It’s been less than a week since the conclusion of the 2018 Major League Lacrosse season saw the Denver Outlaws outlast the league- leading Dallas Rattlers in the title game in Charleston – giving me time to reflect on the future of the sport’s premier outdoor professional league.
By looking at what’s listed under “champions” on the MLL Wikipedia page, you may be wondering how there could be a new era when the most recent champion has played in the championship game three years in a row. If you want to really learn from me today, you’ll have to look past that.
This new era of Major League Lacrosse is represented by so much more than who ends up on top. During this past year, the league got a new best player in the world, a new commissioner and new expectations for the future.
A new best player – Rob Pannell
Paul Rabil is widely considered the face of the sport of lacrosse, and rightfully so. He’s done it through countless camps and clinics, superb branding and exposure combined with the best all-around game the sport has probably ever seen. Rabil’s freak athleticism, coupled with skill only matched by league legends like John Grant Jr. and Mark Millon, has made him a force to be reckoned with ever since he entered the league in 2008.
That’s what led to him becoming the all-time leading scorer in MLL history earlier this season. It’s almost indisputable to me that he’ll be remembered as the best to ever play the game.
Just look at his old highlights with the Boston Cannons and you’ll see why.
Still, I haven’t seen the best player of all time in any other sport take a step back quite like Rabil did this year. For both the Lizards and Team USA, Rabil was passive and played in a secondary attacking role this summer – secondary behind the league’s new best player: Rob Pannell.
Pannell broke his single-season scoring record for the second year in a row in 2018 putting up an absurd 78 points in 13 games during an MVP season. While gaudy numbers aren’t everything in lacrosse, goals are certainly the most important aspect of winning games – and Pannell dominated in that category.
Some might argue that two-time MLL MVP Tom Schreiber, who’s done just as well indoor as well, should be considered for the title as best player in the world. Although I think my favorite player, Lyle Thompson, should have some votes as the best player, I think he still needs to prove himself at the MLL level.
I counter with this: while Pannell and Schreiber are probably equal in talent when both are fully healthy, Schreiber’s long term knee injury might see him lose a step athletically. Pannell is at the peak of his powers, and should be regarded as the best player in the world accordingly.
A new commissioner
Sandy Brown came in this past February as the league’s second-ever commissioner after Dave Gross resigned. Brown served as a media executive for over 20 years and came to a league desperate for some broadcast exposure.
The Lax Sports Net subscription-based network experiment turned out to be a disaster and the league’s branding and exposure has suffered as a result. In his first season in charge, however, Brown managed to work with LSN to make it a free platform where fans can download the app on their phones and tablets for free to watch the games.
A partnership with ESPN+ to share broadcasting rights also seems promising, as ESPN ramps up its live sports coverage as well as other exclusive programs in their new subscription-based service.
With more coverage from television broadcasters and media outlets, the MLL plateau of the past few seasons will hopefully climb to see more people become fans of lacrosse.
Along with a new commissioner and new broadcast deals comes new expectations for the fans longing for the league’s success. While the growth of the sport has plateaued over the better part of the last decade, there’s a hopefulness that maybe these players can finally quit their jobs in finance and law to become full-time athletes.
If lacrosse can mirror the growth soccer has seen with the rise of MLS over the past 20 years, there’s going to have to be some better coordination between the end of the NLL season and earlier start of MLL. Only then will the casual college lacrosse fan begin to see how great professional lacrosse can be.
Continuity between the college and pro games will certainly help as well, with the new college lacrosse rule changes adding more excitement to a vastly more watched NCAA game. A new shot clock and the return of the crease dive will reinvigorate the enjoyment of lacrosse for all.
With hopefulness in the air, expect the game of lacrosse to be back on the rise.