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."