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'Fledgling' United Women's Lacrosse League trying to find footing with fans, sponsors

The Philadelphia Force's Alyssa Murray, left, takes on the Long Island Sound's Sloane Serpe in a game this season.
The Philadelphia Force's Alyssa Murray, left, takes on the Long Island Sound's Sloane Serpe in a game this season. (Justin Lafleur)

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law that mandates gender equity in college sports, is remarkable for the breadth of its impact. It has, in women's lacrosse, yielded scholarships for student-athletes, an NCAA-recognized championship, hours of live TV programming and ever more participants by the year.

The bill has, in other words, molded the sport into what it is today. The challenge for the first-year United Women's Lacrosse League, whose semifinals and final will be held this weekend at Homewood Field, is not that the sport has been denied the opportunity to prosper. The challenge is capitalism: Title IX can nurture a sport, but it cannot put butts into seats.

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"It's no longer just, 'Here you go. Here's the money, girls. Have at it,' " said Digit Murphy, the league's co-founder, along with Aronda Kirby. "It's: 'Wow, what's the [return on investment]? … What's the market value? What's the market share?' "

The answers have become clearer as the UWLX itself, the first semiprofessional post-collegiate league for women, has raised a more interesting question: Is this what the sport's future looks like?

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When Ali Flury's illustrious career at the University of Denver came to a close in the spring of 2010, the Broadneck High graduate assumed her playing days had concluded as well.

Lacrosse is the fastest-growing team sport in the United States, with national participation in 2015 eclipsing 800,000 for the first time, according to the sport's national governing body, but its commercial appeal remains limited. While the number of programs at the high school and college level grows rapidly, average attendance at Major League Lacrosse games from 2012 to 2015 decreased over 21 percent, to 4,384.

The UWLX's tight hold on its purse strings reflects the bleakness of a market inhospitable to even more popular sports like women's basketball. There are just four teams: the Baltimore Ride, Boston Storm, Long Island Sound and Philadelphia Force. The league's 80 players are compensated only for the cost of travel. Games are held at the sites of well-attended youth tournaments in the Northeast.

Ride defender Sam Farrell (Severna Park), the former South River girls coach who now works for San Diego-based Mad Dog Lacrosse, said that "financially, it probably wouldn't have worked" if she hadn't been with her club team on the East Coast for some of the UWLX games.

"Obviously, in the first year, it's always financial," said Murphy, also the co-founder of the nonprofit Play It Forward Sport Foundation, which partnered with lacrosse equipment company STX to form the league. "If you want to keep your league going, how do you sustain the model?"

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With a limited media presence — regular-season games were broadcast on Lax Sports Network, a subscription-based online channel — the league "is only going to be as strong as its backbone," meaning sponsors and fans, said Jen Adams, who coaches the Ride (3-5) as well as Loyola Maryland. UWLX has deals with supermarket chain ACME and the New England Sports Market, in addition to STX, and the average announced attendance is about 500. In separate interviews, Murphy called the league "fledgling," and commissioner Michele "DJ" DeJuliis acknowledged: "Quite honestly, yeah, there are a lot of changes that need to be made to make sure that we can sustain this."

Maybe UWLX's most important changes have made the game fundamentally different from the one Adams and DeJuliis, both National Lacrosse Hall of Famers, grew up playing. Among the alterations: a 90-second shot clock (foreshadowing its implementation in Division I next season), a two-point line, 10-on-10 action and freedom of movement on whistles. The new pace? "Incredibly blinding," said Adams, nothing like the games that, at their start-and-stop worst, can resemble the children's game "Red light, green light."

The highlights can at once uplift and disappoint. On June 10, Dana Dobbie (Maryland), a Ride attacker and Loyola Maryland assistant coach, made a full-extension catch on the edge of the crease, and, back to the goal and angle worsening by the millisecond, dropped her stick beneath her waist and pushed a shot between her legs and into the net, as if trying to hit a croquet ball behind her. A Vine of the move had been looped nearly 90,000 times as of Friday night, and the accompanying post on Twitter retweeted over 430 times.

DeJuliis lamented that more people have not seen such did-you-see-that plays, but she urged patience. Only three years ago, Farrell signed with Team STX, touted as the first elite post-collegiate women's team, and yet never did she expect that there would be a professional women's league in her lifetime. "It's just been so fun to kind of watch this dream become a reality right now," Farrell said.

Adams, maybe the sport's best-ever player, is 36 now, her best days on the field behind her, but the league's existence is no longer so bittersweet. She's happy to be a coach, she said. She would've settled for being a water girl.

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