The NLL is a niche league. Get used to it. (Part I)

OK, that’s it. It’s over. Everybody out of the pool. With the Swarm announcing that they’re moving and the Rush announcing that they’re probably moving, I think I’m done with the whole idea of the NLL becoming the fifth major team sport in North America.

For years my hope has been that eventually, the NLL would be up there with the NHL and NBA as one of the major sports leagues in North America. Take hockey, mix in some basketball rules, take the ice away and what’s not to love, right? It’s bound to grow until the players are making millions and everybody knows about lacrosse!

But it never happened. The hope has always been there but reality is setting in, and I am now convinced that it’s not going to happen.

The problem

The bottom line: You can’t be a major sports league with this much team movement. But you can’t get rid of the team movement until you become a major sports league. Obviously there’s a problem there. The alternative is to have a bunch of committed owners who know they are likely to lose money but keep going anyway. The more Curt Styres’s and Jamie Dawicks the league has, the better. But even that isn’t enough. Bruce Urban is just as committed to his team, but look at where the Edmonton Rush are: top of the standings but near the bottom of the attendance list, and on the verge of relocating because they can’t draw enough people.

A few different solutions have been tried. You can’t be a big-time league without teams in the biggest cities, right? New York, Los Angeles (Anaheim), Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston – all failed. Maybe we should try the smaller but still big markets: Phoenix, Baltimore, San Jose, Pittsburgh – all failed. Even supposed lacrosse hotbeds like Syracuse, Vancouver, and Albany have tried and failed. Vancouver was given a second chance, but has come in last or second-last in attendance in each of the last two years. And now they’re talking about Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a place that most Americans can’t say, let alone find on a map.

The good ol' daysThere are two categories here. Some of them folded because nobody wanted to see a losing team so attendance was low, and I guess ownership wasn’t willing to give it enough time to get better. Anaheim, New Jersey, Ottawa, and Charlotte (among others) all failed but their teams sucked so it’s at least somewhat understandable. But then there’s the second category, that of teams that failed despite success on the floor. Albany, New York, and Portland each went to the finals. Arizona did it twice. Washington did it three times and won one of them. Boston never got to the finals but were a very good team for three years. It’s frustrating because we can’t say to prospective owners “Yes, you’ll lose money for a couple of years but once your team gets good, you’ll be fine” because there are too many examples of where that hasn’t been true.

Now we have the same thing happening to both Minnesota in the first category (haven’t made the playoffs in 2 years, have only finished above .500 once since 2008) and Edmonton in the second (one of the best teams this year, arguably one of the best in NLL history last year).

The league can’t afford the bigger markets because rent at the big-name arenas is too high. This was a big part of the problems for New York, Philly, and Boston, and also the reason that the Chicago team was based in wherever-the-hell-it-was outside of the city. This is also a big concern for both the Swarm and Rush. Even the Toronto Rock have talked about moving because the rent would be cheaper. But they also know that attendance would plummet, so Jamie Dawick keeps coughing up the big coin to stay at the ACC. The Mammoth, Bandits, and Roughnecks get away with it because they are owned by the same people who own the arena.

Say, that gives me an idea…

Continued tomorrow


2 thoughts on “The NLL is a niche league. Get used to it. (Part I)

  1. You nailed it. Nobody has a proven recipe for success (ie being profitable) in this league. Big cities = big potential audience but also expensive arena rent. Hot-beds of field lacrosse are not necessarily interested in box lax. For fans who whine that attendance would be better if their team was winning, the Stealth (and possibly soon the Rush) provide the perfect rebuttal.

    One thing you didn’t touch upon is that so many of the players don’t want to play for teams that are more than 50 miles from Lake Ontario. That makes it hard for all the other teams to hold onto skilled veteran players. When every season is a revolving door of rookies it is hard for the fans to establish and maintain a bond with the team. IMHO, that was the final nail in the coffin for the Swarm.


  2. Pingback: The NLL is a niche league. Get used to it. (Part II) | NLL Chatter

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