The National Lacrosse League has managed to survive for more than the past quarter-century, no small achievement. It hopes to be well placed for growth in the coming years.
The biggest step toward that goal during the just concluded offseason was the signing of a new collective bargaining agreement through 2020.
“It’s never easy, but we had some really good discussions,” NLL Commissioner George Daniel said about the process. “The players themselves participated in the bargaining sessions. They were very professional. We listened and they listened. We lowered management costs through smaller rosters, but gave up free agency at a younger age.
“We’ve already seen three free agent signings since the deal was signed. That’s rare; we rarely had any in the past. The system is working - so far, so good.”
The league is hoping that the moves will soon translate to a better financial picture. NLL franchises have often been fragile over the years. The latest move came earlier this year when the Washington Stealth moved to Vancouver.
Fiscal stability could help the nine-team league’s chances of expanding in the near future.
“Clearly, the new CBA gives us a different story to tell,” Daniel said. “It’s a better story, a better deal for management.”
Smaller rosters (23 to 20) for the upcoming season probably mean an even smaller gap between the nine teams in the league, as the talent will be more evenly distributed - if that’s even possible with the teams already so balanced.
“It had to be the most competitive league in the world last year,” Daniel said. “Last year the Toronto Rock had 10 wins, and the Bandits had six. We were one Buffalo win over Toronto from everyone in the league having between seven and nine wins” in a 16-game season.
One of the most obvious changes this season will be a revised playoff format. Three teams from the East and West will make the playoffs, reducing the number of franchises in the postseason from eight to six. The division winners will receive a first-round bye. Minnesota has moved from the West to the East this season.
In the division finals and championship round, the teams will play home-and-home games. If each team has a win, the squads will immediately play a 10-minute mini-game after the conclusion of the second game to determine which team captures the series.
“We looked at a lot of different options for the playoffs, and we thought reducing the number of teams was the way to go,” Daniel said. “We looked at shootouts as a tiebreaker, but we thought there would be more integrity with a short game. Ten minutes seemed like the right time - five minutes was too short, and a full period was too long after just playing an entire game. It’s a step in growing the playoffs.”
The season is going from 16 to 18 games, which is a reason why the first games in the league this year will be held before Jan. 1 instead of after.
The league opted out of a television deal with the CBS Sports Network. That channel had rights to games in the United States and Canada, but the outlet was not available through most systems in Western Canada - the home of three teams. Games will continue to be shown on YouTube, and there may be other announcements about broadcasting rights in the near future.
The league seems to be one of the few contact sports not to be dealing with legal problems involving concussion issues. Daniel says the NLL is working to keep its players healthy.
“We are trying to be very pro-active on it and be diligent - give them the best care,” Daniel said. “Certainly those types of situations exist in other leagues. But our season is much shorter and our guys play in other leagues. So we aren’t so concerned with liability; it’s more about the players’ health. We try to be very aggressive with discipline on illegal hits.”