February 17, 2014

MLL-LXM Deal: 'Feels Good to Talk About Each Other'

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Starting this season, LXM players can play in the MLL and vice versa as a part of a partnership announced by Adrenaline and the MLL last week. (Dirk Dewachter; John Strohsacker)

The Major League Lacrosse-LXM Pro Tour détente happened rather quickly, once the elephant in the room, or over the phone, was addressed.

There had been debate since late 2009 — when LXM Pro was founded in affiliation with Adrenaline, a San Diego-based apparel line and retail chain. What was better: the new LXM barnstorming tour or the already-existing MLL, which had its first full season in 2001? Or was it even close?

The debate continued with each new season; each time LXM announced a slate of events in developing lacrosse areas, or each time a notable player like Peter Baum or Shamel Bratton took his talents to the Southern California-based group, even after being picked in the first round of the MLL collegiate draft.

The talk could be hard to ignore, Adrenaline CEO Alex Cade said last week in an interview after a landmark partership between his company and MLL was announced, one which will allow LXM players to play in MLL, and vice versa.

"On both sides, I think the concern was mostly the stuff that was floating in the air before we actually got on the phone and talked," said Cade, who placed an initial call to MLL commissioner Dave Gross, who worked for the Boston Cannons when the former Notre Dame All-American goalie Cade briefly played for the MLL franchise.

"As I suspected, we're way more on the same page about a lot of things than the world might suspect. It was refreshing. It was awesome. Any kind of anxiety or sticking points were probably just beforehand thinking that there was a perception that there wasn't."

That hadn't always been the case. Since MLL began, first with the professional outdoor Summer Showcase in 2000, players had been only allowed to play with New Balance products — which included Warrior and Brine — and Cascade helmets. The league was co-founded by Warrior CEO Dave Morrow and Jake Steinfeld, of Body by Jake fame.

LXM was created in affiliation with Adrenaline and, since 2011, equipment manufacturer STX has been the title sponsor for one the two teams that squared off as part of LXM's tour stops, in places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago over the last eight months, for example.

STX-sponsored athletes such as LXM co-founder Kyle Harrison, two-time Division III player of the year Sam Bradman, and Baum, the 2012 Tewaaraton Award winner originally from Washington State, played on the LXM tour. Baum, who was the No. 1 overall pick of the Ohio Machine in January 2013, also took a job with Adrenaline after graduating from Colgate.

But in August of 2012, MLL announced that it was opening up its on-field equipment category to allow any lacrosse apparel and equipment manufacturer to partner with the league and have its product worn on-field during games.

At the time, Gross said in a letter to MLL players that the move "should have a positive impact on everyone associated" with the league. The MLL and players could see more revenue, and promotion of the league could be increased through more manufacturers featuring players in advertisements.

The change was effective for the 2013 season, but no new partners were announced heading into last spring. Things are different ahead of the 2014 campaign, with last week MLL announcing partnerships with STX on Tuesday and Adrenaline on Thursday, the latter which extended to the LXM Pro Tour and the LXM-MLL player agreement.

In addition, MLL on Monday released a 24-game television schedule for CBS Sports Network that includes both playoff semifinals, the Aug. 23 championship game and the June 26 All-Star event that pits Team USA against a group of MLL stars. ESPN had previously shown the championship game, one semifinal and the All-Star event, as well as regular season contests.

Baltimore-based STX will equip MLL players will gloves, pads, handles and heads. Adrenaline is now the exclusive sideline hat and shooting shirt supplier for the league, and a non-exclusive official sock provider. Gross told Lacrosse Magazine last week that Warrior still has footwear and uniform exclusivity and Cascade has helmet exclusivity.

Both STX and Adrenaline said they didn't know the exact details of what the other was up to with regards to deals with MLL, but STX director of marketing Ed Saunders told LM there was a sense that "there was momentum swinging in the same direction," and that STX's talks with the MLL had been ongoing for the last year, after deciding not to partner up before the 2013 season. New budget cycles needed to be accounted for as well as previously existing language in contracts, Saunders said. Cade said Adrenaline had been in talks with the MLL over the last couple weeks.

"The impetus was us opening the categories in August of 2012," Gross said. "While we were close with some people, unfortunately for last year we never got to the finish line. [But] we let the industry know that nothing had changed from our view. We wanted to work with everyone. It was a big goal of ours. This is a fragmented sport. For the sport to really grow and grow to its potential we have to get away from being fragmented and be unified. These are some good first steps."

"It was a great that STX took the plunge to come on board, and to be able to do that with a 1-2 punch with Adrenaline is terrific all in one week's time," Gross said.

"The goal was always to have people play in both. Clearly, it took a little while to get there. ... I'm super excited to have the opportunity to play in the MLL and LXM."

— LXM Pro co-founder and STX-sponsored athlete Kyle Harrison

Once the air was cleared in the initial phone conversation with Cade and Gross, there was one important ask by Gross, and Cade agreed as part of a deal LXM would not hold events during the MLL season and not hold events at all in markets in which the pro league had existing franchises. Gross said the deal also doesn't hinder any potential MLL expansion, perhaps back into California or markets where LXM has held events.

"This could help," Gross said. "This could be further testing of lacrosse in markets that we have interest in. We'll be working directly with Adrenaline on the locations for their events. We'd like to see some events in markets where we have some expansion interest in, to get to know people in the area, and test to see how things do."

Asked what was what motivating factor to strike an agreement, Cade said, "I think we've heard for a while that players want to do both. As I was starting to look at the schedule for the upcoming LXM season and talk about players, you start to look at players who want to do LXM and want to do MLL and it's forcing them to make a terrible decision, it's creating controversy and, corporately for us, that's not something we want to do. I don't think that's the best way to approach things. Cooperation is the best way to approach things up until the point where it's impossible to cooperate. I've found very few times when that's the case, when you get down to it and communicate with people."

The long-term impacts remain to be seen, but in the short-term MLL re-opened its player pool last Thursday afternoon for LXM players, and anyone else interested in entering their name for possible selection. Registration remains open on the MLL website until this Thursday, and on Friday morning the league's eight teams will know who is available to be picked over the next 48 hours in a waiver wire process. The order is based on last season's final records, so the Ohio Machine have the first pick, followed by the New York Lizards and Boston Cannons and Rochester Rattlers.

Interestingly enough, all four teams have dealt with LXM-related issues over the last couple years. Ohio picked Baum first overall in 2013 (and the Machine still retains his rights as he was one of 23 players protected by the franchise in November). New York drafted Sam Bradman in the third round in 2013, but no longer has his rights. Boston drafted Shamel Bratton fourth overall in 2011 and Rochester had Maverik-sponsored Billy Bitter on its roster before he joined LXM. Maverik has also been a title sponsor for one of the LXM Pro teams.

Harrison, one of the founders of LXM, said the agreement can only benefit players, and that it was something he envisioned happening when the barnstorming tour was first hatched five years ago.

"The goal was always to have people play in both," Harrison said. "Clearly, it took a little while to get there. That is no one's fault, and nobody is putting blame anywhere. I'm super excited to have the opportunity to play in the MLL and LXM in the offseason, and continue to play the game at a high level."

Harrison, who is one of 30 players still in the running to make the final Team USA roster for July's Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship, said he expects players like Bradman and Baum and others to want to suit up in MLL as well.

"We've all kind of been in the mindset that hopefully this is going to work out where we can play in both LXM and the MLL," Harrison said. "At the end of the day, we all want to compete and that's the highest level of lacrosse in the world. Why wouldn't you want to jump in there?"

"It's a really positive thing," he said. "I've stayed out of the back and forth the entire time LXM has existed, because my stance literally from day one is that I enjoyed my time in the MLL and had tons of fun, and it made me a better player. I was hopeful, on a daily basis almost, that at some point there would be something figured out and guys would be able to do both. I'm super-excited we're in this position now. If I have the opportunity to play this summer, I'm really looking forward to it."

Saunders said STX, from a research and development standpoint, will benefit from its partnership with MLL by having the ability to test its products in harsh conditions, such as in August in Florida when and where MLL's newest franchise, the Launch will play. STX's experience in hockey — the National Hockey League uses a similar policy in which manufacturers can sponsor individual categories of on-field equipment — allowed the company to feel more comfortable partnering with a league in which competition, such as Warrior, also had a stake, Saunders said.

STX also recently announced it reached an agreement to provide equipment for the U.S. men's national team through 2016, including the 2014 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship July 10-19, hosted by US Lacrosse, in Denver.

Even more, the STX-MLL partnership does not prohibit STX from sponsoring LXM as it has in the past, and the company has indicated to Adrenaline it would be interested in continuing that relationship.

"It feels good to be able to talk about each other," Cade, of Adrenaline, said of LXM and MLL. "It feels good to be able to say, 'Hey, we really like these guys. They're doing a great job. They are a great partner of ours. Go check out the MLL games,' and vice versa. I think that's a powerful thing. To be able to line up and talk about two things that are different and have ultimately the same goal about providing a great experience and trying to get lacrosse on a higher playing field, that's a pretty cool thing. With the place the game is right now, everyone needs to be focused on growing and fostering the entire game. Lacrosse is the thing we should be focusing on, making it center stage."

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