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November 17, 2009

Checking In: David Gross, MLL Commish

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive

Time flies.

It's hard to believe, but Major League Lacrosse is about to turn 10 next spring. Like most professional leagues, it has had its triumphs and trials, but it is still clicking along after a decade, which is a testament to the dedication of the players and franchises who have built the brand.

I'll freely admit to not being the most savvy pro lacrosse guy, but I like to keep current with what is going on in both the indoor and outdoor professional leagues. It's less from a player standpoint - most of the MLL players come from the NCAA Division I ranks, which I rarely cover, and most of the NLL guys are Canadian box guys, if not D-I players.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but as you know, I'm a small school/club guy.

I'm compelled more by the business perspective. It's fascinating to watch the various franchises and their respective successes and obstacles. I don't want to casually underestimate their efforts, as it's a lot easier to watch from the cheap seats than to actually put your money where your mouth is.

My interest is more along the lines of watching a child mature into a teenager - which is probably where the MLL is in its evolutionary process. Remember, most of the other pro leagues you are familiar with have been around for multiple decades, if not centuries.

David Gross, the commissioner of the league, has been a big part of the MLL's development during these formidable years. He's had a month or so to reflect on the 2009 season, so I bounced some questions off him about the state of the league and its direction.

Q: How did the old school six-team format work out for you this year and are there any rumblings for expansion or moves in the near future?

We think the six-team format worked out as well as could be expected last season. On the field, the product was as good, if not better, than ever and the parity was unparalleled. During our championship weekend, every game was decided by one goal and every team that was leading in the fourth quarter lost the game. What the fans were able to watch was tremendous.

We also believe as a league we've made some nice strides as all of the teams have really concentrated their efforts on driving ticket revenue and other revenue streams and we've had more cohesion in the league than we've ever had before. From a business standpoint it worked out, and the on-field play worked out.

Q: There is a laundry list of MLL stars who were left unprotected this winter. Is the MLL transitioning to a younger generation of players to carry the league?

That's a better question to ask each individual team. I think young legs are important and the average age of the league is 26, which I believe is the average age of a player in the NFL. The game is a grueling, fast-paced game. I think you'll see several of the guys who weren't protected picked up in the supplemental draft come December, so I wouldn't write off all of those guys yet.

Q: Following up on that, are there are any interesting names registered for the supplemental draft?

The supplemental draft will take place on December 9th. Many of the big names that weren't protected have already registered to make themselves eligible for the draft. We're looking forward to them finding the right team to be on next year.

Q: Did it boil down to the age-old dilemma that the MLL deals with where a player might move to another city or find another job, so keeping them might not make as much sense?

No. I think teams are strategic about who they are protecting. Guys want to play in this league and unfortunately we have 40 percent less jobs than we had this time last year and that makes it difficult to keep the roster as full as everyone would love to have it. Last year above and beyond the signed rosters, the player pool was upwards of 800 people. There is plenty of talent that desperately wants to be a part of what we are doing and we'd love to accommodate everyone if we could.

Q: You had an average of 5,500 fans per event this year. How does that stack up to where you hoped to be?

We'll never be satisfied with the crowds at our games unless we're selling out our venues, but do I think the teams are putting forth a solid effort to increase attendance? The answer to that is absolutely. More than ever our weekly league calls have focused on ticket sales, sponsor sales, and making the fan experience as positive as it can be. All of the teams are active participants and all are trying to move the brand along.

Q: Following up on that, is Denver doing something different in terms of putting fans in the seats or is that the product of that particular market?

You need to give 100 percent of the credit to the organization. I don't believe that one market is better or one market is worse. I think they are doing a terrific job and I think a lot of the other teams are trying to follow their lead and learn from them and Denver is learning from the other teams, as well. More teams are putting their resources behind ticket sales and everyone wants to emulate the success that Denver has had.

Q: So there's no magic bullet for a particular market?

All of the teams are out in their markets pushing things. Denver has shared some of the ideas they've found have helped a little more and we're just trying to execute. All of the other teams are trying to help each other and there is a lot of talent amongst the team's staffs and they are all willing to share and work as one cohesive unit because everyone understands we need all six teams to be successful.

We wish there was a magic bullet.  We need to keep grinding away and building our fan base through grassroots efforts.  It takes time, patience, creativity and endless energy.  Leagues aren't built overnight.  After a decade, the NBA was only averaging 4,000 fans per game.  The NFL has folded 32 teams.  It may take a generation, but we are convinced that we will make it.

Q: There's still the spring season to be played, but what is the conventional wisdom about this upcoming class of collegiate players? Big? Talented? A little thin? How does it stack up to year's past?

Here's the best thing, and we don't say this to disrespect any college senior: no one involved in the league is talking about guys who are coming out of college and into the league next year. We're all focused on one thing and one thing only: getting out and selling tickets. We've already got plenty of talent in the league and I'm sure there will be plenty of talent available in the college draft on June 6, but we've got to get out there and focus on what's our game-day entertainment, what we are doing to promote the games, and bringing fans out to watch the league.

Q: From a personal perspective, what's your favorite storyline from the 2009 MLL season?

We could talk for hours about great stories from the past season, but the one thing that just melted me was Nicky Polanco at the All-Star game. Nicky was unable to play because of injury, but he came out to Denver anyways because he wanted to be part of the festivities. Our charity for the event was the Boy's Clubs/Girl's Clubs, but besides them we had been working with The Make-A-Wish Foundation as a young child named Ofek Shmool from California, who sadly has brain cancer, had chosen for his wish to go to the MLL All-Star game. Nick basically adopted this young kid. Nick went out of his way, and all of the guys went out of their way to make him feel like a superstar, but Nick and Ofek formed an incredibly special bond during those days out there. He gave Ofek some great memories for a lifetime.

There are so many other guys that do things like that and they do it under the radar because they're not about drawing attention to themselves. The guys in the MLL are some of the most giving guys you'll ever come across. I wish more people knew what they were doing and coming out and supporting what they are doing because they are really tremendous individuals.

Q: Anything new fans should keep an eye out for in the 2010 season?

We've got a lot going on in 2010. We're planning on having all of our games on TV similar to what we did in 2008, but with a wider distribution than before. We expect all 40 MLL games to be broadcast and to be made available to the public, through broadcast and through online streaming with ESPN360. All of our ESPN2 games will be live this year. Believe it or not, we are coming up on our 10th year, so we'll have our 10-year Anniversary team, which will be selected with fans being part of that selection process during the 2010 season and will culminate during our championship weekend in Annapolis. 


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