Lacrosse in a Hurricane: The MLL's High Risk/High Reward Gamble

One would imagine that this last week was one of the most trying of MLL Commissioner David Gross' career. With his leagues marquee weekend only days away and a Category 2 hurricane heading straight for Maryland, all options had to have been on the table.

Adjust the start times to work around the storm's expected landfall? Not unless you want to lose your national broadcast with ESPN and possibly anger sponsors who pay for the expectation of national tv exposure. Move the game to the following weekend? Not with Navy football set to open their 2011 season at home and with no alternate venue secured. Make no bones about it, if this was an NCAA championship game it would be postponed and ESPN would work with the NCAA to secure a new start times that could be broadcast. However the MLL has no such clout, and so every time David Gross reviewed a cost-benefit analysis of the options before him, in every scenario that involved changing the game time, under the 'cost' column was 'lose ESPN broadcast'.

But the loss of a national broadcast was certainly not the only cost weighing on the MLL staff's mind. Hosting the MLL Semi-Finals during a hurricane meant the league would take a significant hit in ticket revenue and attendance. However, it would be assumed that some fans, even if it was only small percentage of the fair weather anticipated attendance, would brave the storm and make the trip to Annapolis. The question would then become to what degree was the MLL responsible for these individuals safety? Legal precedent would likely protect the MLL from any litigation pertaining to storm related accidents involving fans traveling to the game. After all, this is America, as adults we are free to make choices such as, 'do I want to travel through a hurricane to watch a lacrosse game'. But if such a scenario did occur where fans were injured, or even died while traveling to the game, regardless if the league could be sued or not it would result in a P.R. nightmare, become a black eye for the league, and could have resulted in Gross' resignation.

Nonetheless, it is when the fans get to the venue that the MLL, and to a lesser extent the Naval Academy, become responsible for their well being. (I say to a lesser extent because it is likely that Navy's contract with the MLL puts most, if not all, of the liability during game operations on the MLL and their insurance provider.) If while at the game any fan, staff member, or player was injured as a result of the hurricane, the MLL would be put in a tough situation legally, and their brand would likely take a hit in the lacrosse community.

The league's various options notwithstanding, by the end of the work week one thing slowly became apparent to the lacrosse world; the MLL wasn't budging. Gross remained confident when he spoke to Lacrosse Magazine earlier in the week; "Obviously, if we have full-bore hurricane, we'll be delayed, but these things move fairly quickly in and out of the region," Gross said on a conference call with reporters and television commentators. "We plan on getting all three games in this weekend. People should come. There's no reason not to. The games will get in."  Press releases went up on the league's website as if no storm was imminent. Ultimately there would be a slight change to the semi-final games but no mention of Irene or the fact that Maryland had been declared in a state of emergency. 

As Saturday neared the league faced a mini-backlash from some in the lacrosse community. While some shared a hope for general caution as it pertained to the games, others were simply furious with the decision to play through Irene.

Concerned Citizen
This is highly irresponsible and quite dangerous. The fans, players, and the citizens of Annapolis and Maryland should be outraged. There are several declared States of Emergency. Roads should be kept clear for Emergency Services and for evacuees, but Major League Lacrosse feels the need to clog the roads and dedicate emergency units to this apparently very important championship. Major League Lacrosse needs a major rethink of their priorities, cause it is obviously not safety.

On Friday, the City of Annapolis did the same. Mayor Joshua J. Cohen declared a State of Emergency within the city limits, effective 10:00 a.m. Friday, due to the anticipated impact of Hurricane Irene" - state of emergency means you do not play lacrosse in a hurricane.  It is absolutely foolish and grossely negligable.

     I hope the commisioner is held personally responsible for any/all damages to persons/property sustained because of   attendance to the MLL events. 

Wake up MLL. You are losing fans and respect as each hour passes that you do not postpone!! A state of emergency has been declared in the state capital, Annapolis, where additional police officers will be deployed to *the public during and after the storm, Mayor Joshua Cohen said Friday. The city will ration remaining sandbags, and residents can park for free in four city garages. For those who are forced to be there because of the lack of concern by the MLL, we're thinking of you! Please keep safe.


Total insanity! NC, VA, MD, NJ, DE, NY, RI and MA have declared State Of Emergencies.....but MLL knows best!!?? There's nothing like scarificing the safety of fans, families, players, etc. vs. postponing the games this weekend. This is not responsible and will keep MLL as a "bush league" sport vis. a vie all the other professional leagues.

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However, there was one demographic the MLL couldn't afford to lose, the players. If the players boycotted the games, feared for their safety, or refused to get on their flights, it would be an absolute disaster for the league. But while there was some concern among the lacrosse playing community;
TKehoe15 Tommy Kehoe
Sorry for the MLL venting, but inviting unprepared fans into the path of a hurricane is incredibly pathetic, stupid, and desperate.

it seems for the most part the 'players were pumped' at the chance to experience such a unique playing opportunity.

This past Saturday gameday arrived and the weather was as advertised...to a certain extent. The rain was there, the puddles were there, but the wind? Debatable. "It was certainly very wet,” said Nationals defender Brodie Merrill. “But it wasn't cold. It wasn't too windy. It made making exchanges harder and slowed things down a little bit.” 

During the game weather.com reported gusts of 17mph-28mph, hardly hurricane territory. Did the MLL get lucky? Or did they see through the Irene hype? Probably a little bit of both. Nonetheless the games were played and for the most part well received, at least according to those Lacrosse Magazine spoke to. “In a hurricane? It was great. It was fun," said Bayhawks coach Brendan Kelly. “It was a great game to be a part of."

"In all honesty, it wasn't as bad as it probably looked out there." said Merrill. “It's not very often you have the opportunity to play in those types of conditions. We made the choice to have fun with it." Even seasoned veteran and Hamilton Coach Gary Gait told his players to “have fun out there and enjoy it'”.

So at the end of the day, although some may disagree, it appears the MLL made the right call. So what are the rewards the league will reap from this decision? For one, although to our knowledge no official data has been released, it could be assumed the ratings were the highest ever for an MLL broadcast. With much of the east coast megalopolis hunkered down inside in preparation for the storm the league couldn't ask for better viewer potential. In addition many other sporting events were canceled in preparation for the storm, so the MLL didn't have to compete with the Orioles, Nationals or other local favorites for viewers. It also created a nice publicity arch for the league that SportsCenter, social media and others could latch on to. Lax All-Stars summed it up nicely “You can expect the TV broadcast, and most of the tweets and facebook messages to play on the fact these are the toughest pros in the business. That these guys are happy to brave a hurricane to play lacrosse and vie for their piece of glory. That lacrosse players are a different breed.” People could be found tweeting their amazement that despite all the cancellations, the MLL played on.

Megan Danner

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But the long term effects is where the league may gain the most. The MLL now has their own Ice Bowl or Fog Bowl, a game that will stand the test of time and will be looked back at for years to come. Where as most people can't say off the top of their head where Championship Weekend was played in 2004 and who won it, these games will be remembered for years to come. An appropriate comparison may be the Hugo Bowl. Anyone over the age of 30 who lives in the southeast and follows FCS Football likely remembers when Georgia Southern and Middle Tennessee played through Hurricane Hugo on national television. The game was played during a broadcast of ESPN Thursday Night Football with Hurricane Hugo barring down hard. The storm was a Category 4 hurricane and at the time was the 11th strongest hurricane to hit the U.S. To this day the Hugo Bowl lives on in southeastern football lore, and the same could be said someday for the MLL games played this past weekend. Now all they need is a catchy name.

You know the south is crazy about football when they play in Category 4 hurricanes