Publish date:

Hanging In There Low salaries and fast action: National Lacrosse League's 15-year success formula

Honoring a clause in their contracts that requires them to
mingle with fans after home games, the 23 members of the
Montreal Express last Thursday night headed to Le Cage aux
Sports, a watering hole in the team's arena, the Molson Centre.
Nursing beers, the players reflected on their victory in the
franchise's first home game in the National Lacrosse League
(NLL), a 23-16 win over the Calgary Roughnecks. "Hey, we're the
Express, right?" said Montreal forward Ted Dowling, who scored
six goals. "We still need to pick up steam, but we're on the
right track."

Dowling could have been speaking about the whole NLL. Founded in
1986 as a four-team association called the Eagle Pro Box
Lacrosse League, it has quietly chugged along for 15 years.
Today, the NLL has 13 independently owned franchises in the U.S.
and Canada. More than half the league's teams expect to make a
profit this season, and commissioner Jim Jennings claims that
dozens of investors across North America have recently inquired
about buying an expansion franchise, which costs $1 million. The
league even has star cachet: Former NBA All-Star and NBC
commentator Jayson Williams paid $500,000 to buy the New Jersey
Storm last spring. "Ideally we'll become a truly national league
in the U.S. and hit markets like L.A and Chicago," says
Jennings, "but we've come a long way."

The NLL faces the same challenges that confront all fledgling
sports leagues: selling sponsorships, securing television
coverage and putting fans in the stands. In Canada the NLL has
partnered with big-time companies like Molson, Motorola and
Wendy's, but in the U.S. six of the league's eight $250,000
sponsorship slots are unsold. Though CNN/SI broadcasts a game of
the week in the U.S., it doesn't pay a rights fee. The average
attendance of 9,000 per game is robust but unevenly distributed.
The champion Philadelphia Wings average 15,000 fans, and the
Toronto Rock routinely sells out the 18,800-seat Air Canada
Centre. Others, like the Albany Attack, are lucky to draw 5,000.

Lacrosse may be among the fastest growing youth sports in
America, but it's still largely a regional game, so alien in
markets outside the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada that
NLL teams such as the Columbus Landsharks dispense a list of
rules to fans. A league survey last season revealed that only
11% of NLL fans have played the sport. "Basketball teams can
court basketball fans," says Jennings. "If we cater only to
lacrosse fans, we won't make it."

The league has a rigid wage scale. For the 16-game regular
season that extends from November to March, players' salaries
range from $5,800 for rookies to a maximum of $18,125 for top
players. At a time when teams in other sports devote half their
expenditures to player salaries, an NLL team might spend only
20% of its budget on wages. Montreal VP of operations Bruce
Todman says the Express spent as much for a 200-foot-by-85-foot
playing surface ($150,000) as it will on salaries. "The salary
scale lets us keep ticket prices reasonable," he says, "so we
see it as a plus."

The players, not surprisingly, don't. Most have to supplement
their lacrosse income with a 9-to-5 job, usually in another
city. The league's reigning MVP, forward John Tavares of the
Buffalo Bandits, moonlights as a Toronto schoolteacher. "If they
paid us enough just to play lacrosse, every player in the league
would do it," says Montreal forward Mat Giles, a carpenter in
Peterborough, Ont., who commutes five hours by train to games.
"The quality of play would be better because we could train full
time and practice together more." Another drawback to the
part-time wages: It's difficult for the teams to build an
identity in the community or market star players when the
athletes live elsewhere.

Fortunately, the sport can sell itself. Players bristle at the
comparison, but indoor lacrosse resembles hockey. It features
frantic six-on-six action, violent checking, exhilarating
breakaways and the odd brawl. In contrast to hockey, lacrosse,
especially in its indoor version, is high-scoring. Last
Thursday, Montreal scored in the first 12 seconds and by the end
of the first quarter led 9-3.

For an average ticket price of $15, NLL fans get a major league
experience, but some of the loudest cheers of the night come
when the P.A. announcer invites the crowd to join the players
for a postgame libation. "No matter what happens to the league,"
says Montreal captain and forward Tracey Kelusky, "we'll always
be willing to have a beer with our fans."

COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT New York (left) and New Jersey are two of the NLL's 13 independently owned teams.