After leading the Johns Hopkins University to a national title in lacrosse, Kyle Harrison figured he might make a living off the sport for three years. Eight years later, lacrosse continues to pay his bills.
"There was no real path for a lacrosse player to go out and continue doing that for a living," Harrison said. "Candidly, that felt like an abrupt end to something I'd dedicated so much time to. It didn't feel fair."
After several years in the sport's most established pro league, Major League Lacrosse, Harrison joined some other entrepreneurial lacrosse players to forge their own path in Southern California. They affiliated with Adrenaline, a San Diego-based apparel line and retail chain, to form LXM Pro, a roving lacrosse festival that includes a youth tournament series, lacrosse camps and a professional game between two teams.
They wanted to build their careers away from a league they felt was too restrictive. Major League Lacrosse began as a collaboration between Jake Steinfeld of Body by Jake fame and Dave Morrow, who founded Warrior Lacrosse, a Michigan-based gear maker. The league's teams have been used to exclusively market Warrior's gear. In other pro sports, apparel and equipment makers pay a rights fee to be included in the pool of brands players are allowed to use.
Major League Lacrosse and LXM Pro have a strained relationship. The two compete for talent, sponsorship dollars and to be seen as the vehicle that can push lacrosse into the mainstream. Their rivalry has become something of a proxy fight between gear manufacturers trying to reach the rapidly growing youth market for lacrosse, which the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association said is the fastest-growing team sport in the United States.
In LXM Pro, Harrison plays for Team STX, named for the Baltimore-based gear maker. The teams will play at least 13 times this year from San Diego to Philadelphia, up from eight in 2012. The other team will be sponsored by another lacrosse manufacturer, but that deal hasn't been finalized.
STX recently launched a line of Harrison-signature equipment aimed at the middle of the market, not the inexpensive plastic gear broadly used by youths or the state-of-the-art, lightweight sticks and protective gear used by the sport's elite.
Harrison's affiliation with STX dates back to his turning pro, when he immediately signed an endorsement deal with the Baltimore-based gear maker. But Harrison was unable to use STX equipment when he played in Major League Lacrosse.
Major League Lacrosse doesn't offer a lucrative career for its pros. Players earn an average of $10,000 per season and must have another job or cobble together other sources of income — endorsements, camps, coaching jobs, playing indoor lacrosse.
The league recently broached the idea of creating an equipment pool and approached a group of manufacturers to gauge their interest. STX passed.
"We thought about it very seriously," said Ed Saunders, marketing director for STX. "Obviously, we respect the level of competition and what the league has done for the game. But economically, it wasn't worth it for us. You have to think about the [return on investment]."
"And the league has been so strongly associated with a different brand," he added. "You'd be partnering with your competition. We'd write a check to a main competitor."
Major League Lacrosse commissioner David Gross declined to be interviewed for this article.
Saunders said LXM Pro's philosophy better represented the goals of STX.
The LXM Pro games are the athletic highlight of a traveling festival that includes youth tournaments and lacrosse camps. Originally envisioned as glitzy events that paired lacrosse with live music — like the extreme-sports tours that served as the group's inspiration — the weekends have become more focused on the sport.
A small group of players arrives early in the week to give clinics at YMCAs or schools and make appearances at sporting goods stores. The emphasis during the weekend, founders said, is on getting the kids close to top-level players, with the goal of encouraging them to work toward college scholarships.
Adrenaline says it has helped more than 180 players from California find a spot on NCAA rosters and that recruiting in the West has spiked significantly.
"For a lot of us, we're just able to see this with fresh eyes," Harrison said. "Lacrosse has something of a stigma in some ways back East. Here, kids just see it as an exciting game they didn't know much about. With the athletes out here, and the opportunity to play year-round, there's so much potential."
Harrison went to Friends School of Baltimore, and many others in the West Coast movement came from the elite prep schools and other privileged communities where lacrosse has long had a hold. Scott and Craig Hochstadt are former University of Maryland players who played for Boys' Latin. Another set of brothers who played for the Terps, Xander and Max Ritz, graduated from Radnor High School near Philadelphia's affluent Main Line. And Alex Cade, the president of Adrenaline, played for the Landon School in Bethesda.
Cade helped form Adrenaline in 2000 after graduating from Notre Dame. The company has slowly pulled together the efforts of players like Harrison, who'd moved to Los Angeles to play for the Major League Lacrosse team.
When the Los Angeles squad disbanded, Harrison joined the Denver team but soon grew tired of traveling for games.
The Hochstadt and Ritz brothers were involved in several Southern California youth lacrosse projects and had even found some level of celebrity: Scott Hochstadt dated television reality star Lo Bosworth, and he and Max Ritz showed up on episodes of "The Hills."
Everything they've done, Xander Ritz said, has been for the benefit of the game.
"There's a certain socioeconomic level associated with the game," Ritz said. "And nobody is going to tell you it's inexpensive to play. But we're really trying to get kids here excited and to make it accessible. There's not a lot of dads out here who played the game, so the kids take ownership of it. It's their thing."
Lacrosse insiders worry that the schism between the two most significant pro outdoor lacrosse movements could hurt the sport's growth, said Inside Lacrosse magazine editor John Jiloty. There's also concern that players like Harrison and Sam Bradman, a Salisbury University alum who signed with LXM Pro after being named national player of the year in 2012, won't be in top form if they're chosen to play for the U.S. national team when Denver hosts the 2014 World Championships.
"It's tough to get behind the competitive format," Jiloty said. "Having two teams playing each other over and over instead of working through a season and building toward a championship, playing meaningful pressure games, there's some question whether that's best for an athlete."
Harrison and others said that their affiliation with LXM Pro has allowed them to focus more on training because they don't need outside jobs to make ends meet.
"They're really steeped in the culture of the game with LXM Pro," Saunders said. "It's not a case where they're working a Wall Street job and then flying off to play a game in one of the eight [Major League Lacrosse] cities over the weekend. This has a different feel."
Said Ritz: "There's been a lot said about our approach, and we're not necessarily trying to live up to other people's expectations. We just don't see lacrosse being at a point where having one big pro league is the right way to go. There's still a lot of building that needs to be done at the lower levels."
twitter.com/chriskormanCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun