As the Alliance of American Football closes out its inaugural season and two more minor circuits threaten to launch in 2020 — a relaunch of the XFL and the Freedom Football League — there is apparently no shortage of professional sports competing for attention in a crowded sports marketplace. And it’s not just football trying to fill a void that may or may not, in fact, exist. However, it seems that if it involves a ball being tossed, hit, kicked or hurled through an apparatus, chances are it has a professional league struggling for attention.
While the sports entrepreneurs behind the launch of these leagues often concern themselves with attendance, television contracts, corporate sponsorships and stadium deals, the real question they should ask is: Would you tailgate at it? That’s the real predictor of success, isn’t it? Would you, dear readers, get out of bed at the butt crack of dawn, load up your RV, drive several hours to a stadium, set up your gear, and spend the day smoking ribs and drinking beer all to tailgate at a lacrosse game, a rugby match or an ultimate disc tournament?
I’ve put together a guide to the professional leagues of some of these more obscure sports, charting the pros and cons of each sport to answer that question.
There are currently two men’s leagues active across the nation, Major League Lacrosse (MLL) and the indoor National Lacrosse League (NLL), and one women’s league, the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League (WPLL). Not surprisingly, all of these leagues have struggled to gain a foothold. The MLL, for instance, averaged just over 2,700 fans per game, less than half of the league’s 2011 peak of 6,400.
However, a new league, the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) is set to launch in June with an interesting model. Founded by superstar lacrosse player Paul Rabil with his brother Mike, the PLL has lined up some additional major investors, as well as NBC Sports as its media partner. The six-team league is forgoing basing teams in select cities, instead opting to tour 12 major cities during its 14-week season.
- Pace of Play Lacrosse is a fast-paced game and they carry sticks that they swing at each other, so there is potential for controlled violence. Always a plus.
- Weather For the outdoor leagues, the seasons are typically in the spring and summer, so no need to bundle up and risk frostbite tailgating at games.
- Small Crowds in Large Stadiums There is nothing worse than going to a sporting event surrounded by tens of thousands of empty seats. While a couple of MLL teams play in smaller venues, others play at college or NFL stadiums. The Denver Outlaws play at the Broncos Stadium at Mile High. With more than 76,000 seats, that’s a lot of hollow space to look at during a game.
- Dumb Nicknames I’ve always believed you can gauge a league’s viability by the quality of its team nicknames. Major League Soccer figured this out after years of terrible team names (anyone remember the Kansas City Wiz?). The MLL suffers from the same silliness. The New York Lizards? Really?
- Team Instability The MLL currently has eight teams. Six teams have folded since 2008. There’s a good chance the team you support today could be history tomorrow.
Verdict Pass on the MLL but keep an open mind on the new PLL launching this summer. The presence of major investors, a proper television partnership, and modern business model make the PLL more than intriguing. I say, give it a shot.
The preferred sport of college-age Deadheads and weed enthusiasts has been threatening to break into the culture at-large for several years now, hence the American Ultimate Disc League. The AUDL launched in 2012 and now consists of 21 teams dotted throughout the nation and Canada. The league also has a television deal with Stadium and a subscription service for $9.99 per month, allowing fans to watch all 126 regular season games online at theaudl.com.
- Youth Factor It’s ultimate, which means it naturally attracts a younger fanbase who come to games to have a good time as well as watch the game. Major plus!
- Good Game Play Ultimate is actually really fun to watch. Go check out some video of AUDL games on YouTube and the league Facebook page and see for yourself. There is something about the sight of a Frisbee floating in the air that brings up the desire to jump and make a one-handed grab!
- Venue Selection A lot of AUDL teams play in high school stadiums, including a few Catholic schools, which could mean alcohol is prohibited in the stands and the lots in some cities.
- Geography Most of the AUDL teams are located in the Northwest and upper Midwest with only a smattering of teams in the South and out West, so seeing a game in person for much of the country is a challenge.
The second fastest growing sport in the United States, according to The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, rugby went professional in 2018 with the launch of Major League Rugby. Currently, the league consists of nine teams with two more scheduled to enter in 2020. MLR games can be seen on the CBS Sports network, as well as some ESPN and regional television coverage in specific markets.
- Youth Factor Rugby is wildly popular among younger sports fans who are interested in creating a sports scene of their own.
- Party Time I don’t mean to paint with too broad a brush, but the amateur rugby players I’ve encountered over the years looooove to party. One could wonder if beer is more plentiful on the sidelines than Gatorade. As the league grows, the tailgating scene is bound to be bonkers.
- Small Fan Base The MLR is dealing with the same issues as many start-up leagues as it develops a fan base. However, the league averaged 2,300 fans in its inaugural season, not that far behind the MLL average attendance which launched in 2001.
- Fan Education Despite the sport growing at a rapid rate, rugby is still a bit of an oddity among sports fans used to American football and unfamiliar with rugby rules. Not an insurmountable problem, but a short-term con nonetheless.
Verdict Definitely tailgate-worthy!