Major League Lacrosse undertakes complete reboot to fend off PLL challenge

(Credit: Getty Images)

  • Outdoor summer league moves from franchise model to single-entity structure ahead of 20th season
  • Five teams shut down in past year, Philadelphia Barrage and Connecticut Hammerheads formed
  • “I don’t think the fishpond is big enough for two outdoor leagues,” admits MLL commissioner

Major League Lacrosse has undertaken a major restructuring ahead of its 20th season as the outdoor professional league looks to fight off the challenge of the upstart Premier Lacrosse League.

Both summer leagues are directly competing with each other for players, fans, commercial partners, and media attention. It remains far from clear whether there is room for both properties in the United States sports landscape, with lacrosse still a niche sport in the US.

After debuting in October 2018 to great fanfare, the PLL – which was founded by brothers Paul and Michael Rabil – has proven a huge success.

The touring league has gained the financial backing of a number of high-profile investors, including Creative Artists Agency, the Raine Group, the Chernin Group, Blum Capital, and Alibaba billionaire Joe Tsai, also the owner of the National Basketball Associations’ Brooklyn Nets. The PLL also secured a landmark broadcast deal with NBC Sports Group, an apparel deal with adidas, and numerous other commercial partnerships, including most recently with Ticketmaster.

Thanks to a generous compensation package, the PLL – which recently expanded to seven teams – secured many players from the MLL, including 2018 Most Valuable Player Rob Pannell from the New York Lizards earlier this month. Participants earn on average four times the salary of their counterparts in the MLL, as well as health benefits, an equity stake in the league, the opportunity for personal branding on PLL social-media platforms, plus the chance to play in superior venues and on national television.

The Boston-based MLL began its fightback ahead of the 2019 season by shutting down three teams – the Ohio Machine, Florida Launch, and Charlotte Hounds – re-aquiring the league’s media rights, undergoing a brand refresh including a new logo, and expanding its salary cap, schedule, and game-day active rosters.

This process continued earlier this year, with the league switching from a franchise model to a single-entity structure, closing the Atlanta Blaze and Dallas Rattlers and forming two new teams, the Connecticut Hammerheads and the resurrected Philadelphia Barrage, to give the MLL more of a Northeast regional feel, and one more squarely centered on where the foremost US lacrosse avidity exists geographically.

(Credit: MLL)

The MLL will have six teams in 2020, with its season start at present slated for May 30, though that could certainly change given the ongoing coronavirus outbreak: Boston Cannons, Chesapeake Bayhawks, Connecticut Hammerheads, Denver Outlaws, New York Lizards, and Philadelphia Barrage.

With the PLL looking to expand on the success of its inaugural season, MLL faces a significant challenge to retain its relevance and commercial viability in its 20th campaign.

“First and foremost, [the PLL] has certainly improved the narrative with respect to our sport and I think that’s a positive. I applaud that job that the Rabils did in getting this thing off the ground as quickly as they did,” MLL commissioner Sandy Brown tells SportBusiness.

“I will also say that its advent has bifurcated our sports fanbase [and] its bifurcated our sponsors, which I don’t think is a good thing. I don’t think the fishpond is big enough for two outdoor professional lacrosse leagues,” he says.

Many other leading figures in lacrosse agree with this sentiment. “In most cases, competition is good and we think it will help push both leagues to become better. But at the end of the day, there are always questions in lacrosse whether the sport is big enough for two competing leagues,” World Lacrosse chief executive Jim Scherr told SportBusiness in December.

“We’ve seen in American football that the NFL and the USFL and XFL haven’t been able to co-exist. So in lacrosse, which is a much smaller sport, it’s going to be very difficult. We support both leagues and the players in both league and we’d like to see them both succeed. We just want to make sure how it proceeds is good for the sport,” Scherr says.

More directly, former Chesapeake Bayhawks owner Brendan Kelly told Inside Lacrosse in January: “Having two outdoor leagues is not going to work. There’s not clear sight of healing or coming together in the future.”

Renewed focus on community-based structure

Since joining MLL as commissioner in early 2018, Brown has introduced a series of measures as part of a three-year plan to revive the league.

After reacquiring the league’s media rights, MLL signed a linear television deal with ESPN, streaming deals with direct-to-consumer platforms ESPN+ and Stadium, and a tertiary package with Lax Sports Network.

“It’s table stakes for any league to own its own media rights, I was a big proponent of that and we did not have those rights when I became commissioner and it was something that I was dead-set on,” says Brown, a former senior executive at One World Sports, Univision Sports and ESPN. “Any league has to control its own media rights, I think we improved the production value exponentially over previous years. I think that we had a strong showing last year and I think we’ll have an even stronger one this year. The goal obviously is to raise the bar each and every year.”

The league also gained 10 new commercial partners in 2019: Amerind Risk Insurance, ARYSE, Boost Oxygen, Clear Screening, Corum Watches, Marriott Hotels, Maryland Tourism, Progressive Insurance, True Lacrosse, and Westin Hotels. Meanwhile, five companies renewed their deals with the league: Bud Light, Tito’s Vodka, Cascade Maverik Lacrosse, A&R Sports, and Source One.

According to league figures, MLL enjoyed a 16-per-cent increase in total attendance year-over-year in 2019, with four teams experiencing double-digit attendance growth. Elsewhere, MLL generated 194-per-cent growth in social media traffic, 97-per-cent growth in social media engagement, and 393-per-cent growth in web traffic.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Going forward, the MLL will look to leverage its community-based structure to distinguish itself from the touring PLL and to further develop its local fanbases.

“We’re a community-based sports league and we always will be. So we really want to make sure that everywhere we go that we build the brands of our players and teams in those communities,” Brown says. “We are focused on our business plan and it’s about bring incredibly active in our local communities and providing a better entertainment experience than they’ve had associated with the game of lacrosse and making it a value experience.”

According to Brown the move to a single-entity model remains a work in progress, with the finer details being worked out. “Where we are structurally and with our ownership, it is just a lot easier to manage all the teams under one umbrella,” he says.

The switch, Brown says, is designed to give MLL more oversight in what happens in its local markets. “There isn’t a lot of change practically as we have a lot of qualified people in these markets to execute what needs to get done, which is the business of the team,” he adds.

Brown believes MLL’s recent attempts to restructure itself have put the league in a stronger position.

“The last 12 months has been a reset for a lot of people in terms of how they view the sport whether it’s the fan, the sponsors and so forth. We feel very good about where we are and we feel very excited about our upcoming season,” he says. “It’s our 20th anniversary and we’re going to try to make as much noise about that as possible.”

But how will the rivalry between MLL and PLL resolve itself?

“I don’t know,” Brown admits. “We talk, we have conversations. I respect what they’re doing, they’re trying to build a business. We’ve been here for 20 years and the model has been tried and tested and is one that will perpetuate itself.

“What we’re trying to do is grow the game and grow the sport and create more opportunities for engagement for our fanbases. In my mind, it’s all about the fan – that’s all we’re focused on and if we can build our fanbase then we’re doing our job and I think we’ve been able to do that,” Brown says.

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