Stayin' alive...

I think one of the most interesting unasked sports questions out there (because, let's face it...to the American mainstream media, three sports exist, and it's not exactly a crushing mental exercise to determine the three) is this: what does a niche-sport league have to do to survive?

Make your arguments about the Arena Football League, but doesn't that have financial support from the NFL? In terms of a true independent league, I think the perfect example of a well-run league with realistic goals and aims is the National Lacrosse League. Yes, indoor lacrosse...few knows it exists, but those of us that know tend to unequivocably LOVE THE HELL out of it. It will never be my favorite sport, but it's fun, it's fast, and it gets my fix for ridiculously-high scoring out of the way.

Using the excellent timeline on www.nll.com, allow me to show you the reality for a league of this nature.


The Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League is incorporated. The league begins operations with four teams: The Philadelphia Wings, New Jersey Saints, Washington Wave, and Baltimore Thunder.


-- The first game is played before 5976, with the home Saints beating the Wings, 11-8.

-- The largest crowd of the year (14,903) saw Philly get their win back at home. Unsurprisingly, Philly is still around.

-- For the regular season, the total attendance was 124,536.


-- Same four teams, but tellingly, the site doesn't list a seasonal attendance figure. Only 8000 showed up to the championship game, though.

-- Thankfully, the first name change occurs...the league is now the Major Indoor Lacrosse League.

-- Also, the first major team changes: Detroit and New England come in as expansion teams, while New Jersey moves to Long Island.


-- The regular season sees a total attentance of 230,274 -- around 9600 a game.

-- The championship showed that Philly had by far the best fans in the league, as 16,042 watched the Wings win their first title.

-- The league expands again, as the Pittsburgh Bulls join the festivities for the 1990 season. However, it's still a 6-team league, as the Washington Wave cease operations.


-- Pittsburgh gets only 9200 for their opener. Not so good.

-- The Wings become the first team in league history to sell out their arena, packing 17,777 into the Spectrum.

-- League attendance goes up to the 260,000 mark.

-- The Gait brothers, Gary and Paul, are drafted into the league, starting their career for Detroit. This means nothing to you if you don't follow the sport, but it's self-explanatory if you do.


-- Same teams, but each team plays 10 games instead of 8 now.

-- Attendance goes up slightly, but factoring in the extra games, the average dipped a bit.

-- Expansion occurs once again, as the Buffalo Bandits take the number of teams up to 7 for 1992.

-- New England moves officially to Boston.


-- Buffalo becomes the second team to sell out, with 16,325 cramming into the Aud.

-- Buffalo repeats the achievment the next month, a first in league history.

-- Again, no seasonal attendance is listed here, but it couldn't have been a significant drop.

-- The league gets a game on TV for the first time, as the Empire Sports Network aired one of the better Finals in league history, with the Wings on the wrong side of an 11-10 overtime decision against Buffalo.


-- Buffalo becomes the first team in league history to sell out every home game.

-- ESPN2 signs a deal to televise the league's games. My theory is that no small part of it was that Buffalo and Philly had another fantastic championship game, with Buffalo coming back to win 13-12.


-- ESPN2's first broadcast shows Detroit taking on Baltimore. Ironically, both teams didn't last too much longer.

-- 3/26/94, I watch my first-ever game. Philadelphia beats Boston thanks to 8 goals from Paul Gait, thus cementing my Wings fandom forevermore. Besides, the Wings have always had the best jerseys in the league!

-- In the very first final I ever saw, Philly demolished Buffalo (IN Buffalo!) 26-15, and the game wasn't even as close as the score. This was the first game that had a live broadcast, and actually was shown on the big network, ESPN.

-- The Detroit Turbos discontinue operations, but the Rochester Knighthawks enter the league as an expansion franchise.


-- Philly breaks the attendance record, with 17,380 watching the regular-season finale. By the way, the timeline hasn't listed seasonal attendances for these years...but, if memory serves me right, it was mainly Philly and Buffalo (and then Rochester when they came in) doing all the heavy lifting in that respect.

-- The Charlotte Cobras enter the league as an expansion team. That makes 8 teams, the most the league has ever had.


-- This marks the 10-year anniversary of the league (and, coincidentally, of the Wings, Saints, and Thunder).

-- Charlotte loses its first game, 17-4 to Boston. That will be a microcosm for their existence.

-- For the 4th time in 5 years, the final pits Buffalo against Philadelphia. It's no secret to those who have followed the league that those two clubs kept the league in existence, especially because if the 92-96 Wings and Bandits were in the league now, they'd be practically All-Star Teams.

-- The Charlotte Cobras discontinue operations. Thanks for coming, guys.


-- The Bandits' new home (well, the Sabres' new home) means the attendance record is broken yet again, as 18,595 come to watch them play local rivals Rochester. You would never think of that area as a lacrosse hotbed, but both those teams still exist today, and they're right next to each other.

-- Finally, the Wings' reign of terror ended with a semifinal loss to Rochester (who went on to beat Buffalo in the final). This is the last final I remember watching, so I imagine this is when the ESPN2 deal ran out.

-- Major changes abound -- The league abandons its single-entity structure, and goes to individual team ownership; the name is changed to its current one, the National Lacrosse League; and, Syracuse Smash and Ontario Raiders come into the league as expansion teams. Hamilton, Ontario is, of course, the first Canadian city in league history.


-- Yep, I was right...this is when the league had to retract to regional networks, which was the last I actually got to see of the league until this season.

-- The first multi-game playoff system begins this season, with Philly annhilating Baltimore in two straight to win another title.

-- Ontario is moved to Toronto, who renames them the Rock.


