Major League Lacrosse in Columbus?

Today’s guest post is courtesy of Tom Scovic and originally appeared on blog.tomscovic.com.

A few days ago, Inside Lacrosse reported that Major League Lacrosse was expanding to Charlotte, NC and Columbus, Ohio in 2012.  I’m sure they’ve done their homework on the two cities, but I question the viability of an MLL franchise in Columbus (I don’t know enough about North Carolina to make any assumptions for their new franchise).  As an Ohioan who loves lacrosse, I want it to work, but I’m just not 100% sold it will be successful. Professional lacrosse has already tried and failed in Columbus, as the indoor Landsharks moved to Phoenix after the 2003 season. I’m not saying this will be the outdoor club’s fate, but there are some definite hurdles facing the new franchise, the biggest being if fans will show up to the games.

Columbus is a tricky market.  Many professional teams have steered clear because there is only 1 team that matters in Columbus, the Buckeyes.  Ohio State University athletics create a very crowded marketplace for the fan’s dollar.  This is evidenced in other professional sports franchises in the city. The NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets are annually near the bottom in average attendance. Even when the Blue Jackets reached the playoffs in the 08-09 season, they were 25th out of 30 teams in attendance and averaged 85.7% capacity.  Similarly, the MLS Crew are routinely middle to bottom of the list in league attendance and were at 73% of capacity this past season.

I know a case likely made for a franchise here includes the fact that lacrosse is growing in the Midwest, especially Ohio, but if it was at a level to sustain a team in Columbus one would have to believe that the NCAA Buckeyes draw large crowds for their games.  This, however, is not the case.  If you look at an article such as this, you probably think I’m out of bounds with that statement.  However, Ohio State plays an annual game at the football stadium immediately before kick off of the spring football game, which inflates attendance figures. That is the only way OSU can average over 5,000 fans per game and rank second to Syracuse.  If you take out that game, average attendance for the last three years is as follows – 2010 – 866, 2009 – 877, 2008 – 635 (the complex where the team plays holds 10,000).  Those don’t seem like numbers that can keep a team alive.

I’m not saying its impossible for a team to thrive in a crowded, non-traditional market. The Denver Outlaws have done an incredible job drawing fans and have the best attendance in the MLL despite competition from NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS, and MLB teams (I know they aren’t all in the same season, but they all still compete for the same fan dollars). Is this success something that can be replicated or just luck? University of Denver had NCAA lacrosse prior to the arrival of the Outlaws.  Leading up to the introduction of an MLL franchise, using a similar 3 year window for comparison, DU averaged 482, 620, and 1,021 fans.  The Pioneers weren’t setting records by any stretch of the means, but there is an upward trend, which may have signaled an increase in demand for lacrosse in the marketplace.

My final concern for Major League Lacrosse expansion is ownership.  If there is an investor in Columbus interested in shelling out a $1.5M franchise fee, then more power to them.  I’m sure they took the time to do their homework and have a little more insight than I do from afar in Texas. However, if the league owns the team, as they do others in the league, I am afraid that they will again spread themselves too thin and face contractions like were seen after the 2008 season.

Once again, in no way am I hoping it doesn’t work out.  I genuinely hope they succeed and the MLL gets stronger. Current MLL teams struggle with attendance now, but they are still operational.  I hope it works in Columbus, but I also hope the MLL realizes the uphill battle they face. By planning in advance, and likely taking a few cues from the Outlaws (along with a little luck), the team may be able succeed and escape the fate of the Landsharks and other failed MLL franchises.

11 thoughts on “Major League Lacrosse in Columbus?

  • January 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm
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    Lacrosse is a tremendous game. Unfortunately, it is not a game that people are as familiar with as say, football, basketball, or hockey. I believe the MLL needs to incorporate fan education on the game as part of their overall approach. It is a game that will ‘hook you’ once you know more about it. It requires excellent speed, strength, and good eye-hand coordination and appeals to those who like a bit of hockey, basketball, and football all rolled into one. I hope it continues to grow at exponential rates in the sporting world!!

