Preston: Pro lacrosse hoping to have turned corner after struggling to catch on in Baltimore

Bayhawks attackman Matt Danowski, right, and Charlotte Hounds defenseman Robert Duvnjak vie for a loose ball in the first half of Major League Lacrosse game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis Friday, June 16, 2017. (Photo by Steve Ruark for Capital Gazette)
Bayhawks attackman Matt Danowski, right, and Charlotte Hounds defenseman Robert Duvnjak vie for a loose ball in the first half of Major League Lacrosse game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis Friday, June 16, 2017. (Photo by Steve Ruark for Capital Gazette) (Steve Ruark / Capital Gazette)

Brendan Kelly owns a team in Major League Lacrosse, but is also one of its top salesmen.

Despite being located near one of the meccas of the sport, close to Baltimore, the professional game hasn't caught on strongly even though the Chesapeake Bayhawks are one of the league's flagship franchises having won an unprecedented five championships.


But Kelly said he has seen a turning point in recent years because of new hires within the league.

"I've been more excited in the last 12 months than I've been in the previous seven years," said Kelly, who purchased the Bayhawks in March 2010. "Ownership has changed; we're bringing in heads of sports franchises and sports companies.


"The owner of our Boston team is one-half owner of the Celtics and the Denver Broncos have some ownership in our Denver organization," added Kelly, whose team opens training camp this weekend. "We added some members of our front office staff who were with the Ravens and the NBA to help with our sports marketing and sales. I think we've added some game changers."

You admire Kelly for his enthusiasm. And he is right about the added game changers. Alexander P. Brown became the MLL's new commissioner in February and has an extensive background in launching and building sports media outlets.

Bayhawks president Mark Burdett spent 12 years as the Ravens vice president of sales and development and Keith Weldon, the team's vice president of business ventures, also previously worked in sales with the Ravens.

But is that enough?

When you think of pro sports teams in areas surrounding Annapolis, you think of the Ravens and Orioles from Baltimore and the Wizards, Nationals and Capitals from Washington. Bayhawks lacrosse is in the same category as the Blast or the old Skipjacks hockey team.

As Shack Stanwick moves closer to his final game as a member of the Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse team, the Stanwick family is bracing for the end of an era.

What is missing in pro lacrosse is a tradition and heritage. If Big Biff played lacrosse, than there is a good chance Little Biff has or will play, too. They'll most likely go to the same school and enjoy the same rivalries, which is why the sport struggles growing nationally.

Yet at the same time, the passion is so strong, which is why high school rivalries in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference are so intense and traditional powers such as Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Virginia have such strong followings.

Kelly is working on the tradition. That's why he rehired Dave Cottle as his head coach. Cottle went to Northern High in Baltimore, starred at Salisbury and went on to become a Hall of Fame college coach at Loyola Maryland and Maryland.

"When I first purchased this team, I never thought I would have people like Dave, Mark and Keith working in the same building with me," Kelly said. "Dave has won three titles in this league and we're just going back and approach the draft like we did before.

"If we get players from our areas that include Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, Virginia and Delaware, and they put on our jersey, it will mean a little more. It makes it special. We want to build that kind of spirit, that type of chemistry."

According to Kelly, the average attendance of a league game is about 5,800. On July 4, 2017, an Outlaws game in Denver drew 26,614 and the Bayhawks had 10,002 show up for a game two days earlier.

Kelly is happy to say that season-ticket sales have gone up 20 percent for each of the past two seasons. Those types of things show him that MLL and its nine-team league is on the upswing.


Some Bayhawks games this season will be shown on NBC Sports Washington and league owners are confident Brown, a Gilman graduate, will be able to work out something soon with a major network.

The league needs stability. The Bayhawks have shown that by settling on a residence in Annapolis. Since their original season in 2001, they have moved to Johns Hopkins, M&T Bank Stadium, Towson University, Washington, D.C., and Annapolis.

Boston College's Kenzie Kent, the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s NCAA tournament, will redshirt the 2018 lacrosse season. Meanwhile, Mount St. Mary's goalie Jillian Petito is posting some of the top stats in Division I.

Kelly is involved in preliminary talks and drawing up plans to build a 12,000-seat multisports complex in Crownsville, where an old state hospital used to be located.

The facility would also include a 6,000-seat amphitheater, 20 youth fields for various sporting contests and a three-story team headquarters. The project is expected to cost $40 million.

"I'm excited about that potential, how big of a statement that would be," Kelly said. "That site has been dormant for 17 years and we're in the process of studying it. But it's something we need in the Mid-Atlantic region. We would like to break ground in the fall of 2019 and begin play in 2021, no later than 2022."

The MLL game sells itself. Traditionalists will criticize the pro game for a lack of defense, but it's just so much faster than the college game because of the shot clock and the two-point goal. No deficit is insurmountable.

Most of the players are specimens. In the mid-1980s, a "big midfielder" was 6 feet and weighed 180 pounds. In the MLL, you're getting 6-4 and 6-5 midfielders weighing at least 220.

In recreation and high school, lacrosse goalies are taught to step toward the ball. In the MLL, goalies survive because of quick hands and reflexes. Shots are so hard there isn't time to step.

Kelly is hoping that the NCAA eventually adopts its rules, like it did with pro and college basketball in adding dunks, the shot clock and the 3-point shot. The thought is that a universal approach might be more appealing for the entire sport.

The sport has evolved. When the MLL first started, nearly 80 percent of the players worked other jobs outside of lacrosse. Kelly estimates now that 80 percent work full-time in the sport as a player or coach, or with involvement with various camps.

It might not seem like that a big deal, but all these things add up. They make Kelly believe that the sport is moving in the right direction. After years of struggling, he sees some light at the end of the tunnel.

And he's telling anybody who wants to buy into a product he loves to sell.



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