In this guest column, Saskatchewan Rush play-by-play voice lays out the case for how and why the NLL should consider a new kind of expansion: an affiliated farm league.
The NLL needs an affiliated farm league.
The landscape of box lacrosse has never been more primed for the possibility. We are living in an era currently in which junior lacrosse is on the rise, while senior lacrosse is in the midst of a decline. Given those two truths, how can the NLL capitalize on the moment to benefit both their league and the sport at large? Grow in a manner other than traditional expansion.
Let’s be clear. The case to be made here isn’t to suggest that the NLL has a legitimate opportunity to emulate the AHL, NBA G-League, Minor League Baseball, or MLS Next Pro. But in the same way that those circuits prioritize player development, a similar objective from the NLL seems achievable. It is both a reasonable suggestion and an actionable idea.
The first area of change from which the NLL and its owners could reasonably benefit from this idea is by chopping practice rosters in favor of building a “farm league” for protected players and prospects. Given the quantities of draftees, camp attendees, and free agent street ballers available, finding 17 players and two goalies to protect on a developmental roster isn’t an outrageous ask.
From a format standpoint, an affiliated developmental league doesn’t have to emulate the NLL entirely, but capitalizing on geography may be advantageous. My expertise is in the West, so for the purposes of making the argument, we’ll focus on how this concept could be deployed in that geographical footprint. You easily could have two separate divisions that essentially are divided by the Canadian/US border. One pod would include farm teams for Saskatchewan, Calgary, and Vancouver. The other would host Colorado, Panther City, San Diego, and Las Vegas. Each team could play a six-game season plus a semifinal + final that features four weekends with back-to-backs on each occasion. One weekend’s commitment in each month between January and April to descend on a central location for two lacrosse games is a workable suggestion for career-minded players.
These games don’t have to be hosted in NLL-level venues obviously. There are plenty of options for other quality barns scattered around the geographies in question. Additionally, no team would need to play out-of-division opponents, which keeps travel to a minimum. The key advantage here is to allow developing players to compete under full NLL rules in a forum that promotes their development. This could be a tremendous boost to the inclusion of American players in addition to young goalies that never get a fair shake, coaches on the rise, and officials in their training phase.
With cost as an obvious priority, this is still a doable idea. No owner wants to lose money on a frivolous venture and nor should they be put in a position to take on additional costs beyond their existing responsibilities. But given the way this concept could benefit the sport at large, it’s worth exploring a cost-benefit analysis. I won’t get into the loonies and toonies of it, but my estimate–including coaches, refs, hotels, insurance, and dozens of other items–suggests that teams would be looking at an additional cost of $60,000 to take on the venture. If players were responsible for their own travel and each paid an entry fee of $500, that number drops to something in the realm of $50,000.
Where does the money come from to make this happen?
In part, it can be found already on the existing rosters teams carry. By eliminating practice players and reallocating those funds, teams could potentially free up as much as $15,000 to apply elsewhere. That means that teams would need to raise only an extra $35,000 to make a farm league viable. A portion of that can come from the process of building the rosters themselves. Open tryouts hosted by each team could charge $250 per player at an estimated participation of 50+ players per camp. Those tryouts alone could bring in an estimated $12,500 before accounting for expenses. This leaves owners on the hook still for something between $15,000-20,000. Perhaps an additional chunk of change could be freed up by eliminating some of the wasted player tryouts in the fall. Instead of bringing 35-40 players to camp, teams could shift that number of invitees closer to 30. Furthermore, I’d assume there are other ways to cut costs with floor time if games were scheduled around NLL home game weekends. Plus, even more found money could be generated through PPV broadcasts of games, jersey sponsors, etc.
Beyond player development, there is another key advantage to be highlighted. This concept would likely lead to more players and prospects wanting to live in-market if more opportunities to move up were available, which fans love and helps drive local exposure. Any opportunity available to keep players motivated and aware of potential direct call-ups would certainly help the growth of the game. Having guys on true farm teams gives them the chance to directly compete for the club’s attention, while also learning what is expected of them. Instead of kicking players to the curb by adding and releasing them weekly, teams would already have a pool of 20 affiliated players that were either drafted or protected by the club, ready to go when called upon. Should a player not want to pay to play, cannot travel, or seeks a trade elsewhere, the same rules employed in the NLL could be applied. There is no reason the same hold-out rules can’t be used for farm teams.
Obviously there is a guarantee of pushback from some people in the game, but given the sport’s climate, a change is very much needed. The trajectory of summer ball is evident, so it’s high time that NLL organizations stop relying on junior and senior circuits to carry so much water. It’s time for a plan of action. Young players on the bubble of the NLL need something to strive for, especially those left over after the small handful of rookies crack NLL rosters annually. Many of those players have ambitions to play at a higher level, but can’t commit to moving away from their living situations without a job already in place or a true opportunity to move up. The PBLA and ALL might be great in theory, but they ask too much of these players geographically who have complicated work and living situations.
That isn’t to say that a handful of groups aren’t already doing good work. What clubs and organizations are doing with winter informal player runs during the week and four-on-four leagues like the Miners Lacrosse Club are excellent. They help players keep sticks in hand when there are few other options available. But those same high-end players that are scraping through mid-week runs deserve the opportunity to play meaningful games during the NLL season. It’s impossible to refute the truth that creating a platform that can feature those young talents would be massive in growing the game. As the sport’s flagship league, it is the NLL’s responsibility to invest wherever growth is possible. Developing an affiliated farm league would do exactly that.
Those are my thoughts, but I’d love to hear from you! You can find me on social media @JannerOnPXP.