I often listen to lacrosse fans who believe that a nine team National Lacrosse League is all the high end box lacrosse talent a pro league can support. I find this notion absurd.
In this nine team era we are seeing the issues of having too few professional teams involved in the NLL.
I’ve had the feeling for a few years now that regular season games are less meaningful than in the past. As a constant watcher of the NLL for 20 years (and even more if you count MILL seasons), I’ve witnessed more and more aging veterans collecting checks and taking up roster spots than ever before.
The stands are packed in Saskatchewan where the NLL is relatively new. I see escalating empty seats in other established and proud NLL cities. The rotation of eight visiting teams for the last eight years has hurt the interest levels of the most dedicated NLL fans. Those eight visiting teams have stagnated their lineups for the most part. Top players on each NLL club have migrated home to their local community teams where they play out the duration of their careers.
NLL fans have also identified that they are being subject to the same home team who market the same marquee players year in and year out. It has created less urgency for the fan to return for the same experience. Couple this with teams that struggle to win consistently and regular trips to the rink can become less compelling for even diehard fans.
Think about this. Our world has cultivated the need for new content on a daily basis. Most NLL players would be turned over on two to four year cycles in the past. In the nine team era I’d say those numbers have changed to three to six year cycles or longer. That may be a good thing if you’re winning but when you’re losing it’s a recipe for fans to start disengaging.
Eastern teams have some latitude on trading talent but the league concentration of players at the top echelon has almost become untradable. Once these players are performing for their home market, other teams know their value has plateaued. The players who come home to roost know this too.
So when looking at the league as it sits now we can have a top player who is a star and then regresses in value, making them untradable. Garrett Billings comes to mind. Vancouver traded for him after he was injured and it was clear Billings never fully regained his health or fitness dropped off the radar. Interest from other teams is non-existent for trade at old market value. Vancouver rolled the dice and lost.
In another Vancouver example, we saw the Stealth make a bold move at the 2015 draft when they traded a top pick to Rochester for Johnny Powless in an attempt to make Powless the face of the franchise.
Powless did not get comfortable with the travel back and forth from Toronto and his play was inconsistent under the pressures of being thrust into the limelight in Vancouver.
In the end it did work out for the Stealth as they moved Powless east for hometown guy Logan Schuss. Schuss was in a predicament himself flying from Vancouver to Minnesota each weekend while starting a new career.
NLL players with careers outside of lacrosse living in the NLL cities they play in may also consider retiring rather than accepting a trade. Based on the load it would put on their personal lives, it would require “mature” players who are closing in on their late twenties to at least weigh their options. Careers and babies eventually lessen the importance of playing pro ball in their lives. Priorities get blurred and then on-floor performance suffers.
The teams that employ long time vets have a large investment in these types of players. They often play them longer based on the value the club has tied up in these veteran guys.
I declare the whole league has become top heavy. There isn’t much room for upward mobility which I believe is the lifeblood of most business and the business of sport. Opportunity has almost been entirely negated in the NLL and expansion is the only remedy.
Saskatchewan, Calgary and Colorado are Midwest so they have Eastern and Western based players who can be traded in either direction. That makes them a bit more flexible in the shakeup about to come their way. The same can’t be said for Vancouver.
The Swarm and Saskatchewan are deep with talent and draft picks so they can protect themselves against expansion better than most.
Vancouver and Toronto are polarized in their communities which may help them in dispersal, especially Vancouver. This could be also be a benefit to expansion teams realizing a player won’t be relocating to their market so instead they become a currency to trade back to their existing clubs for draft picks.
Toronto has done well in recent years with free agent signings, which also supports my main agenda of expansion and opportunity fuelling growth of a team or the whole league.
Buffalo and Colorado made a big swap this off season and new blood has blossomed in the fresh settings, showing another example of my belief that the whole league will prosper through any amount of expansion.
I’d also like to say that the league has bogged down at the coaching level too. The coaching is excellent and it’s hurting the game. Some games are hard to watch and again I’ve heard fans use the word “predictable”. Without a decent percentage of offence happening on the inside, shift after shift settling for outside bombs has become the norm of pro ball.
We need more players in growth stages pushing the envelope so that they exude energy and play on the edge and make a few mistakes as opposed to the “machine” some teams are becoming.
As fans we can rediscover the game through new stars putting their stamp on the product we have always loved. No one could ever mean what Brett Favre meant to the Green Bay Packers but along comes Aaron Rogers and Favre was eclipsed as the “Greatest” Packers QB of all time in the next cycle.
These events come and go and so my reasoning for expansion being good is simple. Change is inevitable in all walks of life and the only opportunity for the NLL to grow is to throw caution to the wind and push forward with as much expansion as they can handle.
This will force everyone to read and react and create change on all teams. If the product is “watered down,” it will take only a short while to get back up to speed and coaching styles will be stressed and games will open up.
The clutch and grab era of the Toronto Rock dynasty in the early NLL days gave way to Darris Kilgour’s “Bandit Ball” and Calgary’s 6-6-6 system around 2003-2004.
These systems were born out of a four team expansion in 2002. Chris Hall’s Calgary team was an expansion club that quickly raised itself to a championship with the help of some dispersal drafts. Ponder that as just another example of why everyone should be looking forward to what’s around the corner.
-Contributed by Marty O'Neil from IL