For the first time in five years, the National Lacrosse League saw its overall attendance numbers grow in 2013.
This is a trend that needs to continue.
With the NLL and the Professional Lacrosse Players Association reaching a deal on a seven-year Collective Bargaining Agreement, the league has set itself up for a long period of stability within its ranks. That makes it imperative that they find ways to grow their product.
One of the teams that will likely be looking for improved attendance numbers when the 2014 season begins is the newly relocated Vancouver Stealth.
In spite of having a great deal of success on the floor during their four-year tenure in Everett, WA—they went to the Champion's Cup three times, winning the whole enchilada once—the team was never able to establish a substantial crowd. In 2013, they averaged just 4,184 fans per game, more than 2,500 fewer than the next lowest attended team, the Edmonton Rush (6,714 per game).
Having now moved to one of the key box lacrosse hotbeds, the expectation is that they should see bigger, more enthusiastic crowds right away.
Although their new venue, the Langley Events Centre, only holds 5,200 people (well below the NLL average for per-game attendance), the Stealth are hopeful that they can sell the place out night after night and increase team revenues significantly as a result.
If the Stealth can get 5,200 fans per game, that would be a 24 percent increase year-over-year, and that all by itself would help bring more legitimacy to the NLL.
The aforementioned Rush also need to start turning their attendance fortunes around.
After making a surprise run to the finals in 2012, Edmonton competed for first place in the West Division for most of the 2013 season and looked to be poised to go all the way again before the Stealth derailed them in the first round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, all that success didn't translate into better attendance numbers. Although they only lost about 300 fans per game, that's still a steady downward trend going all the way back to 2007 when they had their high-water mark as a franchise, bringing in a solid 10,815 fans per game, the sixth-best total in the league at a time when they had just expanded to 13 teams.
The good news for Edmonton is that they have one of the most exciting young talents in the sport playing for them right now. Mark Matthews won the Rookie of the Year award in 2013, scoring 38 goals. He is unquestionably the real deal and should help the Rush remain contenders for years to come.
If the franchise can effectively market Matthews as the guy to turn Edmonton back into the City of Champions, as it says on all their signs, they might be able to start rebuilding their fanbase and stop the downward trend.
If the struggling franchises can start moving things back in the right direction while the more successful teams, like the Colorado Mammoth and the Buffalo Bandits, continue bringing in the big crowds, the NLL might finally be in a position to start adding teams once again, this time doing it carefully and methodically.
Finding ways back into some traditional lacrosse hotbeds that they have been absent from in recent years—and doing it in a way that ensures steady growth—might finally bring the league the national attention it deserves as one of the finest spectator sports ever created.
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