February 20, 2009

Gross: 'We're Going to Survive'

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

And then there were six.

A tumultuous offseason for Major League Lacrosse resulted in a windfall of news out of league offices Thursday. Citing economic difficulties, the MLL has contracted four teams and sent another to Toronto, where commissioner David Gross is today for a press conference unveiling the new team's name and logo.

The two-time MLL champion Philadelphia Barrage, a year after the team's ownership group abandoned it to a 12-game road show, is no longer. Teams in Los Angeles, New Jersey and San Francisco have likewise been terminated. Most of the players remaining from the now-defunct Rochester Rattlers have been reassigned to Toronto, with scores of others wondering just how they'll make cuts for stacked rosters.

In the following Q&A, MLL commissioner David Gross provides the complete breakdown of how it all came to pass.

Now that the immediate future of Major League Lacrosse has become public, what kind of reactions have you encountered from players and fans?

Obviously, the rumors have been out there for a while. I don't think this is a real big surprise to anyone. Now we've got to digest what this does from a talent standpoint and how it affects all the rosters. Players are finally like, "Oh, it's going to be hard to make a team this year." That's probably the biggest impact right now.

What about the various front office groups?

You never want to drop your number of teams. But in this environment, I don't know what business isn't contracting these days.

We were close to [securing] a couple of other cities [for MLL franchises] for ‘09, but at the end, we didn't think it was the right time to give those markets such a short window to launch.

It seems strange to talk about expansion so shortly after contracting, but is there any truth to the rumor that the MLL plans to add two teams in 2010? Were you hoping for eight in '09, rather than six?

A couple of other markets wanted to come in for this year, 2009. We weren't comfortable with such a short window. Let's hold off until 2010 and make sure it's going to be a bright launch for everybody if we do it. We don't want to expand for expansion's sake.

A lot of players have called and said, "Hey, I loved the league when we were six." We've got a core of owners committed to this.

Who ultimately holds the keys to the MLL's success? Is it up to the players to go all in? The owners? The fans?

There's a tremendous number of stakeholders involved in this. Let's just start at the root: we need fans buying tickets and attending games. That's where for us as a league it all starts. The more fans that are willing to do that, the more revenue you have for the teams to make it financially viable for ownership groups, the more opportunities teams and the league will have to attract corporate sponsors, the better it's going to look on TV and the more revenue you get opens potential for it to become a full-time job for players. Then, this thing becomes self-sustaining.

Everyone involved from top to bottom in the league has got to think of themselves as a ticket sales organization - the league office, teams and players. It's anyone who wants this thing to grow.

Has this decision created a sense of urgency around the league?

You can see how the economy is affecting everything. This is the worst economy we've ever been in our lives. It's a scary world out there. Not every business is guaranteed to be around forever. It takes people doing what they need to do to keep this going.

With so many players relocating, how would you advise teams to engender them to their respective markets?

We have to be out there doing grass roots. In the markets we play in, for us to put down a big ad campaign, we can't spend enough to make the impact. We're grassroots play. We've got to find a way to make our events compelling enough...Each market's different with this, but people have got to be creative. We've brought in a group to help train all of our teams. We've got to train all of our people to get past "no," and show people why it's in their interest to go out and support their team.

Can you provide a play-by-play about how the MLL reached the point of contraction?

A year ago, we lost the Barrage ownership, and the league decided to take the team on the road to test future markets (Cary, N.C., Dallas, Portland, St. Louis and Virginia Beach) for the MLL for expansion. We were looking to market the club and either have it go back to Philly or move it elsewhere - and we came close at a lot of different points from last January on. Either we weren't comfortable with the group or the group had concerns, and the deal didn't get done.

Then Labor Day Weekend hit, and all hell broke loose in this country.

We ran into a situation where New Jersey just wasn't working for us as a market. Venue was always an issue. We couldn't sell beer at Rutgers. Jersey year in, year out has always been our weakest market. We were planning all along to move that team to a different market.

Then AEG (Anschultz Entertainment Group, former Los Angeles Riptide owner) advised us that they were cutting back on their sports enterprises and getting back to their core entertainment business.

San Francisco - they went sour after Labor Day.

We went from having two teams to market to having four teams to market, all of a sudden. And a lot of the groups that showed interest in the markets got scared off for a variety of reasons.

