NLL team movement: Here we go again?

It was announced on Monday (and the league confirmed it on Tuesday) that the New England Black Wolves will be relocating to Albany for the 2021-2022 season.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

OK, maybe that snarky comment is a little unfair since we haven’t had nearly the team movement over the past ten seasons or so as we did over the previous… all of them.

In the ten years from 2002-2011, the NLL added 11 teams, remove 10, and relocated 5. Not a single season began with the exact same teams as the previous year. In fact, in the nineteen seasons from 1994-2012, there were no consecutive seasons with the same teams. At least one team was added, moved, or folded every single year. “Stability” was not a word the NLL was familiar with at the time.

In contrast, from 2012-2021, there were four teams added (Philly, San Diego, Rochester, New York, plus Panther City coming next year), one removed (Boston), and five relocations (six if you include the Vancouver Stealth becoming the Vancouver Warriors). There were three seasons in that time where the number and location of teams didn’t change from the previous season, and for the first time in the thirty-year history of the league, we had three consecutive seasons (2016-2018) with the same teams.

But back to New England. No reason was given by the Black Wolves ownership group for selling the team, but it’s very likely the same reason as the sale of just about every other team: they were losing money. It’s no secret that attendance in New England wasn’t stellar. Most games in Buffalo or Calgary had double the attendance of your average Black Wolves home game, and most games in Saskatchewan had triple.

Aside: the Mohegan Sun group (owners of the Black Wolves) made no secret of the fact that they bought the team mainly to bring more people into the casino, or at least have them spend more time (and thus money) there. The COVID-19 pandemic likely cut Mohegan Sun’s revenue significantly, and so it likely played a big role in this decision, but we have no way to know. I’m not going to pretend that attendance was the only reason for selling the team, but it’s the only real numbers we have.

Photo credit: Sarah Gordon, TheDay.com

In their six seasons in New England, the Black Wolves averaged 4,871 fans per home game. This is 35th overall in the history of NLL teams, which is not great but it’s ahead of 11 other teams including the New York Riptide, Ontario Raiders, and each of the San Jose, Washington, and Vancouver Stealths.

But if you exclude their first two seasons, their average jumps to 5,420 per game. Still not spectacular, but higher than the Georgia Swarm and last year’s Knighthawks.

So how does Albany compare? Albany’s four-year average was 4,201. Oddly, their lowest season average was 3,508 when they were 14-2 and lost in the Championship game to the Rock. That said, they did get over 5,000 fans out to the semi-final game that year and almost 9,300 to the final.

But the Attack played in the NLL from 2000-2003, so the numbers we’re talking about here were literally decades ago. An awful lot can change in that amount of time. I won’t go over all of the recent changes in Albany since Bob Chavez already has on IL Indoor.

The Black Wolves were bought by an ownership group led by a man named Oliver Marti, who played in the NLL for the New York Saints in 1994-1995. He and others in his investment group are also investors in the PLL. Does this mean that the team will definitely succeed in Albany? Of course not. But in the 2000’s, the NLL was filled with rich team owners who seemed to have watched half a lacrosse game and thought “I can bring this sport to <random city> and make some bucks!”. The entirely of the league’s due diligence was the question “Do you have the $2 million expansion fee?”, after which the rich guy was granted a franchise which they sold or folded a couple of years later.

Marti was a good enough lacrosse player to make the NLL, which means he’s probably played since he was a kid. He’s been around the sport and the league long enough to know how difficult it is to make money as an owner of an NLL team. This is also the first NLL team that’s been purchased and moved since, ironically, the Philadelphia Wings were bought and moved to New England in 2014. I have a lot more trust in the league’s ability to vet potential owners and markets now than 15-20 years ago.

Yes, this kind of thing used to happen all the time in the NLL, and so a lot of long-time fans are probably thinking “here we go again”. But it’s not nearly as common anymore. I’m not saying Albany will be the next Saskatchewan, but they probably won’t need to pull in 15,000 people per game in order to make money. I’m hopeful but since I was around during the crazy 2000’s, I’ll call it “cautious optimism.”

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