The Landscape of Professional Lacrosse is Changing

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In the film adaptation of Moneyball, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry tells Billy Beane in a pivotal scene, “the first guy through the wall — he always gets bloody.”

The Premier Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse on Wednesday announced the two leagues are merging. “Merge” is a polite term, as the PLL name and structure persists, likely more than 100 MLL players will no longer have a place to play, and several team and league employees and coaches are out of a job opportunity.

It ultimately will be a good thing for the sport — it was inevitable, though presumably expedited by the pandemic — and was met with much fanfare.

I’ve been appreciative of the respectful tone set by PLL and its players in this. It certainly is a momentous occasion worth celebrating for Paul and Mike Rabil, as well as all the players who took the jump, and the staff at PLL. It’s clearly not a time to dance on graves, and I haven’t seen much of that.

Some of my personal favorite moments in my years covering the sport come from MLL, and the impact of the league on the sport overall can’t be overstated.

Like many, I didn’t pick up a stick until I was in high school. Even though I was in a hotbed in Baltimore, lacrosse just didn’t permeate the mainstream. So when I discovered the sport and wanted to learn everything about it, I wanted to watch the best of the best, and there was a new pro league in my backyard.

On my 16th birthday I saw the Chesapeake Bayhawks vs. the New Jersey Pride at Homewood Field. I didn’t know who Mark Millon was, or Paul Cantabene or Greg Cattrano or Shawn Nadelen or Tom Marechek or Brian Reese, but I knew I was seeing an absurd level of talent. That was a springboard from “kid who played lacrosse when it wasn’t hockey season” to “superfan of the sport.”

There have to be countless others with a similar story.

Years later, as an Inside Lacrosse employee, the league has brought me a lot of happiness. The first championship I covered was “The Hurricane Game” at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. One of the best parts of this job is, no matter what level, being on the field when the athletes are celebrating; I saw Rabil’s first title from the field after a remarkable weekend.

Casey Powell, then a 35-year-old who was already a legend, selling out in desperation as the clock hit zeroes and injuring his knee, sticks out as a moment emblematic of MLL pros and one of the moments where I truly “got it.”

(I also got stuck buying a new cell phone after that weekend, mine waterlogged thanks to doing postgame interviews amid a hurricane.)

MLL is how I met Kyle Devitte — his name was on a spreadsheet that was sent to me when I got my job at IL, with “MLL guy” next to it.

Another highlight was watching Marcus Holman score a hat trick in a span of four minutes, then seeing Kyle Harrison celebrate his first MLL championship, at The Star in Frisco, Texas, for the Ohio Machine in 2017.

Or, being in awe of John Grant, Jr., in 2013 and ’14 (or really, any year). The epic Outlaws-Lizards semifinal at Harvard Stadium in 2012. Getting to pick the photo for the 2015 issue of Inside Lacrosse Magazine, my first as Editor-in-Chief, and choosing former high school teammate Kyle Hartzell after the Lizards’ title.

A peculiar moment was interviewing Jake Steinfeld in his hotel room in Boston as he promoted his MLL book, him wielding the Olympic Torch.

The league, at times, showed that there’s fun and personality and another level to the sport. It created a higher aspirational goal for lacrosse players. It gave sponsorship and promotional opportunities to athletes coming off their college career and, at the very least, a place to play. It provided family fun, it aimed high and was bold, and it put players’ personalities at the forefront in a way college lacrosse can not.

The Premier Lacrosse League has a playbook of successes and missteps to follow in its quest to elevate pro lacrosse. While Wednesday was the peak moment, to me it was a natural progression of the last several years and was inevitable. The broadcast rights, the data breach, the public animosity from players toward the front office in that era, then the departure of key figures like Jim Davis and Brendan Kelly, and a championship affected by a pandemic led to this path. Some of those missteps are the very foundation of why PLL was founded and important lessons going forward.

But 20 years of championships and memorable moments, fan affinity in several big markets, a generation of lacrosse fans who know only a world with pro outdoor lacrosse, some of the most awe-inspiring goals and saves and rusty-gate checks and comebacks — that’s led to this point, too. So have the countless friendships and business relationships and more.

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