, shining moment in 2002. The Attack went 14-2 and reached the finals – only to lose by a goal in the championship game to Toronto. But good teams and bad teams still didn’t draw in Albany, and the franchise moved to San Jose in 2003. It is now in Vancouver.
Lacrosse awareness certainly has improved in Albany since the Attack left, thanks to the success of the outdoor team at the University at Albany. Bandits’ fans might remember Frank Resitarits, a Western New Yorker who was Albany’s first All-American in the sport. Some members of the famous Thompson family have played there as well. It’s hard to know how much that growth will help an indoor team, but it can’t hurt. The arena can hold about 15,000 for sporting events, so that’s a step up in theory. What’s more, Albany does have its own airport. There will be less cursing by players when they have a game involving the transplanted Black Wolves.
From a distance, it’s tough to see Albany and the NLL as a perfect fit. The league has expanded in recent years to big population areas like Philadelphia, San Diego, Long Island, and Dallas-Fort Worth. The best-case scenario would be for Albany to be another Halifax – a small city with limited competition for the entertainment dollar.
Still, the NLL has a gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the challenge for an Albany team is for it not to be left behind. In a world filled with business uncertainty, it’s easy to wish them luck – because they will need it.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)