Pro lacrosse merger sets stage for exciting future

Bob Chavez
Canandaigua Daily Messenger
Programs for the MLL's Summer Showcase, left, and the inaugural season for the Rochester Rattlers are keepsake items now that the MLL is no more.

There was big news in the world of lacrosse last week. 

Big, but not surprising.

It also was good news. Very good news. It’s not as though the Creator’s Game was in any trouble, but at the professional level of field lacrosse, there was division between Major League Lacrosse and the Premier Lacrosse League.

But today, that division is no more.

The Dec. 16 announcement that the MLL, founded in 1999 by Jake Steinfeld of “Body By Jake” fame, is merging with the new PLL is as welcome as it is relieving. In a nutshell, the growing game that is producing more and more elite talent now has one pro destination for the outdoor game. And given the proven marketing muscle of the PLL, the potential of the single pro field league is as promising as ever.

The natural tendency now is to reflect on the MLL and what was. Because our area was there from the beginning, even though the Rattlers left Rochester for good in 2017. 

Bob Chavez

But in 2000, Frontier Field was one of seven Summer Showcase sites to gauge fan response for the MLL. A crowd of 5,491 showed for the game, the second-largest Showcase crowd by just 22 fans and in 2001, the Rattlers were born.

To the point, it was a thrilling night for lacrosse fans. Basically, the game at Frontier Field was an All-Star game that included local talent like Tim Soudan of Fairport along with Mark Millon, Casey Powell, John Grant Jr. and Jay Jalbert. 

Rochester, and the league, had its ups and downs over the years but there is no questioning what the MLL did for the game. It gave players across the country something to aim for after their college careers were finished and it brought some of the greatest to play the game right here to Rochester. And with games on television, it helped spread the game’s visibility beyond the traditional hotbeds on the East Coast.

Ryan Powell (22) celebrates a goal with John Grant Jr. in the Rochester Rattlers home debut at Frontier Field in June 2001.

Example: In the late 1990s, the Syracuse University men’s lacrosse team had a midfielder in Spencer Wright, who played high school lacrosse in California. At the time, it was so unique that newspapers published feature stories on how a San Diego kid made his way East to play lacrosse. 

Today? We think nothing of it. College rosters across the country not only include players from any and all states, but more colleges than ever are fielding men’s and women’s teams.

We can’t give the MLL sole credit for that growth, of course, but we can point to it as a vehicle that helped facilitate it to where lacrosse growth each year continues to be at or near the top of the list in terms of participation.

Two years ago, however, the landscape changed with the arrival of the PLL. It was still lacrosse, of course, but the approach changed in that players were paid more, obtained health care and received equity in the league.

It didn’t take long for the PLL to skyrocket in popularity and it’s been great to see. The reasons for it are many, but the primary drivers have been eager investors and the way the league has embraced social media. The creative forces on that end of the league have been nothing short of brilliant.

But for two years, the pro field lacrosse world was divided. And while it wasn’t horrible, it wasn’t ideal. It reminded me of the split in open wheel racing years ago, when IndyCar and CART put fans in the position of making a choice. 

That’s where field lacrosse fans have been the last two summers, but now that’s over. Lacrosse and its fans, players and officials have one single destination.

So too does the media coverage, the advertising dollars and the overall focus. That, by any measure, makes for a positive foundation. 

Around here, there is particular interest because the 585 has provided so much to the game. High school lacrosse, of course, is solidly popular. And college coaches love to recruit players from this area because of the lunch bucket mentality.

But the impact at the pro level is not minimal. Not with players like Joe Walters, Blaze Riorden, Shawn Nadelen and Donny Moss doing what they do for the game. And of the seven PLL teams in 2020, two head coaches — Soudan and Andrew Copelan — played Section V lacrosse. 

And without a doubt, there is a new wave of Section V talent that’s just a year or two away from making itself known at the pro level.

That’s why the news last week is so exciting for fans of lacrosse. As much as the game has grown over the last 20 years, the merger sets the stage for even more.

So on the grand scale, lacrosse fans have plenty about which to be excited. But it's even sweeter to know that as the game grows, Section V talent will be there with it, just as it has been all along.  

Chavez is sports editor at The Daily Messenger. Contact me at rchavez@gannett.com or follow me @MPN_bchavez