Pocket of growth

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

When Toronto Rock defender John Rosa entered the world of professional box lacrosse in 1994, describing the sport as professional was a bit of a stretch.

After each of his eight games in his rookie season with the Detroit Turbos, Rosa got a cheque for a whopping $125 US, giving him a hard-earned $1,000 for the season.

"It was funny," Rosa said. "We used to have a big joke back then coming from the movie Bull Durham where they talked about making it to the show. We used to say we had made it to the circus. We didn't draw so well and you really got nothing. There were barely enough balls for practice ... So many things have changed in this league, it's really unbelievable."

Indeed, the cross-continent, 10-team league now known as the National Lacrosse League has come a long way since its modest beginnings as a four-team northeastern loop in 1987. The NLL final today between the Arizona Sting and the Toronto Rock at the Air Canada Centre will be played before a sellout crowd and national TV audiences in Canada and the United States. And the players, as devoted as any athletes, are making an average of $14,000 for a 16-game season.

But not all days are like today for the NLL. Keep in mind this is a league that almost died twice during the past two years because of labour problems. Only three teams made money last season. New squads in Arizona, Anaheim and San Jose are at the bottom in the NLL in attendance, averaging under 7,000 a game, and the Vancouver Ravens folded during training camp. Yes, Sports Illustrated called lacrosse "the fastest growing sport in America," last month. But the game of choice south of the border is the slower, less-physical field lacrosse, played by almost all of the 400,000 American registered players (a number that has grown 10% annually the past seven years). About 80% of NLL players are Canadian.

"In Toronto, we're always saying 'Wow, we're doing so well,' " Rosa said. "Then when you're in Anaheim, where I was last year, you start to come back down to earth."

Clearly, players are not close to becoming full time and the NLL is not about to become North America's fifth major league. But that shouldn't diminish the achievements of commissioner Jim Jennings, who has done a fine job during his five years with the league. NHL teams have ownership/marketing stakes in eight of 10 NLL teams, cutting operating costs and eliminating previous mom-and-pop owners. This season, Jennings convinced the NLL board of governors, a hard-to-please group, to shell out $1.1 million to NBC for broadcasts of the all-star game (which was watched by a modest audience of 800,000) and championship game. Jennings sold all of the 30-second ads for $10,000 to 15,000 and the league has made just enough money on the deal to "have dinner tomorrow night." The league also has completed two years of a three-year, $900,000 Canadian TV deal with The Score.

"It has been a long road to get where we are today," Jennings said. "You always remember where you came from. We're at a different level today than we were even 12 months ago."

Jennings recently sold expansion teams to Edmonton and Portland for $1.5 million apiece, quite a hike from the $250,000 price-tag on the Hamilton franchise that was purchased by the Rock ownership group in 1998. Madison Square Garden is looking into putting franchises in New York and a building it operates in Hartford next season.

"My goal is to have 20, 21, 22 teams, somewhere in that ball park in five years," Jennings said.

To do that, the league needs more good American players. Three years ago, with 13 teams, there were not enough good players to go around. And in some NLL cities, players fly-in for game days and rarely practice. The Sting had a full practice this week for the first time since training camp.

The San Jose Stealth's Maryland-born Ryan Boyle, the NLL rookie of the year, has to be the league's poster boy. The Princeton graduate never had played box lacrosse before this season, but the transition went well after a rocky start.

"In outdoor, you don't wear many pads," Boyle said. "Before the first practice (with San Jose), people were telling me you should probably put on these wrist pads and rib pads and I was like, 'What are you talking about, I'll be fine.' The first play somebody cross-checked me across the arms and I was like, 'give me pads.' "

The league is hoping to start NLL2 to develop players, but the fierce play isn't appealing to some Americans.

"I've talked to some marquee (NCAA players) who played a couple of years (in the NLL) and then retired," U.S. Lacrosse executive director Steve Stenersen said. "They've said, 'God , it's so good not to be playing in that league.' "

As one NLL coach said, "A lot of these guys can come out of college and work on Wall Street. Why would they want to play (part time) and get the crap beat out of them."

In many cities, the NLL is perceived as a junk sport.

"It's a sport people still don't know well," Colorado Mammoth general manager Steve Govett said. "Guys won't talk about it in the media if they don't understand it. We still have to educate people to take the sport to the next level."

But just getting this far is quite a feat for a sport that has been kicking and screaming for attention.

"I never imagined I could play professional lacrosse," Boyle said. "It's almost too good to be true."

Dead & Buried

Since the National Lacrosse League was formed in 1987 (then known as the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League), 15 cities/areas have lost franchises:

1 New Jersey *

2. Baltimore

3. Washington *

4. Detroit

5. New York

6. New England

7. Pittsburgh *

8. Charlotte

9. Hamilton

10. Syracuse

11. Albany

12. Ottawa

13. Columbus

14. Montreal

15. Vancouver

*-- Location has had two franchises


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