Brian Phipps is planning to play professional lacrosse for the 11th straight season in 2021. The Annapolis native was looking forward to returning as the starting goalkeeper for the Chesapeake Bayhawks of Major League Lacrosse.
For the time being, Phipps finds himself out of a job.
MLL and the Premier Lacrosse League jointly announced a merger Wednesday morning. Beginning with the 2021 season, there will be only one outdoor professional lacrosse platform and it will operate under the banner of the PLL.
“I think it’s exciting for lacrosse in general that all the resources and minds are now working together to push the outdoor pro game,” Phipps said Wednesday afternoon.
Phipps is now among hundreds of former MLL players who must submit their names into a player pool to become eligible for the 2021 PLL Expansion Draft. The Boston Cannons are the only one of six MLL franchises being absorbed into the PLL.
That organization will be rebranded as the Cannons Lacrosse Club and its roster will be selected entirely through the expansion draft. Meanwhile, the PLL announced it will retain the rights to the other five MLL franchises, including the Chesapeake Bayhawks, for future expansion considerations.
For the 2021 season, the total number of outdoor professional lacrosse teams will drop from 13 to eight, resulting in a reduction of approximately 200 total roster spots.
“A lot of players are going to lose jobs, which is very unfortunate,” said Phipps, who estimates there are 25 to 30 MLL players capable of playing in the reconstituted PLL. “There will not be nearly as many opportunities for players coming out of college.”
Phipps, who served on the MLL Players Council, learned of the merger 15 minutes before it was announced through social media channels. Tom Mariano, general manager and head coach of the Bayhawks, was never officially informed of the decision.
“I had no clue. I’d heard some whispers in the last couple days, but I found out just like everybody else,” Mariano said. “It’s disappointing there won’t be a Bayhawks [season] this summer. No franchise is more rooted to the community than the Bayhawks.”
Mariano, who has been involved with MLL for almost a decade, is unsure of his future in professional lacrosse.
“I’ve loved coaching professional lacrosse and to think that could be over is painful,” he said. “A lot of people, myself included, have put their entire existence into this. In the short-term, it hurts a lot for all the people involved.”
Sandy Brown, MLL commissioner since 2018, sent a letter to player minutes before the merger announcement became public. Brown told the MLL players he is “greatly heartened by the future of the sport.”
“In all honesty, there is not any one reason that led us to this merger. I have been public in stating that given the overall size of the lacrosse market, there is not room for two outdoor lacrosse leagues,” Brown wrote. “From an economics perspective, both managements came to this realization that we are better as one.”
Annapolis native Brendan Kelly brought the Bayhawks to his hometown after buying the franchise from BT Lax Operating in 2009. Throughout Kelly’s 10-year ownership, the Bayhawks played home games at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
He was among three MLL owners that did so along with the Bowlen Family Trust (Denver Outlaws) and Andre Gudger (Atlanta Blaze). Boston Cannons owner Rob Hale remained committed to MLL along with The Medallion Group that owned the New York Lizards.
Beginning with the 2020 season, Major League Lacrosse owned and operated all six of its franchises — the Bayhawks, Cannons, Outlaws, Lizards, Connecticut Hammerheads and Philadelphia Barrage.
Kelly said Wednesday that the merger was inevitable because the market had clearly established it could not support two outdoor professional leagues playing simultaneously during the summer months.
“I’ve said for last three years this had to happen. It’s the only way for professional lacrosse to be successful,” Kelly said.
The Bayhawks are one of the original franchises of Major League Lacrosse, which was founded in 1999 by Jake Steinfeld, Dave Morrow and Tim Robertson. MLL began play in 2001 with the Baltimore Bayhawks among six teams, all of which were based in the northeastern United States.
From 2001 through 2006, the Baltimore Bayhawks played at Homewood Field on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, M&T Bank Stadium in downtown Baltimore and Johnny Unitas Stadium on the campus of Towson University.
BT Lax Operating purchased the franchise from the Pivec family in 2006 and moved the Bayhawks to the Washington, D.C. area. From 2006 through 2009, the Washington Bayhawks played at George Mason Stadium in Fairfax, Virginia, and then Georgetown University’s Multi-Sport Field.
Kelly, who led the Bayhawks to four MLL championships, is hopeful the team name will continue.
“It would be crazy to lose the legacy of the Chesapeake Bayhawks,” he said. “The Bayhawks are the most storied franchise in professional lacrosse history.”
Sportico, a sports business publication, broke the news of the merger in an exclusive story Wednesday morning. The Premier Lacrosse League was founded by brothers Mike and Paul Rabil, who are Gaithersburg natives.
Paul Rabil is one of the most recognizable names in lacrosse, a three-time first-team All-American as a midfielder and member of two national championship squads at Johns Hopkins. He played in the MLL from 2008 to 2018 and was a 10-time All-Star and two-time Most Valuable Player.
The Rabil brothers formed the PLL with the backing of two deep-pocketed investors — The Chernin Group and The Raine Group. It now also has financial backing from Creative Artists Agency and Joe Tsai, billionaire owner of the Brooklyn Nets.
PLL established itself as direct competition to MLL and immediately gained the upper hand by signing a multi-year broadcast agreement with NBC Sports. The network broadcasts PLL games across its platforms and also promoted the professional lacrosse league through its coverage of other sports properties, including the NFL and NHL.
“Over the past two years the PLL has punched through expectations and garnered commercial viability that the sport has never seen,” Paul Rabil said in a statement. “Today, as the PLL embarks on season three, we do so armed with 20 years of MLL history.”
Paul Rabil, a DeMatha Catholic product, has remained an active player with the PLL as a midfielder for Atlas.
Tim Troutner Jr. will be entering his third season with the PLL, having signed a three-year contract extension with the Redwoods after being named the 2019 Rookie of the Year. The Annapolis native and St. Mary’s High graduate is excited by the prospect of the world’s best lacrosse players once again operating under the same umbrella.
“I think it’s great for pro lacrosse. It’s going to raise the competitive level across the board,” Troutner said. “I’ve always wanted to play against Lyle Thompson and now I’m going to get that opportunity.”
Troutner was referring to the Chesapeake Bayhawks attackman who is considered one of the greatest players in the game. Troutner was also hopeful his former St. Mary’s High teammate, faceoff specialist Alex Woodall, would also land in the PLL after playing two seasons in MLL.