-- Finally, we get a seasonal attendance again...turns out it's a 9161 average, which they say is over 1000 more than the previous year. THAT explains a lot, especially about the franchises not from Philly, Buffalo, Rochester, or Toronto. However, notice that from the time Buffalo came into the league, the Bandits and Wings carried the entire load of the league until the third stable franchise (Rochester) came in. Toronto coming in was the fourth...this is the point where you can really start to draw conclusions about the whole thing, I think.

-- Philly breaks their own record for fewest goals in a game (was 4), as Toronto beats them 13-2 to close out their series. Turns out Toronto went on to win the whole enchilada. The final was broadcast on ESPN2...I didn't see it, but I can see how it wasn't completely off the radar.

-- More comings and goings: Albany comes in as an expansion team, Baltimore finally gives up the ghost (they were terrible for most of their existence, especially after the 4-team era), and are moved to Pittsburgh. That team, by the way, ends up with the worst name in league history: The Pittsburgh CrosseFire. Yikes.


-- Again, a hockey team's new arena helps break the attendance record, as 18,911 pack the First Union Center to watch the Wings beat up on Pittsburgh.

-- The 2000 NLL Final, besides being the best final in league history, is the last sporting event to be played in Maple Leaf Gardens. The Rock play the Knighthawks again, and again, the Rock come out on top -- thanks to a goal scored with 1.1 seconds left in regulation. Toronto wins, 14-13.

-- Columbus comes into the league. What exactly is a "Landshark", anyway, and what does it have to do with Columbus?

-- Two teams are sold in the offseason: Syracuse went to Ottawa to become the Rebel, and Pittsburgh are moved to Washington to become the Power. As the WUSA showed, naming any team the Power is an omen of the worst order, and should generally be avoided.


-- The league announces plans for a developmental league. It was supposed to begin in 2003, but nothing has been heard of since. That would probably be stretching it, even though the league is doing well again.

-- For the third time, a hockey team moving helps break the attendance record, as Toronto crams 19,059 into the Air Canada Centre. Toronto would better that by a bit (19,409) for the Championship game, which they lose to Philadelphia (good thing, too...my poor Wings were perilously close to the distinction of "Toronto's Bitch").

-- At various points during the year, more expansion teams are named: The Vancouver Ravens, Calgary Roughnecks, New Jersey Storm, and Montreal Express. Calgary was the furthest-west expansion team up until Vancouver was announced.


-- Washington is sold, and moved to Denver. I've heard of worse team names than the Colorado Mammoth, but not many.

-- Montreal gets a one-year suspension of operations, but then they never resurfaced. I don't know how you could, when all your players are dispersed among the other franchises.

-- Ginny Capicchoni plays in a preseason game for New Jersey...just like Manon Rheaume, she disappeared right after.


-- I've again noticed that no season attendances have been listed for quite a while...however, I'd estimate that most of the franchises were doing okayish, while the Big Four continued to mostly get sellouts.

-- Albany is sold, and moved to San Jose. New Jersey is sold, and moved to Anaheim. Anaheim keeps the Storm name, but San Jose becomes the "Stealth" (sigh). Also, Columbus is moved to Arizona, who become the Sting. Finally, Ottawa gets one of those dubious one-year suspensions.

-- This gets mentioned separately, but another team got a suspension as well...sadly, the New York Saints decided to suspend operations, leaving just one of the Original Four alive. However, in better news, this is the same time when the league signed their contract with Fox Sports Net, getting them back onto channels that more than 18 people get.

-- Also, the league branched off into divisions for the first time ever. That speaks for the fact that they've been able to expand far enough afield to make it worthwhile.

I think what you can take out of this is the fact that for a nascent league to survive, they NEED a marquee matchup that can capture the imagination of the fans. The NLL proved that you can have two teams + stuff, as long as those two teams have a worthwhile rivalry. While in some ways, some would say that the league is hurt in several markets because of all the constant moving, I take the opposite view. The NLL has been amazingly ruthless in terms of identifying and destroying sick franchises. While even MLS persists with clubs like the Kansas City Wizards, and the WUSA persisted with, well, the whole league (sorry to say), the NLL has shown that cutting off a limb can sometimes save the whole body. They've also done an amazing job of moving to progressively bigger and bigger markets, and have expanded in an intelligent fashion region-wise. While I think they should have found a way to get into Canada WAY sooner (fun fact: lacrosse is their national sport, not hockey), it's impressive that they didn't just up and decide to hit California when they hadn't even gotten much past the midwest.

Just to give you an idea, I'll close with a list of franchises in league history (just to see it all in one place):


Philadelphia Wings (1986 - )
Buffalo Bandits (1991 - )
Rochester Knighthawks (1994 - )
Toronto Rock [Ontario Raiders] (1998 - )
Vancouver Ravens (2002 - )
Calgary Roughnecks (2002 - )
Colorado Mammoth [by way of Baltimore/Pittsburgh/Washington] (2002 - )
San Jose Stealth [by way of Albany] (2003 - )
Anaheim Storm [by way of Jersey] (2003 - )
Arizona Sting [by way of Columbus] (2003 - )


New York Saints (1986 - 2003)
Baltimore Thunder (1986 -1999) --> Pittsburgh Crossefire (2000 - 2000) --> Washington Power (2001 - 2002)
Washington Wave (1986 - 1989)
Detroit Turbos (1989 - 1994)
Boston Blazers (1989 - no end mentioned in the timeline)
Pittsburgh Bulls (1990 - no end mentioned in the timeline)
Charlotte Cobras (1996 - 1996)
Syracuse Smash (1998 - 2000) --> Ottawa Rebel (2001 - 2003)
Albany Attack (1999 - 2003)
Columbus Landsharks (2001 - 2003)
New Jersey Storm (2002 - 2003)
Montreal Express (2002 - 2002)


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