  • January 25, 2011 at 11:45 am
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    You’ve obviously spent a great deal of time on your post, but, as a sports industry leader, I’ll make this retort brief.

    1) Using hockey as an example for the success or failure of lacrosse? Bad choice!

    2) Comparing indoor anything (except perhaps basketball), to outdoor anything, another bad choice.

    3) Most financiers and investors in lacrosse, whether equipment, franchise or ticket holders, understand what is down the road. Youth baseball programs are being affected big time as lacrosse continues to grow in popularity.

    Granted, lacrosse isn’t there yet as a major event for the masses, but I really can see something on par to a Lacrosse Super Bowl in the future, especially as the NFL reduces the physicality of their sport. Soccer will never become a major spectator sport here in the USA, but lacrosse? It’s going to sail past soccer in a few short years and become what everyone thought MLS would become. Put your money in MLL or whatever league eventually spawns from this.

  • January 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm
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    Tom-

    Nice job on the article. I think one of the biggest issues that Lacrosse is facing, among many other sports leagues, is the disposable dollar. Many consumers, especially in parts of the Michigan, Ohio region have limited disposable income to spend. If these consumers are going to spend they are going to spend it on sports that they are already highly invested in. Lacrosse needs to continue to build their sport at the grassroots level to insure that when their younger fans reach an age when they too have that disposable dollar they will find more of a connection and willingness to spend on lacrosse.

  • January 25, 2011 at 5:15 pm
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    Chris –
    1. I was using hockey more as a basis of the Columbus apathy towards anything non-Ohio State. I know its not a good gauge of lax, especially since I heard the indoor team in Denver has been outselling the Avalanche.

    2. Assuming you were talking about lacrosse here, I know the box (NLL) and field (MLL) versions of lacrosse are quite different. Very different rules, very different game play. This is why the mention of the Landsharks was just that, a mention, and not a basis for any argument. Interestingly enough, right now I’m pretty confident box outdraws field, and field is what kids are playing in the US (Canada is a little different story).

    If you meant it as more, nothing indoor is as popular as outdoor, then I defer to my response on #1. Just talking about Columbus, as this was more about Columbus than nationally.

    3. I’d love to see big equipment go in whole hog, but haven’t quite seen it yet. Nike is partnered with a company that already has industry know-how (STX), but doesn’t have a wide distribution quite yet. To me at this poin in time, it seems like they are just dipping their toes in the water.

    I totally agree that there is a big shift in the future, and I want to see it and honestly be part of it. I’m just not sure it will have arrived in Columbus by 2012.

    Matt –
    True about the disposible dollar. I’m from NW Ohio, which has been hit about as hard as Detroit (a lot of auto suppliers out of Toledo), so I know there is not a surplus of disposible income. I agree with the grassroots method, but not confident it has been as effective as it should. I feel there is a real problem holding on to fans from the young age to adulthood. Compared to other sports, I think lacrosse is one of the best at giving back and getting in touch with youth players. However, I don’t think they’ve done a good job moving those youth players up the ladder to adult fans. Just because they were fans as kids, doesn’t mean they’ll be fans their whole lives. I think a strong effort to try to get back in touch with these types people could be effective as a part of the sport’s marketing efforts.

  • January 26, 2011 at 9:39 am
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    Tom,

    No arguments…Emails can really be so impersonal! It’s interesting to note that all the big equipment companies ARE in LAX:
    Reebok – Branded Lacrosse Equipment
    Nike – STX
    Under Armour – Branded Apparel
    New Balance – OWNS Brine and Warrior.

    A niche player, Maverik, was recently acquired by by a private equity group, so get ready for them to be everywhere. P.E. groups come in big and loud! And they generally do ALOT of homework and research before doing so.

    Everything is lined up and ready to go. There needs to be a few rules changes, and a few more “personalities” on the field, but it’s coming. For any sport to succeed, you need the player “cowboys” like Tom Brady, which are about 99% of the current MLL players, and “Indian” player, i.e. Darelle Revis, to draw attention and generate intrigue. There also needs to be more more regional rivalries developed (red Sox/Yankees), to get the passions of the fans going so they buy merchandise (revenue) and tickets (PR). But this will come when players and owners can make enough money to be able to afford long term contracts and stop moving from team to team because they get a new job or coaching position somewhere else to pay their bills.

