May 10, 2011

New Indoor Pro League to Debut in 2012

by Corey McLaughlin |

John Christmas, a castoff of the NLL's Philadelphia Wings, said he intends to play in the new North American Lacrosse League -- a pro indoor league which will seek to provide more opportunities for U.S.-born and Native American players and exposure in "medium-sized" U.S. markets.

A new professional indoor lacrosse league is coming to America.

The formation of the North American Lacrosse League was announced Tuesday afternoon at a press conference at a New York City restaurant. The NALL, which said it intends not to compete with the already existing National Lacrosse League, will consist of at least six teams in "medium-sized" U.S. markets and will begin play in January 2012.

Phil Evans, a former president of the NBA Developmental League, was introduced as the NALL's first commissioner. Evans said the goal of the new league is to "help grow the game," and provide Americans or Native Americans who do not play in the NLL the chance to play professional indoor lacrosse.

The plan is for teams to play a 12-game regular season schedule with a league championship game being held no later than the last weekend in April, Evans said. The league did not want to conflict with the outdoor Major League Lacrosse season, which begins in May.

No official announcement was made regarding team sites, owners, ownership groups, or arenas at the press conference, but the target markets are Charlotte, Hershey, Pa., Lexington, Ky., the New York City metro area, Orlando, Fla., Richmond, Va., and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., according to a source close to the league and various media reports.

Evans said formal announcements on each of the team locations and arenas should come by June 15, and the possibility remains open for a seven or eight-team league. Teams will be independently owned and cost $250,000. Expansion franchises are for sale.

Through specific game rules remain up for discussion, Evans said explicitly the league will outlaw fighting, which is permitted in the NLL, much like it is in the National Hockey league. Evans said it doesn't make sense for the NALL to encourage fighting, since the league wants to appeal to new fans, kids and families who may not be familiar with lacrosse.

"We're trying to grow the game," Evans said. "What kind of message would we be sending if we were asking them to try a sport where we're encouraging gratuitous violence? It doesn't make a lot of sense. We're not going to do it."

He said the league would put a premium on players' athleticism, "which we think is going to be well-supported by American players."

Four players who intend to join the league were present at the press conference, either in person or via phone: former Virginia All-American attackman and Philadelphia Wings player John Christmas, four-time MLL all-star midfielder Stephen Berger, his Long Island Lizards teammate Peter Vlahakis, and Hamilton Nationals defenseman Steve Panarelli, who previously played in the NLL.

"This league will hopefully allow me to have an opportunity to play a full year," Vlahakis said. "That's a dream come true, pretty much."

Evans said the NLL is only comprised of 19 percent American players, and he sees an opportunity to attract Americans not on NLL rosters to play in the new league.

"We're a league that's going to be focusing on American players," Evans said. "We're going to try to reach out to guys who played at schools like Syracuse, Hopkins, Virginia, Carolina, Notre Dame, and outstanding D-II schools, D-III schools as well. We think we're also going to be able to present an opportunity and platform for Native Americans."

Barry Powless of the Onondaga Nation, the former Syracuse player, indoor pro and coach of the NLL's Rochester Knighthawks and one-time NLL league office official, was present via phone and expressed support.

"We don't want to compete with, and I don't think we need to compete with, the other existing professional outdoor lacrosse league. ... The reality is [the NLL] is only in seven markets in the United States. Their rosters aren't comprised of very many American players. We're talking about 19 percent of those guys are American players. For us, that's where we see the opportunity."

-- NALL Commissioner Phil Evans

"There are Native American players that have not had the opportunity to attend an NCAA program, and they have the athleticism and skill to compete at the college level," Powless said. "The percentage of Native players in the current indoor pro league are very low. ... I hope the communities of the new franchises will embrace lacrosse."

Rules have not been drafted nor does the league have a competition committee. But Evans said, "It's basically going to be the same rules that you're used to." He clearly stated, however, that the league "would not condone fighting."

"At the end of the day, we believe we've developed a business model that's going to allow our team owners to make a little bit of money, have a little bit of fun and to provide a great entertainment option in their market," Evans said. "It's going to be a family-friendly entertainment option. I want to emphasize the fact that it's going to be family-friendly."

The league could also serve as an American farm league for the NLL, and at the very least would provide another opportunity for players who want to play pro lacrosse. The Sports Business Journal reported [Link:] NALL players will earn from $200 to $1,000 a week. In comparison, NLL players average about $18,000 a season.

"There are many, many American players who are excited about this opportunity," said US Indoor Lacrosse President Graham D'Alvia, also the president and general manager of the indoor Team USA, which plays in the FIL World Indoor Championships May 21-28 in Prague. "It's going to open up the markets in many cities throughout the country. We know that will help the youth growth of the sports and inevitably, it trickles right up to adults. With all the different cities opening up, we know that it's going to present many opportunities to many players. We're really excited about that."

"I'm extremely excited," Christmas said. "I heard about this only a few days ago. I wasn't really sure what to make of it, but I talked to a bunch of guys and Graham. I'd been playing in the NLL for the last four seasons, and I think for a lot of Americans there's a big transition period in learning the game, getting used to physicality about it. But there's no doubt it makes you a better player. The opportunity for more Americans to play is going to great. And having the opportunity to grow the game is right up my alley with my mission off the field."

Evans said the NALL season will, by design, end before the start of the outdoor Major League Lacrosse season.

"Our goal with the North American Lacrosse League is to help grow the game of lacrosse," Evans said. "We don't want to interfere with anything they're doing over there with the outdoor game. We want to try to complement their efforts."

A few former NLL officials are involved in the new league, which will be based in Somerville, N.J.

New Jersey-based sports entertainment lawyer Tony Caruso, who served as legal counsel to the NLL for seven years, officially announced the plans for the league. Former NLL commissioner Jim Jennings is president of the public relations firm representing the league and opened the press conference with a few words. Jennings will own the Wilkes-Barre, Pa., franchise. Chip Santye, formerly a finance officer of the NLL, is the Chief Financial Officer of the new league.

Of the NLL, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this season and plays its championship game Sunday in Toronto, Evans said, "We don't want to compete with, and I don't think we need to compete with, the other existing professional outdoor lacrosse league. ... The reality is [the NLL] is only in seven markets in the United States. Their rosters aren't comprised of very many American players. We're talking about 19 percent of those guys are American players. For us, that's where we see the opportunity."

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