As a lacrosse fan, you want the new Premier Lacrosse League to succeed without killing off Major League Lacrosse in the process.
If you are a realist, however, you worry that the prophecy for these two leagues is the same as that for Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, the mortal enemies from the hugely popular book series by J.K. Rowling.
Their intertwined futures were summed up in one phrase: “Neither can live while the other survives.”
Whether one or both leagues can thrive and survive is an open question that starts playing out in 2019. While casual fans should be optimistic, they also should be concerned.
For the better part of two decades now, Major League Lacrosse has shown that the world is barely ready for one pro field lacrosse league. While the Boston Cannons have been a staple throughout, the league has mostly had less-than-ideal television contracts, has been a mix of stable and struggling franchises, has seen steady — but not necessarily growing — attendance, and more.
Now, superstar Paul Rabil and some big-time investors have formed the Premier Lacrosse League, which they promise will be an improved model.
While many details still are being worked out, the PLL starts out with two key advantages: star power and exposure.
Rabil and his ownership group published a wow-worthy list of players on the league’s website, premierlacrosseleague.com. There were nine pro lacrosse MVPs, 10 Tewaaraton Award winners, 25 current or former members of the U.S. national team, and about 90 former college All-Americans. Perhaps more important is that the list of players reads like the roster for the MLL’s All-Star Game.
The PLL’s plan is to avoid lacrosse overload by playing after the college season ends — a timing issue the MLL always has struggled with — and to have a six-team “touring league.” While the six franchises will each have their own management groups and unique rosters, the teams themselves will not have a home stadium in which they play the bulk of their games.
Instead, the league will bring weekend events to 12 different major markets in 15 weeks starting June 1. It’s akin to the women’s semipro leagues, which have their game weekends around big club tournaments, thereby improving potential attendance; while every team has a home city, the squads seldom play games there.
The PLL structure is an improvement on the old LXM Pro Tour, which, like the PLL, was founded by players and held as weekend events that mixed sports with concerts, clinics and more. Teams varied and changed regularly, effectively leaving fans to root for individuals rather than “the home team.”
LXM held events from 2010 to the beginning of 2014, when its founders struck a marketing deal with MLL. Under the terms of that agreement, the tour could have continued, using MLL players during the league’s offseason, but no subsequent events ever were scheduled.
The PLL is hoping to effectively turn each weekend into something of a mini-Final Four, akin to what happens when the NCAA rolls into a town with its tournament championship every Memorial Day.
Anyone in attendance at Gillette Stadium this past spring knows just how big that event can be; but to assume that you can replicate that once-a-year excitement on a regular basis is a stretch.
The PLL starts off with high expectations, particularly for the players, who have been told they will earn full-time salaries and benefits. That would make lacrosse their full-time job instead of a well-paid, enjoyable side gig, potentially ramping up the quality of play even more.
Throw in the innovations that Rabil and his television partners at NBC are likely to come up with for the broadcasts, and you have the potential for great lacrosse theater.
The question remains, however, whether many fans will care.
Yes, all PLL games will be presented live by NBC Sports Group, and the championship game will be broadcast on NBC itself — with the potential to reach 120 million homes — but 17 games will be carried by the NBC Sports Network and roughly half of all games will be on NBC Sports Gold, an over-thetop subscription service.
Network exposure is progress, but this kind of deal alone won’t make players and organizers rich.
As much as everyone talks about the growth of lacrosse, you can’t prove it so much in ticket sales. Final Four attendance at Gillette was up this year, but the 60,000 people who saw the semifinals and finals were just 200 more than attended the 2016 games in Philadelphia; prior to 2016, championship weekend attendance had declined for eight straight years.
MLL attendance has been falling for years, particularly in Boston. The Cannons’ seasonbest 67,534 — an average crowd of 9,647 over seven games — was recorded as they attempted to defend their one league title in 2012; the league’s total attendance mark of 314,096 was set that summer, too, according to Pointstreak.com.
Last season, the Cannons drew 26,176 fans, an average of just 3,739 per game. League-wide, attendance was 228,000, off more than 25 percent in the last six years.
It’s hard to believe that the MLL’s improvements for the upcoming season — two additional regular-season games, bigger rosters, an additional player dressed on game day, improved salaries for players and more — will somehow stem the flagging attendance. The loss of many star players might not be as devastating as the PLL expects (the MLL’s peak attendance years came during the run of the LXM Pro Tour, when plenty of star players never opted to join the MLL teams that drafted them), but it certainly won’t help.
Not many lacrosse fans remember the Boston Militia, who went 2-2 before the American Lacrosse League — an early predecessor of the MLL — folded after five weeks in 1988. No one wants to see either of the new leagues have that same fate, and yet it is hard to imagine two leagues thriving and delivering on their promises to players and fans long-term.
Instead, these two sides likely are battling to survive until one capitulates or they agree to merge. Pro lacrosse is coming to a crossroads, a collision point in the road.
Fans need to hope that their interest in the pro game isn’t a casualty in this fight.