When a sellout crowd of more than 5,500 showed up in July to watch an outdoor lacrosse exhibition at UMBC, Craig Shirley became convinced that the professional game would fly in Baltimore.
And as Major League Lacrosse prepares for its inaugural season next June, Baltimore is its first announced team. That is fitting to Shirley, a Northern Virginia-based businessman and one of four co-owners of a team that has yet to acquire a player, a coach, a home field or a nickname.
But the foursome that makes up the Baltimore Lacrosse Association, which also includes venture capitalist Frank Lavin and two local businessmen and lacrosse enthusiasts in Chris Hutchins and Ray Schulmeyer, has no doubt that the area is ready to embrace the game.
Don't think that the ownership group, which put up a $1 million franchise fee to join MLL, is blind to the fact that so-called minor pro sports such as lacrosse, soccer and ice hockey have made a habit of dying here through the years. The Skipjacks, Bays and indoor lacrosse's Thunder moved elsewhere or dissolved.
In addition, the American Lacrosse League barely got off the ground in upstate New York before that outdoor league collapsed under a shaky financial foundation in 1988.
"If you're a smart businessman, I don't think you walk into anything without a good sense of how daunting the task is in front of you, or without being aware of past mistakes in ventures like this," said team president Shirley, who runs a public relations firm and is a former adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush.
"You need good business sense, sufficient cash and a good product on the field," he said. "We have that.
"I consider Baltimore to be ground zero for lacrosse. This is a natural course of evolution for the game, and the natural progression is to have professional outdoor lacrosse. I think we're well-timed."
The MLL will consist of eight teams, which will play a 60-game schedule encompassing 56 regular-season games, a midseason all-star event, two playoff contests and a championship game.
Other team locations under consideration include Boston; Buffalo, N.Y.; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Long Island; Fairfield, Conn.; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; Rochester, N.Y., and Washington.
The chance to join Baltimore's ownership group - which aims to take on 30 to 50 investors - was too tempting for Hutchins to ignore. A Baltimore native who played lacrosse at Gilman and North Carolina, Hutchins owns Bacharach-Rasin Sporting Goods and has worked as a coach and adviser in local youth leagues for years.
Hutchins sees the league's financial backing as sound. The MLL was founded by Jake Steinfeld, the CEO of Body By Jake Enterprises. Its partners include Dave Morrow, the CEO of Warner Lacrosse, a global provider of high-performance lacrosse equipment, and SFX Sports Group, which is providing management, marketing and consulting services to MLL.
"All of the pieces are there for this to be successful," Hutchins said. "SFX knows how to market and put on events, you have lacrosse knowledge in our [Baltimore] group, and you have a great sport. And this will be the pinnacle, the best players that the sport has to offer.
"The challenge will be not only to get the lacrosse fans out there, but to get people to come out and check out a new sport. Going into the summer showcase, we were wondering if we could pull this off."
The summer exhibitions gave MLL a huge shot of confidence. Besides UMBC, games were played at lacrosse sites in Philadelphia, Columbus and Long Island and at minor-league baseball stadiums in Buffalo and Rochester. Attendance averaged more than 5,000.
"I think the league is going about this in the right way," said Schulmeyer, a veterinarian who played lacrosse at Overlea High and Cornell University and serves as chairman of Carroll Manor youth lacrosse in Harford County and founded Shulmeyer Animal Hospital in Perry Hall. Schulmeyer is the Baltimore team's treasurer; Lavin will serve as secretary.
Gabby Roe, MLL's executive director, said the league plans to copy the family atmosphere that is prevalent at minor-league baseball games in places such as Frederick and Bowie. There are plans to include interactive displays, lacrosse shot tests for speed and accuracy and post-game player autograph sessions.
"Think of a miniature Disneyland with a lacrosse theme," said Roe, who added that ticket prices should average about $11.
MLL will take further shape this fall at a 250-player combine, after which five players per team will be allocated by the league. Then, a player draft will fill out more of each team's 25-man roster. There also will be a supplemental draft in June for eligible players who have just concluded their college careers.
Roe said each team will operate under a $300,000 salary cap. No minimum or maximum salaries have been set.
Possible home-field locations being explored by the Baltimore team include Johns Hopkins' Homewood Field, Towson University's Minnegan Stadium, UMBC Stadium and the Timonium Fairgrounds.