Tianna Wallpher, who played lacrosse at Mount Hebron High School and Towson University and is a volunteer assistant coach for the Johns Hopkins women’s program, has played with some of the sport’s top stars.
But if there is one player Wallpher would like to take the field with, it is Katie Hertsch, a Winters Mill and Hofstra graduate who dazzled Wallpher during a visit to her club team’s practice when the latter was 12 years old.
“Katie Hertsch is someone who I have looked up to since I was in middle school,” said Wallpher, a defender who played two seasons in the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League. “I’ve only played against her in the league. So to be able to play alongside her would kind of be a full-circle moment because she is someone I’ve really looked up to and have tried to base my game off of.”
Wallpher may very well get that chance. She is one of 38 players who have already signed on to play professionally in the Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse League. The outdoor women’s professional league, which will eventually include 56 players, will run July 19 to Aug. 22 at Maureen Hendricks Field in Boyds in Montgomery County.
What differentiates the Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse League from previous iterations such as the United Women’s Lacrosse League and the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League is that there are no fixed teams. Four players will be selected via lottery to serve as team captains for the opening week, choose 13 players in a draft, and will earn points for their performances in three games over a three-day weekend. After the weekend, the top four players based on those points will be promoted to captains and redraft to create four new teams for the following week.
The model has already been used by Athletes Unlimited in a softball league launched in August in Chicago and a volleyball league started in February in Dallas, co-founder and CEO Jon Patricof said.
“One of the insights is that younger fans are following players more than they’re following teams,” he said. “What we know is that so many of these players that are coming to our league have built incredible followings from their college days and are very involved in the lacrosse community. We really believe the fans will tune in to watch them and how they compete as opposed to coming up and creating teams and brands out of thin air. Our belief is to lead into the players themselves. It also makes it really exciting for fans because the leader board is constantly moving up and down.”
Wallpher said individual format could appeal to those who enjoy fantasy sports.
“I always like to say that it’s kind of a fantasy league style format, and that’s cool,” she said. “No one’s really done that, but Athletes Unlimited has. … There will be an element of curiosity in terms of, how is this going to work? What’s it going to look like?”
Due to the scaled-down roster sizes, games will consist of 10-minute quarters with 60-second shot clocks. Eighteen total players will take the field, which will be reduced from the standard minimum of 110-by-60 yards to 80-by-50 yards.
Patricof said the organization is not trying to replicate what the previous women’s leagues had done and what the Premier Lacrosse League on the men’s side is doing now. What the Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse League has copied is collaborating with the players, who share in 50 percent of the profits and are involved in decision-making regarding potential recruits, game formats and point scoring.
“There have been top-down endeavors where it’s usually the owners or commissioners who make the rules and then bring the players on afterward,” Patricof said. “For us, it’s exactly the opposite. We start with the players and work with them to design the league from the ground-up.”
Patricof said Athletes Unlimited has also pledged to help the players in their professional lives such as recently organizing a conference call for the players with a financial adviser and will provide housing and transportation for players during the league’s season in Boyds. Kristen Carr, a starting defender for the U.S. national team who graduated from Mercy and North Carolina, said she appreciates the personal touch.
“From a resource standpoint, Athletes Unlimited is very invested in us as players and people in helping our professional and personal development, and they’re also invested in us financially, which is just another avenue for women’s lacrosse where we’ve never been to that point yet,” said Carr, the defensive coordinator at Johns Hopkins. “So that was exciting to be a part of something so special. This helps kick-start the future of women’s sports as far as creating that visibility and that accessibility for the younger girls coming after us to wear that professional uniform.”
Broadcast partners for lacrosse have yet to be announced, but Patricof pointed out that 23 games of softball’s 30-game season aired on ESPN and the other seven on CBS and volleyball was broadcast by Fox and CBS.
Three-time Tewaaraton Award winner and former Maryland midfielder Taylor Cummings said Athletes Unlimited’s work with television partners merged with her objective of expanding women’s lacrosse’s reach.
“I think the ability to get women’s lacrosse in the mainstream market and in the mainstream sports world is huge,” said Cummings, who is also the McDonogh girls lacrosse head coach. “We’re trying to grow and get more eyes on our sport. So the connections that the administration within Athletes Unlimited has to media, marketing, and television are the things that our sport is desperate for. Just to be able to be backed by a group that is so highly thinks of lacrosse and wants to see us succeed not just as female athletes but as athletes in general was attractive.”
Patricof said a second softball season in Chicago is being planned for late August after the Summer Olympics Games in Tokyo. All 56 players in the league have agreed to return, and four additional players have been added — an encouraging sign that the model can work, Patricof said.
“We are going to be giving these games and the league more exposure than any league in women’s lacrosse has had before,” he said, adding that there will be 11 cameras for each game. “ … We’re putting the resources into the content and storytelling and the athlete experience, and I think that’s what you have to do. We’ve always said that the No. 1 criteria for success with Athletes Unlimited was the players loved playing in the league and wanted to return. We’ve seen that now with softball.”
While the college lacrosse season is ongoing, many of the professional players have not participated in organized competition since training camp for the U.S. national team ended in Nov. 2019. But players are eager to shed any rust that may have accumulated due to the coronavirus pandemic and to prepare for the World Lacrosse Women’s World Championship at Towson University next summer.
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“I think any opportunity to play is something that I cherish, especially after COVID,” Cummings said. “We’re also preparing for a World Cup. So it’s a great opportunity for a lot of the U.S. players in the tryout pool to not only get a stick in our hands more frequently, but play at the highest level. There’s so many pros to playing for the game of lacrosse and the U.S. team that it just made sense.”