This is a critical season for Major League Lacrosse.
For the first time since its founding in 2001, Major League Lacrosse has direct competition.
The Premier Lacrosse League, founded by former Johns Hopkins All-American Paul Rabil, began its inaugural campaign on Saturday at Gillette Stadium. Backed by deep-pocketed investors and boasting a television contract with NBC Sports, the PLL is going head-to-head with the MLL and it may very well be a winner-take-all scenario when everything is said and done.
“To the credit of the PLL organizers, they’ve brought a lot of money and a lot of resources to professional lacrosse – and that’s a really positive thing if you take the wide view,” said Mark Burdett, an Annapolis resident who recently was named Chief Revenue Officer of Major League Lacrosse.
“We’re interested to watch and learn how the PLL operates in terms of what they do well and what they don’t do well,” added Burdett, who previously served as president of the Chesapeake Bayhawks. “It’s a really exciting time to be involved with professional lacrosse because it’s at a tipping point.”
Burdett noted that opening weekend for both the MLL and PLL will deliver some important metrics. Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., hosted the Premier Lacrosse League debut with a Saturday afternoon doubleheader featuring four of the six teams. An article about Game 1 between Archers and Chrome that was posted to the PLL website did not include an attendance figure.
“This weekend is big on a lot of fronts. If the Boston Cannons put 6,000 fans into a new stadium in Quincy while the PLL has 3,000 at Gillette Stadium after paying big bucks to get into that facility, who is the winner?” Burdett said.
“The PLL has yet to get a report card. They have been really bullish on Twitter about how great they are, but they have not sold any tickets or received a television rating. Ultimately, the numbers don’t lie.”
There is no question the Premier Lacrosse League has impacted Major League Lacrosse already. Some of the world’s finest players left MLL in favor of PLL during the offseason.
That talent drain ultimately played a role in the MLL decision to disband three franchises – the Charlotte Hounds, Florida Launch and Ohio Machine. A bigger reason why the MLL contracted was because the same person – New Balance founder and CEO Jim Davis – owned four franchises.
“We want to have one team, one owner, one vote,” MLL commissioner Sandy Brown said at the time.
Davis elected to own only the Dallas Rattlers, which is why the other three franchises ceased operations.
Major League Lacrosse announced several other significant changes during the offseason — increasing player salaries, reacquiring its media rights and starting the season in June instead of April among other things.
“I know for a fact the reason the league went through a re-organization and has come out the other side as MLL 2.0 is because there was competition,” Burdett said. “It forced owners and league representatives to make very hard and calculated decisions.”
In his new role as an MLL executive, Burdett has been tasked with spearheading expansion. He said MLL is considering Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco on the West Coast, Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul in the Midwest as well as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on the East Coast.
“In the short term, the MLL had to get smaller to get stronger. Moving forward, it will get bigger because it has to do so to stay competitive,” Burdett said. “Basically, there had to be some short-term pain and short-term change for, hopefully, some long-term gain.”
Davis was largely responsible for a decision to grant Lax Sports Network exclusive rights to broadcast all MLL games. Most agree that was a mistake and reacquiring its media rights has enabled the MLL to strike a deal with ESPN to broadcast 17 games this summer. Meanwhile, Stadium will stream 12 MLL games.
On Friday, the Chesapeake Bayhawks announced a contract with Sinclair Broadcasting to air all 16 of their games on MyTV in Baltimore. Other franchises have also secured regional television deals with the Cannons announcing its games would be broadcast by NBC Sports Boston.
Brendan Kelly bought the Bayhawks organization in 2010 and moved it to his hometown of Annapolis. Over the past nine years, Kelly has turned the Chesapeake Bayhawks into a model franchise within Major League Lacrosse.
Kelly was defiant when asked if this is an important season for MLL.
“I don’t think it’s any more or less important than any other year,” he said. “It’s an important year for the Bayhawks because we want to win our sixth ring.”
Because the Bayhawks have put down roots in Anne Arundel County and enjoy support from surrounding areas such as Kent Island and Bowie among others, Kelly believes the impact of the PLL will be minimal.
“We’re up 23 percent in season ticket sales and sponsorships have been increased by 16 percent,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t think the PLL competes with the Bayhawks in this market.”
The PLL is bringing its touring model to Homewood Field in Baltimore on June 22 and to Audi Field in D.C. on July 6.
Kelly points out that his franchise is invested in the community, partnering with the Anne Arundel Medical Center, Anne Arundel Food Bank and many other entities on charitable initiatives. Chesapeake players, coaches and front office personnel recently marched in the Annapolis St. Patrick’s Day parade and Kelly said they received “standing ovations from start to finish.”
“People were chanting Bayhawks, Bayhawks and it was really powerful and emotional for me as an Annapolis resident,” Kelly said. “We have become a big part of the fabric of this city and county. We’re thrilled the community has embraced the Bayhawks.”
Kelly also relishes traveling around town and seeing adults and kids wearing Bayhawks T-shirts. He recently walked into Heroes Pub and saw a poster advertising Chesapeake Bayhawks Happy Hour every day from 3-5 p.m.
“That’s a grassroots movement you can’t create through social media. We have built a foundation based on trust and that takes times. We live, work and play here,” Kelly said.
“From the very beginning, I’ve said the name on the front is bigger than the name on the back. It’s about playing for a hometown team. The PLL is a completely different model. It’s all about about promoting individuals.”
Kelly believes the community-based approach to professional lacrosse will outlive the touring model because there is an investment in the community.
“It’s a traveling circus that comes into town, takes money and leaves. The PLL is not going to give anything back to Baltimore or D.C.,” he said. “If you are a business owner you have a responsibility to give back to the community where you operate.”
Kelly has become well known as the most generous owner in MLL and has always put the players first. The Bayhawks, like every team in MLL, took some hits due to the advent of the PLL with midfielder Myles Jones and attackman Josh Byrne the most notable departures.
However, Chesapeake retained a large portion of its roster, including superstar attackman Lyle Thompson, United States national team defender Jesse Bernhhardt and rising star Colin Heacock among others.
“There is no question the way Brendan Kelly has treated his players over time has allowed the Bayhawks to keep the core of their team,” Burdett said. “I think the leadership Brendan Kelly and Dave Cottle have displayed during this transitional period was important. I think the Bayhawks as a really rock-solid organization will be fine.”