By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
We’re about six weeks into the current National Lacrosse League season. That means there’s been enough time to look around at how the NLL and the Buffalo Bandits are doing at the turnstiles.
And in the case of the former, the news isn’t particularly good.
Here’s the overall picture at league attendance, which admittedly does not measure a team’s entire revenue situation. It also uses announced attendance figures, which is the only barometer we have and is subject to, um, different counting standards. Entering the coming weekend, the league is averaging 7,553 per game in attendance. That is a rather startling number, since the number was 9,596 last season (its best since 2009) so it is down about 2,000 per game.
The NLL has averaged at least 8,970 (2015) in every season since 2004, which is how far the available numbers go back. This year’s figure would be a drop of more than 1,400 per game from that. Yes, attendance usually rises during the course of the season – more on that in a minute – but as of this moment the league is in uncharted territory.
At least it’s easy to figure out what the biggest current problem is with the numbers: expansion teams. They are dragging down the overall numbers.
New York has had three home games so far, and drawn a total of 13,459. That’s an average of 4,486, the worst in the league. That includes a 6,089 number from opening night, when excitement over a new franchise should be at its highest. We used to expect growing pains for expansion teams in the distant past in terms of attendance, but thanks to better marketing and financing, we usually don’t see those pains as often now.
The other expansion team this season is Rochester, which is in an odd situation. As you may know, this is version 2.0 of the Knighthawks. The old franchise moved to Halifax in the offseason, and Rochester was awarded another team as a replacement. The Knighthawks have averaged 5,061 per game so far this season. That ranks 11th of the 13 teams. The K-Hawks averaged 6,440 last season, so they are down almost 1,400 per game from a number that was well below the league average. Even if attendance picks up from here, the figures are troublesome.
You wouldn’t think the won-loss records of the new teams would have much of an effect at the start of the season, since curiosity might drive fans to turn out – especially in a new market. Then again, both teams won games last week, but still have 1-5 records.
The NLL has drawn 264,385 to its 35 games so far this season. Let’s throw out the totals from the home games of New York and Rochester. We get 235,743 in 29 games, for an average of 8,129. That’s probably within striking distance of getting past an average of 9,000 later this season.
As long as we’re taking teams out of the league average, let’s look at what happens when San Diego comes out of the analysis. The second-year Seals are averaging 4,549 per game, 12th in the league and only ahead of New York. When only the top 10 teams in the league are considered, the NLL is averaging 8,542 per game – and it certainly has a chance to go higher in the months ahead.
In case you are wondering, Philadelphia – the other second-year franchise – and Halifax – the NLL’s other new market this season – are both doing OK. The Wings are averaging 8,345 per game while Halifax is at 6,741. The two teams combined are at 7,276 per game, just a little under the league average.
Let’s move over to the Bandits’ situation, which is illustrative of another point. I don’t have league-wide numbers for average attendance by month, but Buffalo’s numbers are easily found. Therefore, here’s a chart on what its attendance does on a month-by-month basis in the regular season:
Month 2017-20 2014-17
December 11,630 14,268
January 11,886 12,909
February 13,303 14,350
March 14,572 15,006
April/May 17,420 16,706
I chose to group 2017-18 through 2019-20 because the league has used an early December start to its schedule starting at that point. One explanatory note – Buffalo played a game on Dec. 30, 2016 to open the 2016-17 schedule, and it drew 14,268. Throw that number out, and attendance obviously does go up as the season continues. The Bandits have had two sellouts in the last six years, and both came in their final home game of the regular season (2016 and 2018). By the way, they are leading the NLL in average attendance this season at 12,095 per game through three home dates.
By the way, the Bandits averaged 11,618 in their first three home games last season. They finished the season with an average attendance of 13,046. That’s a jump of 1,528 per game. It’s going to take more than that by every team in the league to avoid a decline in the NLL’s average game attendance. And an increase of 1,300 per game by every team still wouldn’t be enough to prevent the NLL’s worst average attendance since at least 2004.
A needed pause
Two concluding points can be reached here. The four-team expansion of the last two years hasn’t given an obvious shot in the arm to league attendance, based on 2019-20 numbers. And on the field, the four new franchises are a combined 7-17 this season. Although having more teams is a way to get the game exposed to more people in more markets – a worthy goal under the NLL’s circumstances – maybe it’s time to step back for a couple of years and consolidate the steps taken in the recent past.
Second, the league has a couple of obvious barriers – glass ceilings, if you will – to further growth besides expansion. It can’t really start the season much earlier. The lacrosse year already covers five months, with another one for the playoffs. That’s a month longer than the National Football League’s schedule. I don’t detect an appetite for a season that runs from Veterans’ Day to Memorial Day.
Meanwhile, the league really can’t play many more games because of a frequent lack of available playing dates. Back-to-back games in a physical sport like lacrosse don’t leave anyone happy. The only alternative is to start looking into weeknight games, and that would be difficult for a league that essentially is filled with players who are “weekend warriors” who would have trouble getting away from their “regular jobs” for such contests. You’d almost have to start over to find people who could be full-time players.
There are no short cuts to success here. It’s going to take a lot of hard work in order for the NLL to have a chance of taking a step forward in the immediate future rather than a step back.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)