August 22, 2012

MLL Championship Weekend returns to Boston

J.J. Morrissey of the Boston Cannons leads his team through Harvard Stadium before a game against Denver last month. (photo: Getty Images)

When the Boston Cannons broke through for the franchise’s first Major League Lacrosse championship last August, several players and members of the staff said the only thing that could have made the moment better would have been if the team could have celebrated its victory in front of its home fans at Harvard Stadium.

This weekend, the Cannons may have their chance.

For the first time since 2008, MLL Championship Weekend returns to Boston on Saturday, Aug. 25 and Sunday, Aug. 26 at Harvard Stadium. The last time Boston hosted the event — which was held in Annapolis, Md., the past three seasons — the Cannons did not qualify for the semifinals. The singular goal in the final weeks of the regular season was to make sure that part of history does not repeat.

“This year is special to host it because we’re in defense mode,” Cannons founding owner Matt Dwyer said. “It’s vitally important that we actually be here to mount that defense.”

The Cannons did qualify for Championship Weekend, and as the No. 3 seed will face No. 2 Chesapeake on Saturday, Aug. 25 at 4 p.m. No. 1 Denver will face No. 4 Long Island in the other semifinal, with the winners meeting for the championship on Sunday.

It wasn’t until April 28 of this year that the Cannons got to celebrate the 2011 title with the home fans as they unveiled a championship banner in front of 9,124 spectators. That game marked the first in a series of impressive crowds that grew to record levels for the franchise and reaffirmed Boston as a growing lacrosse market.

The Cannons set a franchise regular-season game record of 11,277 fans for the May 12 game vs. the Hamilton Nationals and topped that with a gate of 11,894 on June 9 vs. the Long Island Lizards. Those numbers were achieved despite stiff competition in the Boston sports market both days. The Boston Celtics hosted Philadelphia in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals five miles away in Boston’s North End on May 12, and the Celtics played Miami in Game 7 of the conference finals June 9. The Boston Red Sox also had home games at Fenway Park — about three miles away — on the same days.

“(Cannons general manager) Kevin Barney and his staff have done a great job with marketing this year,” Dwyer said. “We’re ahead of our budget this year (through the July 19 game vs. the Denver Outlaws), and we gave that budget a bump over last year. So we’re very happy about that.”

Last year’s championship weekend, which was played as Hurricane Irene bore down on the East Coast for the semifinal round, drew only 5,027 for the final played under sunny skies in Annapolis.

“It made sense to move championship weekend here,” MLL commissioner David Gross said, “where we’ve had some success with crowds. The last time we had it here was in 2008 and we had a great crowd then even though Boston wasn’t even in it.”

Boston hosted the MLL All-Star Game the past two years — drawing 11,771 in 2010 and 11,186 in 2011 — before that event was moved to test market a potential expansion location in Tampa, Fla., this summer in a game that drew less than 5,000 fans. (The league has announced Charlotte as the site of the 2013 All-Star event.)

The MLL semifinals will be held at 1 and 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25, with the title game starting at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 26. Parking lots will be open for tailgating at 10 a.m. each day.

The hope for the MLL is not only to showcase some of the best lacrosse talent in the world but also allow fans to enjoy the city with the Allston stadium’s proximity to downtown Boston as well as Harvard Square in Cambridge.

“People really enjoy coming to Boston,” Dwyer said. “It’s a tourism city. People like to be on the water, and we’re on the water. We have a little more going on than they do down in Annapolis, even though Annapolis is a great venue as well.

“That stadium has a lot of great history at the Naval Academy. But this stadium has more history than probably any stadium in the country. So we would love to add to that history by winning a title here. This stadium is 109 years old and no (Boston team) has ever won a (professional) lacrosse championship here.”

The Cannons hosted the playoffs at Boston University’s Nickerson Field in 2004 and 2005, as well as at Harvard Stadium in 2008, when the Cannons failed to make the playoff cut. In 2004, the Cannons made their only title game prior to last year and lost an early lead in a 13-11 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Barrage.

“From a marketing standpoint, selling championship weekend, having the home team always helps,” said Gross, who was vice president and general manager of the Cannons from 2000 to 2003 before moving to the league office, which is also located in Boston. “But Boston wasn’t in it in ’08, Chesapeake in 2009 wasn’t in the playoffs, and we had big crowds for all of it.

“All we really care about it is having a great event.”

You can’t say the same for Dwyer.

“It’s a home championship weekend,” he said. “We owe it to our fans to be defending it at home — especially after we won away last year. It would be great to get a title on our home field. Every one of our guys is committed to making that happen.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.