Process vs Product:
Lacrosse IQ — A Data & Analytics Story
The Battle For The Future Of America’s Fastest Growing Sport
Lacrosse is one of the continent’s more interesting sports. It is the oldest. It is the fast growing. It seems to involve and ever increasing number of LLs. These seem to come and go at random. MLL, MILL, NLL, and PLL — to name a few. If the league names are hard to keep track of, the cities with teams have become even harder. Being a Philly fan since the 80’s, I was spared the turnover — until I wasn’t. That left only Rochester as a city with a perpetual lacrosse presence — until it wasn’t.
Today, professional lacrosse is a sport that is popping up everywhere but staying nowhere. Enter Paul Rabil. Lacrosse’s first million dollar man has introduced a new league with some “new” concepts. Forget home teams — Paul’s league will operate tournament style. He also plans to better compensate his players.
I use “new” because tournament-style lacrosse is not new. It is what all the kid’s clubs are doing around the country and have been for over a decade. It is also not new for a professional sport. The AVP also burst onto the scene in the mid-80’s. It’s tournament-style league produced millionaire players — in the 80's! Why did this model take so long?
The Business Model
Changing the game is easy enough. While NCAA lacrosse is growing and far more stable than its professional cousin, it is a league that treats its fans to perpetual rule changes. Crease dives, shot clocks, cross checks, goal sizes, team sizes — in lacrosse, anything can change by next year. Players and coaches adapt. Fans debate. Most of the time, the game improves. If it doesn’t, they change back!
You would think any sport that was so fast and dynamic, would have found their way to profitability by now. For years, major sports leagues were accused of being too slow to change. These days the NFL is actually struggling with perhaps too much change. But over the last half century however, these highly conservative models grew into billion dollar franchises. Why is lacrosse struggling?
The Answer Is Unknown
This is where guys like me get into a jam. I do have an answer, but most people won’t like it. The old sports model doesn’t work. It probably never did. Do you know how much money state and local governments have poured into sports franchises, arenas, and stadiums? Do you know why the NFL was originally granted non-profit status? Why monopoly exceptions were made? Or any number of other congressional interventions? These leagues used to be vanity assets for millionaires with enough money to lose and enough political clout to keep the bottom from falling out.
Get enough help long enough and things will sort themselves out. But you can’t model a new sport on that! It would be like using the old AT&T model for your next business.
So what is the right answer? No one knows. That is it. Or perhaps you prefer — time will tell. The reality though is someone needs to learn! Well, assuming you are passionate about lacrosse…
A Lesson From Baseball… I Know Stop The Hissing
Professional Baseball got a 100 year head start on Professional Lacrosse. Sometimes I wonder if any of those games are still going… god, they take forever. But from the beginning, Baseball was married to statistics. Data and analytics have been a part of baseball longer than hot dogs! And over the centuries, that has only gotten stronger. Sabermetrics any one?
Most people understand this, but focus too much on things like batting average and OBP. What will analytics mean in the upcoming draft — equally a sideshow. They don’t recognize that the statistics soon encompassed merchandising, attendance, viewership, and more. Statistics became core to the business of baseball.
Someone Needs To Learn — And That Means Data & Analytics
Will the MLL fail now that the PLL is here? Should the NLL care? Is it better to play this sport in the winter, spring, or summer? Indoor, outdoor, or both? How does a homeless league compensate for gaps in the merchandising model? If you don’t have home stadiums, how do you reconcile attendance? Where should you play? When? How much should player compensation really increase?
Larger still. What are the right feedback models? How do you collect meaningful data beyond the arenas, the stadiums, or the temporary venues? How do you monetize? How do you adapt? What are the biggest questions? The most important decisions? And the best process to find out?
The questions don’t stop. But unless one of the these leagues begins investing in some meaningful data & analytics, anyone can be a winner… until they’re not. As a huge lacrosse fan, I can only hope the answers come. As a long time data & analytics professional, I have strong doubts that the right people and approaches are in place today or will be in the near future.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what the final product should be. But the process to get there begins with better understanding and continues with solid data & analytics. Thanks for reading!