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PANAMA HAS PLANS

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TORONTO -- HOCKEY'S STORIED MAPLE LEAFS HAVE LEFT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS FOR A NEW ARENA, BUT MANY ROARING FANS ARE STILL PACKING INTO THE OLD HOCKEY SHRINE -- TO ...

Sticks Flying , Pro Lacrosse Is Catching On

    By Mark Heinzl

03/22/2000

    The Wall Street Journal

    Page B1

    (Copyright (c) 2000, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

    TORONTO -- Hockey's storied Maple Leafs have left Maple Leaf Gardens for a new arena, but many roaring fans are still packing into the old hockey shrine -- to watch lacrosse.

    Across Canada and the U.S., in fact, it's a whole new ballgame for the old ballgame. In its second year, the Toronto Rock lacrosse team is drawing more than 13,000 fans on average to the 15,590-seat arena. In Philadelphia, lacrosse attendance is rising at First Union Center, where last year's average crowd of 16,040 for Wings games nearly matched the regulars on hand for 76ers basketball games. And at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, N.Y., there have been times recently when more fans have showed for the Saints lacrosse matches than for New York Islanders hockey games.

    With ticket prices soaring for hockey and other professional sports, lacrosse is finding a rebirth as a bargain pro sport, full of hard-hitting, high-scoring action. Many games have more than 30 goals, and the $15 average ticket price for National Lacrosse League games is about a third the cost for pro hockey, basketball or football. An ancient pastime of North American Indians, lacrosse evolved into a gentlemanly field sport played in the Ivy Leagues. But at the Toronto Rock's home opener this year, Led Zeppelin tunes and other rock `n' roll blasted during the game, and kids ripped off their shirts and whirled them around their heads to cheer the team on. The NLL has eight teams: seven in the eastern U.S. plus Toronto. The league is planning to add teams in Columbus, Ohio, and Detroit for next year's season, and it says prospective team owners are interested in bringing pro lacrosse to Denver, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Vancouver, British Columbia and Calgary, Alberta. Total league attendance last year was up 18% from the prior year, and up 54% from 1995. Season tickets, for six games, run about $100 for some teams.

    In pitching the sport to prospective franchisers, commissioner John Livsey says he stresses the need for alternatives to rising ticket costs for big-name sports. He also points to the league's fee of $500,000 for new franchises, which recently was doubled, but is still a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars often required by major sports.

    Lacrosse is slowly beginning to get TV exposure. A few years ago, lacrosse was lucky to get condensed highlights of a week-old game that would run on Saturday morning on ESPN's second channel. But this season's "Game of the Week" is carried on a variety of cable sports channels, although sometimes it isn't live. Television rights bring in big dollars for major sports, but Toronto Rock president Bill Watters says his team actually paid to get cable coverage in Canada last year -- "the best $100,000 we ever spent." This year a production company is footing the bill, he says.

    Some teams promote the sport's affordability for fans. For its inaugural season this year, the Pittsburgh CrosseFire distributed 25,000 student cards to local high schools, allowing students to buy the best seats for $10. Teams must also appeal to the many sports fans who have never seen lacrosse. "If you like the speed of hockey and the aggressiveness of football, you'll love the Pittsburgh CrosseFire," say the team's TV commercials.

    "This sport works best when its value greatly exceeds its cost," the league's Mr. Livsey says. The key, he adds, is to "stay in the $15-$17 range for the average ticket cost and wow them with entertainment and sport." "You can truly afford to take your family," says Rock fan Tony Bennett, a Toronto engineer and season ticket holder. Besides, he says, he likes the boisterous fans at lacrosse games more than the rows of business suits at Maple Leaf games, where there's "all kinds of silence going on." Another Rock fan, Toronto bond broker Don

    Kohara, says Maple Leaf ticket prices, which run more than $100 for good seats, are keeping him away from the hockey team's new Air Canada Center.

    Still, Mr. Livsey, the league commissioner, says he warns interested franchisers that the league is young, and not every team will be a winner. The message isn't lost on Charles Russo, who as co-owner of the New York Saints, says he knows "this isn't something that's going to make us rich."

    A senior partner at a law firm who also owns a computer company, Mr. Russo says he invested in lacrosse because it's a game his children play and one that he's grown to love. In buying the team with a partner last year, "all of the due diligence was pushed to the side. We jumped into it with our hearts first," he says.

    The NLL started in 1998 as a revamped version of a previous lacrosse league in which all the teams were owned by the same few businessmen. Now teams are individually owned, and backers include retired hockey great Bobby Orr.

    Lacrosse shares another popular feature with hockey: fistfights between players. Historical records show the native North Americans who invented the game centuries ago sometimes used violent matches to settle territorial disputes. Whatever the history, says the Rock's 6-foot-6, 250-pound forward Dan Ladouceur, "the fans love it."

    At one fast-moving game in Toronto, players scored by lunging across the front of the net for a better angle and whacked opponents fiercely about the chest and arms with their sticks to help pry the ball away. "What did you think, fans?" asked the arena announcer after the game. "Not bad, eh?"

    Lacrosse players themselves aren't quitting their day jobs just yet. Toronto Rock player Pat Coyle says he earned all of $6,600 playing lacrosse last year, a typical salary, and took an outdoor job with the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, last summer "to pay the bills." Air travel for games is strictly economy, benefits consist of "20 bucks for a meal," and local travel is usually a bunch of players piling into a van, Mr. Coyle says.

    Twice a week, defenseman Terry Bullen of Orillia, Ontario, drives for two and a quarter hours to Grimsby, Ontario, for team practices. He usually returns home at 2 a.m., only to be up again in time to teach at a local high school at 8 a.m. "I get a little sleep-deprived every now and then," he says. "But for some reason you keep going."

    Teammate Chris Langdale balances his lacrosse playing with a career at a life insurance company. "I'll have a suit on and walk in to work one day with a black eye," says the 26-year-old athlete, who played field lacrosse for Cornell University. (Field lacrosse, popular on U.S. campuses, is the outdoor version of the sport; NLL games are played indoors on artificial turf.)

    While the players aren't rich, they are getting noticed. Rock captain Jim Veltman, sporting a bruised forehead after a recent practice, says students at the Toronto-area high school where he teaches often ask him for autographs between classes.

    After some games, Mr. Ladouceur has to be escorted off the field to get through mobs of young fans. High schools invite the star, who is also a police officer, to speak to students. His police colleagues in Oshawa, Ontario, appeared at one game cheering for the team and sporting painted chests.

    Rock general manager Johnny Mouradian, a lifelong lacrosse player and coach, took a leave of absence from teaching high school in St. Catharines, Ontario, to run the Rock full time, and invested part of his savings in the team. "If I'm going to lose, I'm going to lose in the lacrosse business," he says. "I did it because I love the game."

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