If You Build It, Will They Come?
This is paraphrased from Field of Dreams in which Kevin Costner’s character builds a baseball field in an Iowa cornfield. He hears, “If you build it, they will come.” over and over throughout the movie. Great movie, watch it if you can, but what does that have to do with lacrosse?
Well, here it is – the future of lacrosse.
We keep hearing that lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the country. I’ve seen it first-hand in my travels. Florida, Kentucky, Indiana, Texas, Utah, Colorado, California.
Out of those states, how many do you think have Division I men’s lacrosse programs? Five?
Utah, Colorado, Kentucky, and Indiana, and Florida. That’s right. California, Texas, and Florida, the three most populous states in the country, have one college men’s D-I lacrosse program. Those three states have great youth travel programs. I bet, in a couple years, they will have the best programs, they are knocking on that door now. But overall the exposure to the sport, in general, is lacking.
Where I live, Carmel, Indiana, is within a five-hour drive of five D-I men’s teams. Notre Dame, Bellarmine, Ohio State, Michigan, and Marquette. But it’s rare that I can watch them on television. ESPN had competitive corn hole and English Darts on broadcast TV, while lacrosse was streamed online. So is it really growing? How do we know? Participation is growing, but are we growing fans with it?
College lacrosse is a net-loss sport, so that doesn’t incentivize growth. It needs to make money to develop. Fans spend money, networks spend money. The Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference each have their own networks. Notre Dame football has NBC.
This is where the movie quote as mentioned earlier should be whispered. “If you build it, they will come.”
College sports is an enormous business, and it might be time for these big powerful programs to start throwing their weight around. Notre Dame, Michigan, and Ohio State. You want their football games, you air a certain amount of their lacrosse games. They have substantial national fan bases. I’m sure if Notre Dame had a coin flipping contest it would draw viewers from their rabid fan base. The NCAA should also streamline the schedule, two days a week, Thursday and Saturday. Like college football, use that as a model and utilize pregame shows like College GameDay.
February through May college football is done so lacrosse can plug right in. Sure, college basketball is on at that time, but that ends in March/early April. They can coincide with each other just put the game on TV and let the viewer decide. If I told a network when they started airing college football that they will lose money for 10-straight years, but for the next 40 it would be a huge cash cow, they wouldn’t hesitate. I’m saying network TV. Not streaming. Streaming can accompany it. But I haven’t walked into a sports bar and said to the bartender, “can you stream that game on so-and-so .com. But if I ask to flip on channel 120, they do it without a problem. You grow the game by giving free and easy access to new viewers.
The TMZ Effect
When TMZ started on television, they stalked movie stars, musicians, and real celebrities. But what if they couldn’t always offer insight into the private lives of the biggest celebrities? Their show and bottom line would suffer. So what did they do?
They created the personalities they reported on. Instead of George Clooney and Brad Pitt maybe once a week, it was Paris Hilton every day. TMZ made her famous by always putting her on TV. Hence she was a “celebrity” then they reported on said “celebrity.” Great business model.
Perception is the reality. That business model grew and grew until you got Kim Kardashian, whose celebrity was born out of Paris Hilton’s created fame. You may scoff at that, but TMZ made her a star, and now she and her family are a billion-dollar brand. TV networks and colleges can do the same thing. Hype lacrosse as the next big thing so much that it becomes a self-fulling prophecy. They just created a new revenue stream. Good for networks, good for college athletic departments, great for fans.
With the inevitable growth of college lacrosse, fans will want to follow their favorite players to the professional level. To say that there is dysfunction in the professional ranks would be an understatement. There are three professional leagues: National Lacrosse League (NLL), Major Lacrosse League (MLL) & the recently announced Premier Lacrosse League (PLL).
The NLL is indoor and is excellent to watch. Fast, skilled and just the right amount of violence. A high percentage of players are now double dipping and playing the indoor (box) game and the outdoor (field) game. The owners and players have just settled a contract dispute and the opening of the season is going to be delayed. You can’t make this up. You can’t grow the game by not playing the game. Word of caution to NLL owners, you may think you’re the only game in town, but that can change quickly.
