A tribute to the National Lacrosse League - OPINION
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • January 29, 2013 @ 3:12pm
The National Lacrosse League catches a lot of media grief, some of which is valid. Since the 2008 season, the league has contracted from 14 teams to nine, as New York, Arizona, Boston, Portland and Chicago have folded, while San Jose relocated to Washington. Perennially, the league—to me, at least—feels perilously close to folding.
The gloomy picture isn’t new, as attendance across the league decreases yearly, and only three teams (Buffalo, Colorado and Toronto) drew over 10,000 fans per game in 2012. Washington, the lone NLL team to miss the postseason last year, is attracting a dangerously low number of fans; after luring 7,000 in the 2013 home opener, the Stealth couldn’t crack the 4,000 plateau in their second home contest (even if it ran counter to the Seattle Seahawks’ NFL playoff game).
I’m not willing to agree that the decline in attendance has any relation to the new availability of NLL games streamed easily through YouTube, either.
One thing that hasn’t suffered, however, is the product on the floor—the level of competitiveness, marketable players, high-scoring affairs and dramatic endings—the bedrock of the fan experience. We’ve been spoiled in Buffalo, as the Bandits’ two home games were each decided by one goal and have averaged a whopping 26 goals per game between the two teams.
Saturday night’s 14-13 win over Philadelphia was a magnificent roller-coaster battle that featured late-game heroics, several lead changes, jaw-dropping saves and a playoff-like atmosphere.
These are the kinds of games that hitch casual fans to the sport, gradually boosting attendance and fostering a buzz around the league, and these showdowns are becoming more abundant. The overall level of play seems to have benefited as well—we’ve seen our share of “Goal of the Year” candidates already. Heck, Stealth rookie Mitch McMichael’s between-the-legs goal wound up as No. 7 of ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays on Saturday night.
Interestingly, all the locker-room quotes that suggest that the league is tighter and more competitive than ever are a little overblown—after serious number-crunching, the average margin of victory over the 2008 regular season’s 96 games—between 14 teams—was 3.76 goals. In 2012, a season with supposed “parity” and major familiarity due to a very condensed nine teams, the average margin of victory was 3.86. So, games are no closer than before when the league was bigger.
With another NLL Draft that’s deepened the talent pool, more journeyman veterans have been replaced by a flurry of highly-touted newcomers along the line of Johnny Powless, Mark Matthews and Adam Jones. We’ve seen that transition in Buffalo, as experienced Bandits like Ian Llord, Darryl Gibson, Roger Vyse and Tom Montour have been replaced for younger and cheaper alternatives like Dhane Smith, Hayden Smith and Carter Bender.
As a result—and this could be due to the small sample size of 2013 so far—the average margin of victory has dropped almost a full point, coming in at 2.88.
NLL commissioner George Daniel has said the right things, suggesting that he’d like to expand the National Lacrosse League brand more prevalently in Canada—it’s staggering that Winnipeg or Hamilton don’t boast teams—while solidifying the current markets that are still fighting to stay afloat (good feedback, NLL boards).
He’s cautious, avoiding the dangers of expanding too quickly and doing his best to placate fans’ worries that the entire league may fold.
When Daniel visited the First Niagara Center before the NLL All-Star Game last year, he said the following, courtesy of Andrew Kulyk in Artvoice Daily:
Daniel also touched upon the state of the league, with some setbacks in certain markets and the loss of the Boston Blazers after the end of last season, bringing the league to its current roster of nine teams. “The nine owners that we have are the best quality of owners in the history of the league, and that’s a positive for us.
Moving forward, I think our focus is quality over quantity, and I want to make sure that we don’t repeat some of the mistakes we made in the past, getting into certain markets too soon. Our focus really is looking at Canadian cities, getting back into major markets that we have been in the past such as New York,” said Daniel. He added that cities such as Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Detroit and returning to the New England area are on the radar screen.
Before the 2013 season, renowned indoor lacrosse website IL Indoor polled its readers on which defunct team was missed the most, and the Vancouver Ravens took the cake with 207 of the 902 votes (23%), and virtually no one seemed to miss Pittsburgh.
Largely, the NLL is still a work-in-progress. The league’s website takes an eternity to load, the ability to find statistics can be a nightmare and watching games is often dependent on fragile video streams with cranky audio. Only diehard fans are concerned about any of the above, however, as the National Lacrosse League is still a sport predicated on “fan experience and entertainment” than “Sabermetrics” or Lewis Ratcliff’s shooting percentage.
Amid the frustration surrounding teams folding, attendance drooping and concerns over the NLL’s future, the game itself seems to be flourishing with a concentrated pool of talent spread among only nine teams, especially in light of last year’s rule changes that have emphasized youth, speed and transition play. I’m not here to say that the future is absolutely rosy, but that the National Lacrosse League should grow because of the elite-caliber of athletes in a condensed league.
(Top photos courtesy of Robin David Brown from Saturday’s Buffalo vs. Philadelphia game—see the full gallery here).