The National Lacrosse League is gearing up for its 2014 season, beginning in just a few short weeks. This past year saw the first increase in attendance that the league has seen in a number of years, suggesting that things are as stable as they have been in some time.
So one question that might now be asked is: Is it time to shake things up and look to expanding to new cities?
The league invested a lot of time and effort into expansion in the first decade of this century, with mixed results. The Vancouver Stealth (2000, as the Albany Attack), Calgary Roughnecks (2002), Minnesota Swarm (2002, as the Montreal Express) and Edmonton Rush (2006) are the only teams still in existence from that era of expansion (and technically, the Rush are a resurrection of the defunct Ottawa Rebel franchise, not an expansion).
Casualties of that expansion era include the New Jersey Storm, Columbus Landsharks, Vancouver Ravens, Arizona Sting, Portland LumberJax, Chicago Shamrox, Boston Blazers and New York Titans.
A number of those franchises were set up in areas where lacrosse isn’t terribly popular, so it isn’t too surprising they failed. But Boston, Vancouver and, to a lesser extent, New York are places where there are potential lacrosse audiences that the NLL wasn’t able to lock down.
The NLL returned to Vancouver over the summer when it was announced that the Washington Stealth were moving north from Everett, WA to Langley, BC. This was the team’s third move, beginning their existence as the Albany Attack, then moving cross-country to San Jose and becoming the Stealth in 2004. Now, after four years where they were very successful on the floor (three trips to the Champion’s Cup in four years), but had limited success in the stands (consistently at the bottom of NLL attendance figures), they’ve moved to a true hotbed of lacrosse.
The hope is that this latest attempt to break into the Vancouver market will tap into the lacrosse fanbase of the area in a way that the Ravens weren’t able to do. Indeed, if they can sell out the Langley Events Centre for every game this year, it would mean a 20 percent increase in ticket sales compared to their last year in Washington, which is a massive step in the right direction.
That still leaves holes in the NLL’s coverage of key areas, but there is some potentially good news.
Forest City Enterprises are gearing up to renovate the Naussau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and part of their end game includes bringing the NLL back to New York. Being able to re-establish in that market would bring dramatically more attention to the league, based simply on the media attention all things New York receive.
The NLL has also begun to plant the seeds for a return to Montreal.
For the second year in a row, a lacrosse event was held at the Bell Centre, better known as the home of the Montreal Canadiens. In this year’s case, it was an exhibition match between Team Canada and the Iroquois Nationals, featuring numerous NLL players. A solid crowd of 7,500 attended the match; consistent crowds of that size would put them sixth in attendance in the NLL which is a great start for a new franchise.
If the league can build interest in New York and Montreal, leading to solid management groups placing new teams in those markets, it could do wonders to grow the sport, create momentum, and open the door for further expansion into other key spots such as the Boston and Baltimore areas, both big lacrosse locations. And the league might also turn their eyes back to California where the lacrosse community has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years.
But for now, the league will be keeping a close eye on how things go in Langley this season. If things are encouraging there, more locations could merit consideration sooner rather than later.