SBJ/Sept. 1-7, 2014/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Risk on neutral site for title game rewards MLL

For the first time in more than a decade, Major League Lacrosse finished its season with a neutral-site championship game, after playing the two semifinal games in home stadiums.

The MLL has experienced its share of ups and downs in its 14 seasons, so going to a neutral site with no guaranteed ticket sales represented something of a risk for the outdoor lacrosse league.

But MLL Commissioner David Gross had ulterior motives. In his pursuit of placing a franchise in the Atlanta area, he figured there was no better way to expose the MLL’s product than by putting its championship game in the market.

More than 8,000 turned out in Cobb County, Ga., for the MLL’s championship game Aug. 23.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

Denver’s last-minute 12-11 victory over Rochester on Aug. 23 was played before more than 8,000 fans in the new Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University. The growing school, which has more than 24,000 students, is in booming Cobb County, not far from where the Atlanta Braves’ new baseball stadium will be.

Only a few hundred seats in the end zone went unfilled, giving the MLL a near-capacity audience for the league’s message that it would like to return on a more permanent basis. “The higher price points actually sold better than the lower price points,” Gross said of tickets that started at $20 and went up to $100 for sideline seats.

In the past, the MLL had played two semifinal games on a Saturday, with the championship game on a Sunday, creating a weekend festival. But playing the finals within 24 hours of the semifinals left players exhausted and hurt the product, Gross said.

So the league changed its policy this year, letting teams with the best record host semifinals, and putting the championship game on the following weekend in Atlanta.

Gross said that he’s in talks with potential franchise owners in Atlanta and that, if all goes well, the MLL will have a team there for the 2016 season. MLL seasons run from April through August.

A team in Atlanta would give the MLL nine teams and the kind of momentum it needs to continue expansion and, Gross hopes, draw more corporate support. Coca-Cola and its Powerade brand represent the MLL’s nonendemic sponsors. The other partners are endemics, like New Balance and equipment makers.

“Everyone sees how the sport of lacrosse is growing,” said Gross, in his 11th year at the helm. “Now it’s a matter of figuring out the best place to put your money and how to develop a strategy. ”

Gross said TV distribution remains strong. CBS Sports Network carried 24 games during the 2014 regular season, while the rest were broadcast through syndicated packages in each of the eight home markets. Most of those games went to regional sports networks. ESPN3 also streamed those syndicated games.

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