Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Major League Lacrosse can’t get out of its own way. I have takes. The MLL’s early response to a new competitor is leaving a lot to be desired. By Dan Arestia

Major League Lacrosse can’t get out of its own way. I have takes.

The MLL’s early response to a new competitor is leaving a lot to be desired.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
It’s now been a week since news broke of a new outdoor lacrosse league that will begin play in the summer of 2019. The Premier Lacrosse League arrived with incredible fanfare, including a player pool of over 100 of the best players in the world, big name investors and advisors from the finance, media, and other verticals, and most notably a major broadcast partner in NBC.
We saw and heard about the PLL on Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, Cheddar, and other major news outlets, and naturally just about every lacrosse outlet. Most of the finer details about the PLL remain unreleased. Fans still don’t know who the coaches are, what venues will be used, what cities will be represented, even team formation is still a mystery. All anyone really knows is that star players are committed, a tour based model will be used, players will get league equity and other benefits along with a salary, and fans can watch on NBC, NBC Sports Network, and NBC Sports Gold.
Swallowed in the release and the anticipation tied to the PLL is the fact that Major League Lacrosse still exists, though it will have serious work to do if it wants to continue to do so.
The way the MLL has responded, not only to this week’s announcement but to the initial report by Bloomberg weeks prior, has been in the same style that likely got the world of pro lacrosse to this point. Poor approach, poor execution, poor visibility, and not at all fan friendly.
The MLL released statements this week going back over the improvements made this offseason, which include significant pay increases, a redesigned schedule, and roster size changes designed to help the players earning potential. A few individual teams issued statements along the same lines and the league statement, although most simply echoed the league release. The Lizards said, “you’ll be hard pressed to find a block that doesn’t have a lacrosse net in front of a house” on Long Island. Those nets were there before pro lacrosse existed, and they’ll be there for the foreseeable future regardless of how this goes. The only team that mentioned the PLL by name was the Boston Cannons, saying they were disappointed to learn some Cannons players may participate in the PLL (the last #1 overall pick Trevor Baptiste, along with Tim Muller, James Pannell, Sergio Perkovic, Justin Turri, Kevin Buchanan, Joe Nardella, and others are headed to the PLL).
When news of a new league broke in a Bloomberg article, Chesapeake Bayhawks owner Brendan Kelly said of the PLL to the Capital Gazette, “I think the key word here is proposed. Honestly, I don’t see it happening, but time will tell.” That was September 26th. Not exactly eons ago.
In the same piece from a month ago, Kelly said, “Strictly from a Bayhawks standpoint, we have the bulk of our team coming back. I don’t see us losing one player.”
A quick scan of the PLL player pool shows that Josh Byrne, Garrett Epple, Jake Froccaro, Myles Jones, Matt Danowski, Ian MacKay, and Matt Rees have all committed to join the PLL, leaving the Bayhawks. Did the Bayhawks really know this league was coming and expect to lose nobody? Fans will look at that and see a response that is some combination of arrogant, out of touch, and unrealistic.
In a US Lacrosse Magazine piece by Phil Shore released last week, Bayhawks President Mark Burdett said, “I don’t think it’s well understood in the MLL, rosters turnover pretty quickly. Every three years, you probably have 80 percent of your roster changing. The PLL will draw talent out, but it will be replaced pretty quickly. Even if the PLL didn’t exist, we’d be turning over our roster based on age and life commitments. That is the reality of professional lacrosse.”
Ok Bayhawks, did you expect not to lose one player, or did you expect massive roster turnover because that just sort of happens? I’d also like to see Burdett or the MLL produce data showing that 80% turnover is just “the reality of professional lacrosse.” And even if it were, why would fans want to accept that? Free agency and trades happen, but if the roster is almost entirely new every three years, that’s definitely a bad thing, right?
Consider that MLL teams can protect 23 players per year, preventing them from entering the supplemental draft or joining another team. Teams use these protections to keep their stars and top players with the team, often releasing or not protecting players who were practice squad members, potential retirees, injured players, etc. This isn’t unlike other sports, where teams make decisions about guys they don’t bring back every year. Having said that, the Cleveland Cavaliers replaced just over 60% of their minutes last season, and that’s the highest turnover since the NBA started tracking minutes over 60 years ago. The New England Patriots turned over 57% of their roster over the last two seasons, a number considered remarkably high given their success. These are seriously high rates on turnover and are seen as anomalies.
On the other end, the Green Bay Packers are frequently lauded for their efforts to have as little turnover as possible, with their draft picks spending a nearly full season longer with the team than the league average. Player turnover is a reality, but I don’t think 80% turnover is. If it was that high, we need to hear how the league is working to get that number down as much as possible, not just accepting it.
In that same piece, Burdett also said on refilling the roster, “There are a lot of good lacrosse players in Division II or Division III who weren’t looked at very seriously who might’ve improved their games or were injured.” That just comes across as condescending. Were players really not considered before based on the fact that they played in Division II or Division III? How do you know they needed to improve their games if you never seriously evaluated them? The reigning MLL Champion Denver Outlaws have a player named Max Adler taking draws for them, and he’s mentioned in the US Lax Mag piece. He’s also one of the only specifically named players in released statements from the MLL as evidence of the talent they still have. Adler has committed to remain in the MLL.