That brings me to the MLL. Up until now, this is where you could watch your favorite college players going on to the next level. I love the MLL games and players, but I hate the league. Trying to watch one of their games is next to impossible.
They have been around since 2001. Please tell me how after 18 years in business they don’t have a great television deal? Networks are dying for content, especially live content (corn hole, darts). Major League Baseball dominates the summer sports landscape. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy baseball, I’m a die-hard White Sox fan, but at times it can be as exciting as watching paint dry.
I’ve heard on a lacrosse sideline, more than once, someone says I’d rather watch a lousy lacrosse game than a good baseball game. The fact there isn’t pro lacrosse on TV weekly during the summer is criminal. Major League Baseball just signed a 5.1 billion dollar multi-year, multi-platform contract. The MLL should have been on the phone the next day with the losing bidder offering a much smaller deal just for counter-programming and another live sporting option.
There are at least 100 channels on my cable subscription. I may watch 10-12 of those channels the most, yet the brain trust at the MLL can’t sell their brand well enough to get a TV deal. This is a live sporting event, the type of thing advertisers crave. Most people watch their sports live, as in they may actually see an advertisement instead of fast forwarding past it as they would while watching a recorded show. They also have a built-in fan base.
There is said to be 750,000 lacrosse players from youth to high school in the US along with another 42,000 college lacrosse players. To not have their league on one of those 100-plus channels is malpractice. How are team owners not going crazy demanding that? Something doesn’t add up.
Not to mention the paltry salaries for the players. They don’t even offer their players health benefits. Good lord, after reading that why haven’t I started my own league to put the MLL out of its misery? Looks like I may be too late, someone else has seen the writing on the wall.
New League on the Block
Enter Paul Rabil, the biggest name in the sport today. He considered this ineptitude being displayed by the MLL and decided to start his own league, the PLL. He left the New York Lizards, who he played for last year, and will own his own league this year. He has a vision.
He didn’t leave alone. More than 200 players came with him from the MLL. He has brought more publicity to lacrosse in two months then the MLL has in 18 years. He already has a TV deal with NBC across their different platforms. The MLL started is 2001, and they couldn’t score a major network deal in that time, but one of their actual players did it in a few months, with significant financial backers. That should tell you there is a market and money to be made in professional lacrosse.
These guys don’t invest loads of money just because they like Paul Rabil. They expect a return on their investment. The PLL is going to start with six teams that will travel to different cities.
Personally, I am not sure if that will work. I tend to think geographic rivalries help grow a fan base, but it is that kind of outside-the-box foresight, that I would put my money on.
My one problem with the PLL is their motto, “We the Players.” I understand they are going to make their players partners in the company, and that’s great for the players. I hope they make as much as the players in the other pro leagues. But only one place grows that revenue – fans.
Maybe the motto should be “You the Fans.” Give the people what they want, for free. If I don’t pay to watch, football, baseball, basketball, hockey why would I pay for lacrosse. I love lacrosse, but I’m not going to pay extra to watch it, and indeed the new fans you need aren’t going to either.
Give it away free and get people into it before you start charging.
Professional lacrosse needs to get lean, and run right. Right now it’s a bloated mess. Having three professional leagues in unsustainable. My prediction is in three years, maybe earlier, there will be one professional lacrosse entity. Which will include indoor and outdoor lacrosse, and hopefully a strong women’s pro league.
I think women’s lacrosse can become a vast professional market. It’s a different game from the men’s game, a diverse skill set, but very appealing. It’s not just women playing a man’s game, it’s women playing a woman’s game.
I can’t see how, in this day and age of female empowerment, that women’s lacrosse isn’t being hailed as a pioneering sport of the future for young girls and women.
Lacrosse needs to stop hoping to get market share. They need to be aggressive and take it. It’s time.
The money is there, the fans are there. Go get it. Working together they can grow together, building the brand and enhancing player popularity. Will it be the PLL, NLL or MLL, who knows, but if it works out, it will be great for the entire lacrosse community.