    It’s a work in progress. But, it is frustrating all the same. I went to the Nike ID site to create another pair of cleats for my son’s upcoming season. They currently have “cleats” for track, football and baseball in almost February. That’s 1 month out from the HS season beginning. And the football cleats are low tops. He ALWAYS wears 3/4 hieght for support as he is a fast middie who does a lot of cutting. And if you speak to the Lax’ers, they will buy Brine & Warrior EQUIPMENT, not shoes, and Nike, Reebok & Under Armor FOOTWEAR, but not equipment. Some body will split the middle and my bet is Maverik. Especially with the Rabil as it’s spokesperson.

    Yes, I could take lacrosse further, but, not my job, yet! LOL

    But its all good! No worries…

  • January 26, 2011 at 2:21 pm
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    Got it. I didn’t mean to come back rude either.

    Adidas is in the sport too aside from the Reebok connection. They are making gloves/armpads/shoulder pads and uniforms for Notre Dame and Michigan among others.

    I recently met with the Maverik folks. They put on a great coach clinic here in Dallas. Wonderful people. From my experience, they are also big in the growing lax regions such as Arizona. I didn’t know they were getting into footwear. That could be big for them and bridge that gap. Could Rabil do shoes for them with his UA deal?

    I saw a lot of guys who I coached going with the Nike Hurrache cleats, and I think Nike is trying to push them as lax cleats. I’ve personally never worn them so don’t know how well they work.

    I think you’re right with the need for the cowboy/indian dynamic. More big stars that will attract attention in general would be great. Also, I think the MLL is still pretty handcuffed with their sponsors. Making every team wear the same uniforms and use the same gear hurts the sustainability of franchises. Maybe not a big issue now because a lot of teams are league owned, but in the future I think it could hold things back.

    I’m in the preliminary stages of crafting some Texas MLL feasibility studies (multiple ones based on location) with a few colleagues. If we find it favorable we may try to back a city trying to entice a team down here. So maybe that might lead to something down the pike for me. If you have any input or interest, or just want to talk lacrosse any further, I’m always open, drop me a line tomscovic@gmail.com.

  • January 26, 2011 at 3:05 pm
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    Tom,

    No worries! I was gonna mention Adidas, lost train of thought I guess, but you’re right! And I didn’t mean to imply that Maverik WAS into footwear, but with their new $$, could be. Hell, I sourced shoes, and if can do it, anyone can! And as far as anyone, I met with UA a few years back and offered them a new technology while they were developing their first footwear collection. As a marketing company, they chose to take the easy (stupid) route, and make a generic shoe and slap a logo on it. Round 3, with the 3rd generation of footwear developers on board now. I hope IF Maverik goes that route, they learn from that! I know K.P. is learning a huge lesson, but I did warn him.

    Rabil would not be able to sponsor both, so again, you’re right. Something would have to give. But as it stands now, the current life a pro lax’er isn’t that long, so by the time Maverik did develop GOOD shoes, he may be retired anyway! LOL

    Make sure you include temperature and climate in your feasibility studies. Nothing kills a game of lacrosse like 100 degree temps with high humidity!! Gatorade and Budweiser may like it, but it sucks to be a player!

  • January 29, 2011 at 10:25 am
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    Yep….As I said above!

  • January 29, 2011 at 10:31 am
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    Have I gained any credibility with you??? lol

    Chris said on January 26th, 2011 at 9:39 am
    A niche player, Maverik, was recently acquired by by a private equity group, so get ready for them to be everywhere. P.E. groups come in big and loud! And they generally do ALOT of homework and research before doing so.

    Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) -Bauer Performance Sports Ltd. filed documents with Canadian regulators to sell shares in an initial public offering…

  • January 29, 2011 at 3:34 pm
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    Haha. You had credibility. I knew they were acquired by Kohlberg, but I didn’t know that they were looking toward an IPO with Bauer.

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