He went to Bentley, a Division II school. Maybe don’t admit to not giving due consideration to a specific player group, then pointing to that exact player group as evidence of the talent in the league.
Like the Bayhawks, other MLL teams lost large portions of their roster to the PLL, with some being left with barely enough to have fill a full MLL roster, if they can at all.
Fittingly, the MLL held a supplemental draft this week. If you didn’t hear about it, it’s because they didn’t tell anyone. According to Chris Jastrzembski, the MLL didn’t even tell the players being drafted, with some of those players finding out they’d been drafted via personnel from teams that didn’t even draft them. IL’s Kyle Devitte reported that MLL coaches were told not to talk to the media about the draft. They also charged players $10 to enter the player pool because...who knows. A post about the draft on the lacrosse subreddit is worth a look, if only to read the comments. These are what current fans are saying, and what potential fans are reading. That subreddit is small with only about 16,000 subscribers, but at this point the MLL can’t afford to ignore or dismiss voices like this.
Nearly a week later, we still haven’t seen the full results, only reports from Jastrzembski and some other Twitter accounts are reporting the draft status of individual players as they are able to source the info. We’ve only seen an extremely brief release from the MLL, acknowledging that the draft happened, and results would be released soon. That statement, coupled with the lack of released results, just doesn’t play well. You had a draft because of high interest in playing in the league, but you won’t tell us who was drafted or what team they were drafted to? Could that be because, as has now been reported, many of those players drafted are also waiting to hear if the PLL is an option for them, and that’s the league they prefer?
We’ve also seen response from new MLL commissioner Sandy Brown, who told Yahoo Financelast week, “(Paul Rabil) didn’t want to be part of an org chart. But a rising tide lifts all boats. And we have a different model from PLL, they’re looking at individual players, we look at things through the lens of our teams and our cities.”
We’ve since learned that a number of now former MLL players had been part of efforts to work with the league on improving the MLL’s visibility, market presence, and commercial success for years. The push to work with the league and improve the situation for everyone has been going on for quite some time. Rabil (and multiple players before him) made efforts to work with the MLL to build a better league. Ultimately, the starting of a new league appears to have been the very last thing these players wanted to do, but here we are. Why put it out there that these players didn’t make efforts to be part of an MLL solution when they so clearly did? It’s just mudslinging that serves absolutely nobody.
While the MLL off-season changes are significant, they pale in comparison to what is offered by the PLL, and seem to be too little too late.
The MLL needed to be honest with itself and with the lacrosse community this week. A serious competitor has arrived. You have Rob Pannell and Lyle Thompson? They have commitments from over 100 of the most talented players on the planet, including most of Team USA. The MLL All-Star team from last year, with eight exceptions, is leaving (Matt Abbott, Michael Manley, Austin Kaut, Eric Law, Jeremy Sieverts, Stephen Kelly, Zach Currier, and Isaiah Davis-Allen).
You upped salary? Their salaries are still higher and they offer players equity in the league, health insurance, and other benefits.
You’re on ESPN+ once a week? They’re on NBC and NBCSN.
You’re in nine markets? The PLL says their touring model will allow them to touch almost any major market in the nation, without the issues that come with not owning venues. We still haven’t heard about coaches, but let’s just say when the Charlotte Hounds announced Head Coach Jim Stagnitta wouldn’t be back next year, everyone started to assume where he was headed, whether or not that’s even the case. We don’t know much about corporate sponsorships and partnerships with the PLL yet, but the investor group would suggest it’ll be heavy hitters, and they’ll be seriously engaged with the league.
If the MLL is serious about sticking around, now is the time to put maximum effort into attracting new fans, improving visibility, and making sure that stars of the future want to play in your league. Patronizing players who didn’t play Division I, having a supplemental draft that nobody knows about, putting out mixed messages about your rosters, and continuing to push improvements that don’t raise your league to the level of your new competitor says three things. It says you weren’t that organized to begin with, you didn’t take your competition seriously, and being transparent and fan friendly isn’t that important to you. Oh, and it sure won’t endear you to the stars of the future currently playing college ball. The MLL needs to assume that a guy like Pat Spencer has already decided on the PLL and then spend the next several months changing his mind.
In the aforementioned US Lax Magazine piece, Brown said that the MLL “is just getting started” when it comes to changes.
I hope they’re coming soon Sandy, because if you’re going to survive, things need to be way better in a hurry. If for one second the PLL loses any steam from this weeks huge buzz, they’ll have a major announcement and they go right to the top of the list again. And again when they announce coaches, and venues, and on and on until June is here.
Maybe I’m going to be wrong about all this. The MLL also recently announced it would be undergoing a serious rebrand, with a new logo/website/etc coming soon. That’s well and good, and maybe that kick starts a refreshed interest with some new fans. But things were already trending in the wrong direction, as average MLL attendance has dropped every year since 2011.
If the MLL doesn’t get its act together, they’ll be all but forgotten about before the next season sees a faceoff, rebrand or not. No more statements, no more thinly veiled shots at your new competition. Turning the next eight months into you vs them is a battle that does the sport more harm than good. Show lacrosse fans you care about their attention and their support. Major League Lacrosse hasn’t done it effectively since last Monday, and it should have been priority number one.