July 6, 2011

MLL Commish Talks Expansion, Rookie Draft Vote

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com

MLL commisioner David Gross said the league's plan to expand to 10 teams by the 2013 season remains in place. The Charlotte Hounds and Ohio Machine will join the league in 2012, and expect an announcment in January on the 2013 expansion teams.

Will Major League Lacrosse return to California? Or are more new teams headed to the Southeast?

MLL commissioner David Gross addressed members of the lacrosse media Wednesday in advance of Saturday's MLL all-star game in Boston, and among the topics he addressed was league expansion. The expansion Charlotte Hounds and Ohio Machine are set to join the league for 2012, and Gross said Wednesday the league plans in January to announce two more teams to begin play for the 2013 season.

This supports the expansion plan that Lacrosse Magazine reported last December, in which the league named 19 target expansion markets. North Carolina, home of the recently fan-named Hounds, and Columbus, Ohio, where the Machine will play, were two of those markets.

But where will the new teams for 2013 be located? Gross said that returning the league to California — the league had teams in San Francisco and Los Angeles from 2006-08 — is a possibility. So, too, is adding teams in the Southeast.

"We're narrowing down the markets," Gross said. "Right now, it's where do we go? Do we do two on the West Coast, going back to Southern California and Northern California? Or do we go Southeast with the teams? There's a lot of interest in the markets. Right now, we're still spending time on the due diligence as to which are the best two. We're looking to make the announcement next January."

The list of 19 markets indentified by Gross in December (not including North Carolina and Ohio where the 2012 teams are set to go) include, in alphabetical order: Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami, Minneapolis, Nashville (Tenn.), Orange County (Calif.), Orlando (Fla.), Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Virginia Beach (Va.). The league has also examined the possibility of a team in either Portland, Ore., or Seattle. Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, home of former MLL franchises Machine, Barrage and Dragons, respectively, are also on the list.

Orange County and San Francisco are those markets located in California. Atlanta, Nashville, Orlando, Virginia Beach and Miami are the Southeast possibilities.

The Denver Outlaws are the only team remaining from the league's four-team westward expansion for the 2006 season. The Chicago Machine saw poor attendance and played a season on the road in test markets before essentially becoming the team now known as the Rochester Rattlers. The Dragons and Los Angeles Riptide both exited the league after the 2008 season.

The MLL's proposed expansion plan would return the outdoor pro league to the 10-team size it once enjoyed.

As for 2012 expansion, the expansion draft for the Hounds and Machine will happen in December, about a week before the supplemental draft. At league meetings on Friday, it will be determined how many players each of the six current MLL franchises can protect for the Hounds/Machine draft.

Among other topics Gross discussed Wednesday was the preseason MLL rookie draft.

At the same league meetings Friday, a vote by the 13-member league board of managers will be held on whether to continue to hold the draft in January prior to the spring NCAA season, or go back to holding it after Memorial Day weekend and the college season's conclusion. A majority vote will decide.

Gross said the league's position is to continue to hold the draft before the season.

"My personal opinion is it was a home run for us holding the draft in January," he said.

He said added media attention this spring had been a huge positive, both in print and online articles and mentions of future MLL players during college lacrosse television broadcasts, and that there is a "trickle down" effect, although the direct effect on increased attendance figures is hard to tell.

"There was a lot of MLL talk, typically in a down period for us," Gross said. "It really made MLL part of the springtime conversation, which we haven't had in the past. Did it play out negatively for some teams? Absolutely. We knew it was going to happen. But from our end, from the league office standpoint, we think it would be a mistake to change what we're going right now. We're going to push for it, and see how the vote turns out."

Gross used Hamilton Nationals rookie attackman Jeremy Boltus as an on-the-field example of the positive effect the draft. Boltus was able to play immediately for the Nationals in Week 1 since Army did not make the NCAA postseason. Boltus has 14 goals and five assists this season for 19 points, the most among MLL rookies, and could be considered the leading candidate for the MLL Rookie of the Year.

Gross also said the league worked closely for about a year with the NCAA, and made sure MLL teams were aware of not violating any college players' eligibility. He commended the teams following the rules this spring.

"The teams did a great job of not contacting any players and respecting the college season," Gross said. "There were zero issues from our standpoint. Some of the college coaches had concerns about it being a distraction, but I think it all proved not to be the case."

MLL coaches have generally supported the idea of the pre-college season MLL draft. Even Denver Outlaws coach Tom Slate, who saw two of the Outlaws' draft picks (Princeton's Jack McBride and Hofstra's Steve Serling) become MLL ineligible this spring, supports it. McBride was injured and will use a fifth-year of college eligibility next spring. Serling suffered a ruptured spleen that's left his playing career in question.

"We were the most hurt by having the draft before the season ... but I absolutely love the fact that we had it before the season," Slate said. "I'm in this to grow the sport, and to grow the MLL. To have Quint [Kessenich] and Joe Beninati mention the MLL during the ESPNU college games was awesome."

Slate said the only change he requests is that MLL teams be able to get a commitment from college players that they plan to play MLL. Slate pointed to the Bratton twins' decision to play on the LXM Tour as a negative for Boston Cannons coach Bill Daye. But that scenario will not happen, per league rules.

"It's frustrating for the [MLL] coaches not to speak to the players," Gross said, "but it's very important to us as an organization that we don't do anything to upset anyone's eligibility."

Gross said Friday's vote would only consider if to hold the draft before or after the college season, not during it. If that was the case, teams could benefit from a competition standpoint and possibilty better evaluate players after a few games of their senior seasons. But Gross said if held during the season the draft would then likely become a distraction to college players and programs, which the league would like to avoid causing.

"That's not our intent," he said. "Also, we would miss out on the publicity time if we miss half a season of games."

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