Expansion Analysis Uncovers Plenty of Fertile Ground In West
Picking up where we last left off in our expansion overview, we head West into less charted NLL waters.
The Midwest corridor boasts more opportunities for growth and a pair of defunct NLL cities we can only hope will return to the turf in the future: Minnesota and Chicago are ex-franchises that the league will undoubtedly try to bring back to life.
I know a lot about the Minnesota market and its fan base. I was the first employee of the Minnesota Swarm and their General Manager through two ownership groups over a 7-year period.
The team was deemed unsuccessful and eventually moved to Georgia but not before creating and leaving behind at least 12,000 indoor lacrosse fans in the Twin Cities. I must stress that 12,000 didn't show up to every game. The Swarm collected a fan base over a decade that loved their team.
I’d gamble big on the Swarm being the healthiest NLL team to ever cease operation. I am very surprised we have not heard Minnesota mentioned in any expansion rhetoric. I do know the league has contacted the Minnesota Wild in the Sakiewicz era. I’m a big believer that the refurbished Target Center paired with professional or private ownership would be a great start for a new “Sota” NLL entry. Finishing the job started in St.Paul is a must.
The Chicago Shamrox are another team I felt had a great chance in a tailored market. At the beginning of their existence, lacrosse was just starting to bloom in the Chicago area. The team had a new arena in the affluent suburb of Hoffman Estates that needed tenants. It felt like a natural at the time.
The Shamrox suffered in attendance and in the standings for a couple of years attached to an ownership group lacking deep enough pockets to ride through the storm. I'm not sure if the arena was too far from the city or if the community would not support a struggling team. The fate of the Shamrox and indoor lacrosse in the Windy City closed its first chapter after a 2-year run on the eve of their 3rd season.
Not far down the highway at the All-State arena in Rosemont, Illinois, the Chicago Wolves American Hockey league team has succeeded as a model of consistency for over 18 years. This example points to an appetite for tier two entertainment in Chicago’s suburbs. I perceived the Shamrox ownership and management as off the mark. I feel an organized group could have made a go here in a city that would be excellent leverage for NLL TV and sponsorship.
Detroit was once a decent MILL draw. As folklore has it, a Turbos game was changed to an afternoon game from an evening slot but the word didn’t get out fast enough and fans showed up to watch the last minutes of the contest. A good chunk never returned.
My first pro game was a 1991 Wings-Turbos tilt at the Joe Louis Arena. It was well attended by today’s standards with about 10,000 in the building. The next time I experienced the “Joe” was as a player in 1993 and the crowds had thinned.
Currently, the only option is the new Red Wings building which would require the Red Wings as owners. I just don’t know enough about the market but Canadian players are close by.
Columbus had a less than glorious stint in the NLL, starting in 2001 and spanning 3 years with their demise in 2003. The name (Landsharks) was their first mistake. I’m assured Columbus is the type of city that would take to a pro indoor lacrosse team by friends who know the area. Columbus is a young city with a growing appreciation of all things lacrosse. If the NHL and the arena were brought on side, I believe this city might be headed for “second time's a charm” status.
ST. LOUIS, NASHVILLE
St. Louis and Nashville are two more NHL cities that could garner attention and partner with the big boys of basketball or hockey. Nashville was rumoured to be in line to purchase the Swarm the year before they moved to Georgia. St. Louis was mentioned repeatedly in the Jennings era of expansion but never materialized.
What both these towns offer is multiple arenas that could support an NLL franchise and allow for a graduation to the number one rink if warranted at a later date.
The need for a central division is pivotal for the NLL to balance divisions and travel costs for Western teams. This vicinity is also the least explored ground in NLL history which bodes well for the future.
Kansas City has been sitting with the Sprint Center since 2005. This arena still has no major sports entity calling the arena home. Winter sports are lagging after football dies down as there is no major hockey team in the city.
The NLL is no competition for playoff college basketball in this state but with more awareness in recent years for our sport and a void of entertainment in KC, it's worth mentioning this Midwest destination. The hope would be to build on embedded rivalries that already exist through other sports.
ARKANSAS, OKLAHOMA CITY, and TULSA
The Verizon Arena in Arkansas is a major venue without a professional tenant. Pro indoor lacrosse in the land of the Razorbacks appears to be a long shot but then I have to ask why. It’s not like indoor lacrosse was a historical sport in Saskatchewan when the Rush landed on the prairies to begin their rags to riches story. The overlooked theme of selling entertainment where it is needed should be the NLL’s calling card.
Tulsa is a similar story to Arkansas with a perfect NLL style arena waiting in the wings. The BOK center is the second-best arena in town and the NHL Oilers farm team called it home for multiple years before cutting out of town a few years back. Tulsa is another warm level climate boasting an available arena with dates.
Oklahoma City rounds out this trifecta of southern destinations lacrosse could look to charm. Oklahoma has an NBA team playing out of the newish Chesapeake Energy Arena but a private ownership group could utilize the older Cox Convention Center. Oklahoma may be a tougher sell to a mom and pop operator for this location but not unthinkable. With the recent rumours of NLL-NBA connections we still can dream.
The last jewel in our Midwest hope chest is Dallas-Fort Worth. Dallas is a sports town and recently the MLL landed there with lukewarm reception to the pro outdoor circuit.
Granted, field lacrosse is a summer sport and the heat doesn’t allow for outdoor spectators in Dallas so they went indoors in the summer. The great debate of field vs indoor could be settled here and I have strong conviction that indoor would win in a landslide.
Hockey grew in the Dallas metro area rapidly after the Stars showed up. The Stars play out of the American Airlines Center and partnership here would be a must. The Stars owners are from Vancouver B.C. and at least relate to indoor lacrosse. It just comes down to the effort it would take and if the market could support another winter tenant. It seems Dallas is the obvious choice when looking at Texas although Houston and San Antonio are large cities that could be considered. A long shot is Austin, which has a perfect size NLL arena and fit the model of a city who could use a team to get behind.
I believe we will see at least 3 new NLL cities taking their first run at indoor lacrosse by 2021. The iron is hot and all we need is a season to promote the spectacle of indoor lacrosse.