4-year-old MLL has a mix of sun, clouds

Long-term future murky, but fifth year certainty for Bayhawks & Co.

Pro Lacrosse

August 20, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

As Major League Lacrosse prepares to wrap up its fourth season this weekend with its championship tournament, the venture continues to experience growing pains.

Only one of the six franchises, Boston, is apt to show a definitive profit. Two others, the Bayhawks and Rochester, are becoming solvent and three are struggling. But there is no doubt the league will return next summer.

"We already know we'll be around for Year 5," said MLL chief operating officer David Gross, who took over the league's direction for 2004. "I think for a fourth year, we're doing very well."

Still, longtime associates of the league admit that the original goals for attendance were far too optimistic.

Only Boston has reached the 5,000-a-game figure officials believed possible when the league was formed for 2001. Long Island, New Jersey and Philadelphia all averaged less than 3,000 a game this year.

The country's two traditional hotbeds for lacrosse, Baltimore and Long Island, produced disappointing gate results until the Bayhawks surged this season, thanks to a change of venue to Towson University, a change of leadership to general manager Jay Pivec and some breaks from Mother Nature.

The Bayhawks' average attendance increased from 2,470 in 2003 to 4,316 this year.

"We've turned the corner," said Bayhawks majority owner Dave Pivec. "The first couple of years, I failed dismally and spent way too much [in advertising]. Now, we're selling tickets one at a time and I lay a majority of the reason why we're over the hump to my nephew [Jay]."

The inflated early estimates of potential popularity have affected the players, who were forced to take salary slashes when paid attendance lagged. Two games have been cut from the schedule of every team the past two years, compensating for some of the cuts, but the average salary has dropped into the $13,000 range, hardly enough to make it a full-time job.

"Personally, I thought we were paid a little more than we should've been that first year," said Bayhawks attackman Tom Marechek. "I thought they [the league] were in over their heads a little."

Although the vast majority of players understand that they are pioneers, there is still some grumbling.

"We're kind of unhappy that they keep cutting," said the Bayhawks' Paul Cantabene, who set an MLL record by winning 238 faceoffs. "We don't get a whole lot of practice pay or travel reimbursement. Some guys won't play because it's not worth taking their weekends all summer. They have family obligations.

"Guys are hoping that one day, if they play indoor and outdoor, it can be full-time work. But I don't know if it'll ever get to that point. We understand the dilemma. They're a company trying to make money. But we make a lot of sacrifices. We've sucked it up for a while. There is going to be a time when the league is going to have to give back a bit.

"But I think we're headed in the right direction."

The product is well received by the fans who do attend. The game is fast, competitive and exciting, in large measure because of a shot clock, two-point goal and the immense skill of the players.

But there have been hitches in the administration. For instance, the All-Star Game was canceled this season and the playoffs moved in June from Philadelphia - site of last year's tournament - to Boston.

"The All-Star Game in 2003 wasn't a great game," said Gross. "Expense wasn't even a factor. It was that we had to play it on a Thursday night and everybody was playing two days later. The players were reluctant to put it all on the line. We're working on dedicating a week just for the All-Star Game."

Would the league draw better if the games were played in the spring - when lacrosse interest is at its height? Would television coverage be less effective then? Is expansion in the picture? These are all questions officials are addressing.

The success of two games this year in the West - Seattle attracted more than 9,000 fans and Denver more than 8,000 for games involving the Bayhawks - has the MLL thinking toward the West Coast.

"We have plans to double in size over four years," said Gross. "Our plan is to grow slow and steady. There are a lot of reasons to go west and we'll do games in both those venues next summer. Thirteen people have inquired about teams. In the meantime, we need better local ownership in some places where we should be doing better."

Team-by-team 2004 MLL attendance

No. Team....Avg. ....Comment

1. Boston.... 5,681....Not known as a lacrosse hotbed, strong marketing has team ahead of the field.

2. Rochester.... 4,421....By next season, this franchise could turn a small profit.

3. Bayhawks.... 4,316....Made significant strides this summer with favorable weather, improved sales.

4. Long Island.... 2,910....Struggling at the gate despite a history of success on the field.

5. New Jersey.... 2,491.... Eleven consecutive defeats after winning opener didn't help.

6. Philadelphia.... 2,444 Late transfer from Bridgeport, Conn., left little time to sell tickets.

League average....4,080....Games in Seattle and Denver boosted the final total.

- Kent Baker

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