Welcome to the Machine: Pro Lax Debuts in Chicago
The Chicago Machine-- one of four Major League Lacrosse expansion teams debuting this season, along with the Denver Outlaws, the Los Angeles Riptide, and the San Francisco Dragons-- made their home opener Saturday afternoon at Benedictine University in Lisle, IL. The game itself wasn't exactly a barn burner, the Machine fell to San Francisco 21-9, but while in attendance, the question that kept coming to my mind was: what are the long term chances of success for the MLL?
Reasons for optimism:
- The pro game is faster and higher scoring than the college game. The MLL rule book differs significantly than that of the NCAA: there is a 60 second shot clock, a two-point line (15 yards from the goal), a limit of 3 long stick defensemen, and limited substitutions. As a result, the pace of the game is quicker and fast breaks are much more frequent.
- The game is extremely physical. Nothing gets the crowd buzzing like a big hit and there were several on Saturday, most of which were violent enough to make Ronnie Lott proud. The hitting is a mixture of the checking, slashing, and hooking found in hockey and the open-field, full speed body blocks found in football.
- The players are world class. This was evident in more than one way during Saturday's game in Chicago. Unlike the indoor National Lacrosse League (which is not a direct competitor), the MLL features the cream of the NCAA D-1 crop. Two rookies who played in Memorial Day's championship game, Sean Morris of UMass and Michael Culver of Virginia, made their debuts for the Machine. Culver was a first team All American defender while Morris and fellow Chicago rookie Joe Boulukos are finalists for this season's Tewaarton Trophy (the lacrosse equivalent of the Heisman trophy).
Meanwhile, attackman and Syracuse alum Ryan Powell played his first game for San Francisco after being traded from Rochester and registered 3 goals. The league has some star power with guys like Powell, New Jersey's Kyle Harrison, Baltimore's Mark Millon, and Boston's Conor Gill. The MLL must find a way to keep its stars happy and in the fold before the National Lacrosse League launches it's new outdoor league and attempts to woo them away.
- The athletes are accessible. After Saturday's game, fans were allowed to mingle along the benches of the teams, shaking hands, taking pictures, and grabbing autographs. Every player remained on the sidelines signing for each and every kid that asked. Powell admirably signed for at least 15 minutes, even chatting on a fan's cell phone, despite the fact that his smoking hot girlfriend waited nearby.
- The sport is growing. Lacrosse offers a blend of contact and high scoring that isn't found elsewhere in sports. Perhaps this is the reason why many high schools are adding lacrosse and the number of youth leagues is at an all time high. It all starts with the kids, noobies. Can't fight against the youth.
Reasons for pessimism:
- The MLL is receiving some TV exposure, ESPN 2 features a game of the week on Tuesdays and games are covered locally by stations like Comcast Sportsnet, but the games are shown on tape delay. The delay takes away credibility from the game. No fan likes hearing scripted commentary or having portions of the action removed so that the game can fit into a tidy 2 hour time block.
- The league needs to market its product more effectively. In the spring, Notre Dame and Cornell played on the same field at Benedictine and that game outdrew the Machine's home opener by more than 1000. Much of the difference at the gate can be attributed to a huge number of youth lacrosse players and their families at the college game. Those in charge had given away tickets to youth leagues in the hopes that if the kids wanted to come, their families would follow. It worked. The MLL should adopt a similar strategy, as well as lower ticket prices below $20. Otherwise, the league might price itself out of the market quicker than Matt Harrington.
- The players need to be paid a full-time salary. Currently, the players are paid around $18,000 for the season, which runs from May through August. This means that players must also work full time jobs and are not able to devote themselves fully to the sport. Many top players even sit out the occassional season, including Ryan Powell's brothers Mikey and Casey. If the season was extended by a month or so, perhaps there would be enough money to support full-time lacrosse players. Not only would the quality of play improve, but players could spend more time being ambassadors of the game.
- I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the MLL was founded by legendary meathead Jake Steinfeld, of "Body by Jake" fame. Try not to let that ruin it for you.
Reasons to care:
This is a pivotal year for the MLL, as it will face direct competition next summer. Recent dialogue between the league and the Players Council give hope that all parties will be able to work together and elevate the sport while remaining its premier league. Then again, perhaps the second league will weaken the game's solidarity and divide fan interest.
On a larger scale, lacrosse is America's oldest game, invented by Native Americans, but what is the future of the sport? Are we witnessing the beginning of lacrosse's prominence or is the American sports landscape too crowded as it is? It would seem that the sport has the necessary ingredients to take off, but how far along is lacrosse in its development? And is the sport in good hands?
At any rate, its a unique and ongoing case study in the business of sports and one that Noob Sports will continue to keep an eye on.