By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Those who visited the National Lacrosse League’s web site on Thursday night noticed something had disappeared: the first two weeks of the planned league schedule.
The initial page of the site has the season starting on December 15 with three games scheduled – including Buffalo at Philadelphia. However, if you click the link on “printable schedule,” you’ll see that seven games were set to be played on the first two weeks. The Bandits, by the way, were to play two of those games, including one in San Diego.
The explanation is on a separate page on the site in the form of a statement from the NLL. The league and its players have not been able to reach a new collective bargaining agreement.
Cancelling (which could mean postponing, I guess) games is pretty serious. It’s also unexpected. Since the NLL isn’t exactly the National Football League when it comes to coverage of business issues, let’s take a simplified look back.
The NLL isn’t like the other sports leagues in North America. The players are part-time workers, who spend their weekends playing games and then go back to their “regular” jobs. The average pay is about $20,000 a year, which is a little more than $1,000 a game. Some earn more than that, with arrangements for appearances such as clinics, public relations, etc. The numbers have been more or less flat for the past several years. It’s fair to say you don’t get rich playing indoor lacrosse.
However, not too many people get rich owning an indoor lacrosse team, either. The haves such as Saskatchewan and Buffalo are playing to near capacity crowds, while Georgia and Rochester are taking in a small fraction of what the haves earn. It’s difficult to make up a set of rules when the differences in revenues by team are so great proportionately.
Five years ago, when the last CBA was negotiated, things weren’t good for the NLL – and the players knew it. There were nine teams in the 2013 season, but four of them would be changing cities in the near future. Survival was on the mind of all concerned, and little else. They agreed to a seven-year deal, with an opt-out for either side after five years. There were concessions on both sides; for example, roster sizes shrank but the age for free agency dropped.
I’d be kidding you if I said the prospects for the league had completely turned around, but they certainly are better. Philadelphia and San Diego are entering the league this season. Both are said to be well financed. The Rochester franchise heads for Halifax next year, while an expansion team owned by the Pegulas will be placed in Rochester. The NLL reportedly was set to announce this week that another expansion team would be placed in Long Island next season; that news conference has been postponed for the time being. Meanwhile, Vancouver is ready to play its games in – get this – Vancouver. The Stealth called Langley, British Columbia, home before moving to the big city and changing its name to the Warriors this past offseason.
You don’t have to be a member of the Federal Reserve Board to figure out that while things are better for the league as a whole than they were five years ago. The players decided to opt out of the old deal and work out a new one. But here’s where it gets cloudy. It’s tough to know what the exact nature of the offers has been without being in the room. But it apparently took a long time for everyone to sit down and get serious over this. I’ll let the parties involved point fingers as to who is responsible.
Going from here
I’m not discounting the possibility of a quick turnaround in the next day or two. It’s happened before in the NLL and in other leagues. I think the NHL once announced the cancellation of a season in January 1995, only to reach an agreement soon after that.
For what it’s worth, the NLL could get one of those weeks of the schedule back quite painlessly. The regular season ends on April 20. It would be easy to bump Week One games to the last weekend in April, and then start the playoffs in May (when they have taken place for the past few years). Plan B would involve looking for mutual bye weeks when games could be played, although it is tougher to find open dates in buildings a few weeks away than in May when NHL teams may be done with their seasons.
In the meantime, you have to think that the people in Philadelphia and San Diego are privately angry at what has happened. Those teams have been building up to their first Opening Nights for about a year. Now, everything is on hold. I’m sure the owners are all for cost certainty as they enter the league, but the people in marketing must be stumped on what to do next. Long lunch hours?
To my uneducated eyes, it seems like it would be relatively easy to come up with a short-term formula that, as the financial pie of the league grows, would give more money to the players. Then, after a couple of years, the situation can be revisited.
As for now, neither side is in a particularly good bargaining position. Therefore, my instructions are simple: get this settled and get to work on growing the game.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB).