May 7, 2009

NLL Falls on Hard Times in Portland

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

In disappointing news for a niche league trying to survive in tough economic times, the Portland LumberJax owners announced Tuesday that they will not operate the club in Portland next season.

Four days after drawing just 6,053 fans for a home playoff game, a 20-16 loss to San Jose, and just one season removed from a one-goal loss in the National Lacrosse League Champion's Cup final to Buffalo, the LumberJax are ending a four-year run in Portland.

The players were informed of the decision in the locker room after the loss, according to all-star Brodie Merrill, who was drafted by the Jax and lived in Portland his first two seasons.

"It was weird," he said. "We had just lost in the playoffs and then to hear that -- tt was tough to hear at that time."

According to executive vice president Brian Silcott, the team is exploring other options, meaning it could relocate, add new partners, sell the franchise or fold. Silcott cited the current economic climate as the cause and said there is a June 1 deadline for a decision.

In a statement, managing partner Angela Batinovich said: "We believe in this sport, this league and this team."

Merrill said he'd heard rumblings about the club's viability, but he and his teammates thought the Jax were hanging in there, especially compared to a couple other franchises. Portland's attendance average was not among the league's worst, rather the lower middle. The Jax averaged 8,006 in 2006, their first season, 7,527 in 2007, 8,104 in 2008 and 7,320 this season.

"We felt we were making inroads in a budding market," Merrill said. "We've had success on and off the floor. You look around the league, and we felt pretty good about the situation. But the sponsorships weren't happening."

Players who moved to the area, established weekday careers, made friends and enrolled their children in schools, are most affected.

"A guy like Ryan Powell relocated there with his wife and bought a home," Merrill said. "But that's the business of sports. It is tough and emotional and that's the way it is."

Some fear that the folding of the Chicago franchise at the start of the season, coupled with Portland's situation and poor attendance in the San Jose and New York markets (both averaged less than 4,700), could mean the end of the NLL.

Rochester head coach Paul Gait, an NLL Hall of Famer, believes the l eague can ride out the economic crisis, however.

"In tough times, all league's struggle, and unfortunately, we're not the most affluent league,'' he said. "There will be casualties, but we've gone through it before and we've survived over 20 years. I think we'll make it."

In this space last week, New York defenseman Dave Stilley spoke of the concerted effort to draw fans to the NLL playoff game between the Titans and Rochester at Madison Square Garden. Stilley's contention was that the future growth of the league is dependent on establishing a foothold with the fan base in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area because of its proximity to the nation's media centers in New York City.

Unfortunately, the game did not capture the attention of sports fans in the dense urban center and only 4,878 showed up for the exciting contest, which New York won in overtime, 11-10.

The Titans' next playoff game, the East Division final Saturday night against the defending champion Buffalo Bandits, will be played at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

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