We all know that the NLL is expanding this coming season, with the Philadelphia Wings and San Diego Seals beginning play in a few months. Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz has said that these two were the first in a number of expansion teams planned for the next few years, and the next of these was named on Thursday, sort of. The NLL has seen its share of strange relocation situations, and here’s one more. We kind of have two new teams and one relocating team, but the total number of teams in the league only went up by one.
In two separate announcements separated by about four hours, the league announced that (I’ll need to word this carefully) current Rochester Knighthawks owner Curt Styres will be the owner of a new NLL franchise in Halifax. In addition, Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Bandits, will be the owners of an expansion franchise in Rochester which will be called the Knighthawks and retain the history of the brand. Both teams will begin play in the 2019-2020 season. The current Knighthawks will continue to be owned and operated by Styres during the upcoming 2018-2019 season.
The simplest way to look at it is that Styres sold the Knighthawks to the Pegulas and is buying an expansion franchise in Halifax. But there’s one sentence in the Halifax press release that makes the situation more complicated than that: “The Halifax franchise will begin play during the 2019-20 season at Scotiabank Centre, with many of the players on the current Knighthawks’ roster.” What? Usually when you buy a sports franchise, you get the team name and brand as well as its employees and players. In this case, the Pegulas are buying a franchise and getting everything but the players. Meanwhile Styres is buying a new franchise but bringing his players with him. On the other hand (and coast), the Vancouver team was sold this summer and the players are the only thing the new owners are keeping.
The Knighthawks will be an expansion franchise and will have five Championships. Meanwhile the brand new Halifax team will be a team full of players who have been playing together for many years. This league is weird.
I said on an Addicted to Lacrosse episode last season that I didn’t like the idea of multiple ownership because of the possibility of trades and deals that make one team better at the expense of the other – trades that would never happen if the teams were owned by different people. I gave the possibility of the Bandits, doing well at the box office, trading an exciting player like Dhane Smith to the Knighthawks, who are struggling a little more at the gate, for very little return. This could increase Rochester’s attendance more than it would decrease Buffalo’s, thus increasing the overall revenue for the two clubs. This is unfair to the Bandits but if the overall picture is better, a single owner might not care. Two separate owners would.
I’ve kind of changed my mind on that, because the league approves all trades, and so it has sufficient oversight that such an obvious move would likely not be allowed. But now we have a similar situation: an owner making deals for a team that will be his own competition a year from now. Is Styres taking Rochester’s future draft picks with him? If during the upcoming season he trades a player away for a draft pick, does he take that pick with him to Halifax, or is he leaving it for the Pegulas?
More importantly, if he trades a future draft pick away for a player, whose pick is that? In a normal world, Styres might trade the Knighthawks’ first round picks in 2020 and 2021 for, say, Corey Small. A bit expensive but not outrageous. But Styres won’t be the GM of Rochester in 2020 or 2021, and he’ll likely take Small with him to Halifax, so the Knighthawks give up two first round picks for a one season rental of Corey Small. That’s a little steep.
Styres doesn’t take control of the Halifax team until after the 2019 season ends, so would Styres – while still GM of the Knighthawks – be allowed to trade Halifax’s first round picks for Small? In that case, the Knighthawks get a full season of Corey Small for nothing, which they are probably OK with. But that would mean that Styres has two sets of draft picks to play with for a year*. Does that seem right to you? The league will have to watch any deals that Styres makes this season very carefully – not because he will make deals that are unfair (he seems to me to be a man of integrity), but the league needs to make sure that none of these deals even appears to be unfair.
* Update: I’m incorrect here. As Steve Bermel points out, any draft picks acquired or traded away by Styres move with the team to Halifax. If Styres trades away Rochester’s picks in 2020 and 2021, those move with the team so Halifax will not have picks those years while the new Rochester franchise will.
If I had to hire a GM to build me a winning NLL team from scratch, the only person I’d put ahead of Curt Styres is Derek Keenan. But perhaps Styres isn’t interested in starting over and (warning: total speculation ahead) told the league that the Halifax deal was contingent on him being able to take the roster with him. The league wants the Halifax team but doesn’t want to lose a great owner and lacrosse mind like Styres, so they allowed it. The Pegulas are famously indifferent to the comings and goings of the Bandits, so I doubt they cared.
The Halifax team is rumoured to be known as the Privateers (a trademark has been registered by the NLL). Privateers were basically pirates under another name, which makes sense since Curt Styres is stealing the Knighthawks roster and taking it with him. Another way to look at it is that Styres is taking his team to Halifax, but the Pegulas are stealing the Knighthawks name from him. What’s another name for people who steal stuff? Bandits.