We were ready to pull the trigger to move one of the teams to Raleigh-Durham (N.C.), but couldn't work out a lease at the venue we played at last summer.

We also had a situation of a group very interested in Columbus (Ohio), but there had been talks that the owner of the stadium was going to sell it. They didn't want to pull the trigger until they knew who the owner of the venue was going to be.

With Orlando, we couldn't get to the finish line early enough in a market that was going to take a little longer time to promote for us.

We kept looking at situations. Do we go with six? Do we go with eight? Virginia Beach remained a possibility, as did Portland and Salt Lake City (Utah). None of them were moving fast enough or we were hitting roadblocks.

Finally, we made the decision to go down to six. And once we went down to six, the other markets heated back up for us. OK, maybe we go with eight. But finally, a week ago Friday, if things weren't done by 5 p.m., we were to go with what we had.

Toronto was coming in all along to replace Rochester. OK, we have six. Now we've got to move players around - not only from the four teams [contracted], but with a team in Toronto that, with the way the economy is, needs to be more local in nature. We brought in all the teams for a meeting Wednesday, listened to everyone's opinions, moved guys to different teams and finalized rosters that night.

This is a very unifying time for us with the league, our teams and our players.

How was each player considered in the reallocation? What were the terms? Was there player input?

One of the first things we did during the offseason was reach out to every player and ask, "Where are you going to be this summer?" We weren't just going off where someone gets their W-2 sent. "What potential conflicts will you run into being a player this summer?"

It wasn't just geography. There are certain players associated so strongly with their team that we weren't going to move them no matter what. Some players also said for business purposes it was very important to be in a certain market. But yes, any player in the Denver area needs to be on Denver, and any player in the Chicago area needs to be on Chicago.

The main thing was keeping everyone competitive. You can ask six different people who's got the best team, and you'll have six different answers.

Was folding up shop for a year ever discussed or considered?

No. It never came up.

I met with Chris Massey, who runs the players' council, the first week of December and filled him in as best as I could at the time. I kept telling him I don't want to say too much, because I'd probably be wrong an hour later, but I did say we will have a league.

Why in your best opinion did franchises fail in the four (five if you include Rochester) cities that folded?

I would never blame any individual ownership group or any market. These things take time. We haven't had that many years to plant our flag in any of these markets, to build rivalry and get recognition...

We have three criteria we've got to have to make this thing work. We need an ownership group that preferably has a background in sports that can understand what it takes to leverage other businesses to keep their costs in line and cross promote. We need the right venues to play in that have the amenities fans expect when they go to a pro game. And we need the right market, one that will support professional sports whether top tier or second tier, where there'll be corporate sponsorship behind the teams and support for the market.

Look at Philadelphia. Where Philadelphia played their years there hurt them. You couldn't get beer at Villanova. It was bench seating. Both Villanova and USTC had wonderful people to deal with, but not an ideal venue. And Franklin Field was enormous. Those things always worked against us.

In better times, would you ever consider returning to the contracted markets?

Yes, we would look at all of them in the right circumstances. We believe we can make teams work in those markets.

The one I'd be most skeptical about is New Jersey. New Jersey fans often view themselves as either Philadelphia or New York. The [NHL's] Devils don't even draw that well, and they've been in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.

How taxing has this been on you as an individual?

The most taxing thing from my standpoint is knowing that a bunch of guys that want to be in our league can't be in our league this year. And even in some of these markets where we've pulled teams out, they all had some fans. There's no more of a loyal fan base than in Rochester. That's the stuff you get heartbroken over.

How do you plan to reenergize fans after such uncertainty?

In a lot of ways, it's going to make us a stronger league. When you cut back, it almost reenergizes everybody. Teams are excited, players are exited and fans are more passionate to make this thing work. I haven't really felt this energy since the first year of the league. We're the underdog, and we've got to scrap for everything we get.

How important is it now for players to get out in front of the fans for face-to-face interaction?

We have got to get not just our stars, but all of our players out in the community as much as possible...These are the best lacrosse players in the world. We've got to make sure people understand that...If we can't get media coverage, then we've got to do a better job of covering ourselves, to talk about these guys and show them underneath the helmet.

Point blank, what's it going to take for the MLL to survive?

We're going to survive. We're not going away. To thrive, we've got to focus solely on growing our fan base, making events compelling and entertaining, and giving people a reason to come out and support us all season.

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