By Steven Wizniuk
Here we go. The NLL is back and everyone is ready for the first goal, the first big hit, the first B-O-X chant, the first fight, the first ESPN/TSN broadcast, and the long awaited return of the best lacrosse in the world.
The NLL and the world looked a lot different on March 7, 2020 when the last game was played. Through it all the league has put in an incredible amount of work to exceed expectations and come out of the pandemic with a record 14 teams, amazing broadcast deals, and more hype around it than ever before in it’s 35 year history. It feels like the NLL is on the brink of a major breakthrough and all the dedication is ready to be rewarded.
Banditland will be rocking, the NLL will be in Texas for the first time, a new champion will be crowned, and we will all be able to enjoy the Creator’s Game once again. What a gift it will be for teams to be back competing on the floor and fans cheering them on.
You can see the full NLL Schedule here: www.nll.com/schedule/full-schedule/
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines for the 2021-2022 season.
From the players to members of the media who stir the pot, there are way more personalities in the league that will help fans connect to their teams and keep things entertaining throughout the season. More podcasts and lacrosse media popped up during the pandemic as people took it upon themselves to keep talking about the sport and hear stories from players. The PLL’s success focusing on social media has no doubt motivated the NLL to replicate and match that. Add in the ability to bet on games and accounts sharing their picks and there are now ways to engage with the NLL for every age group of fans.
Want to learn more about the past weekend’s games or hear stories from players and coaches? Tune into podcasts like Back of the Bird, Off The Crosse Bar, Lacrosse Classified, The Post Game, and several others who will be putting out episodes each week.
Individual teams are stepping up their game with engaging social media content like the Halifax Thunderbirds putting out documentary style videos and weekly updates.
Having someone to root for or despise is what makes sports so engaging. Seeing the action play out live and then seeing Curtis Dickson or Wes Berg tweet about a dirty play creates drama fans want to tune in for.
I’m sure #LaxTwitter will find plenty of things to argue about after each weekend of games.
ESPN/TSN Streaming and Broadcasts
In the past 10 years trying to watch an NLL game was a lot of work to find the right streaming website or having to pay to watch on an obscure platform. B/R Live had good quality broadcasts, but having it behind a paywall was a huge roadblock for making new fans.
For the 2021-2022 season, every game of the NLL season will be available to watch on ESPN+ and TSN streaming platforms as well as 30 total games broadcast on ESPN and TSN main cable networks. Millions of sports fans already pay for ESPN+ in the US and TSN in Canada, which will now allow games to show up in their feed to watch every weekend. Being able to flip through the channels and land on an NLL game is so important for the league to grow.
The NLL is no stranger to Sportscenter Top 10, but seeing a few segments or in depth videos on the main networks would also be huge for exposure.
Expansion and Relocation
The New England Black Wolves are now the Albany Firewolves, the Toronto Rock will now play in Hamilton, and Panther City (Fort Worth) has entered the league as the first team in Texas. Las Vegas will join in 2023. I think we can expect commissioner Nick Sakiewicz to work toward continuing to add a new team at least every 2 years. If we can get to 15 teams the league will be in a really good place to continue to build partnerships and increase revenue before another big expansion. Landing teams in traditional lacrosse hotbeds like Baltimore will be important, but finding more diamonds in the rough like Saskatchewan and Halifax could be more helpful for growth right now.
The talent pool to draw from is also growing with the Arena Lacrosse League now having both East and West leagues in Canada during the winter to develop players. In 3-4 years, I think we will also see a surge of Americans that will have box experience with the rise of box programs across the US. American players still struggle to make the cut with only 28 landing on opening night and practice rosters.
Even with 2 years off from play, I’m sure the rivalries will still be as heated as ever. Whether it’s Buffalo vs Rochester, Calgary vs Colorado, or new ones like San Diego vs Vancouver there will be plenty for fans and the players to look forward to. With the playoff format going back to West and East Divisions the games will mean even more when teams play their divisional rivals.
I’m really hoping we see more new rivalries emerge and we get to see some battles like the old school Knighthawks vs Rock or Bandits vs Wings classics of the 90s.
We never got to see Halifax play in Rochester and it’s been almost 4 years since Curt Styres decided to move the original Knighthawks to Halifax. I have no doubt when the T-Birds run on to the floor at Blue Cross Arena they will be met with boos and curses from the Rochester fans letting them know how mad they still are that their team was shipped off to Nova Scotia.
Players to Watch:
Everyone and their mother knows that Jeff Teat will be a star in the NLL. If you don’t think so, that’s like saying McDavid was going to be a bust. It’s in his blood and he has been torching NLL players for years already in the MSL and internationally. The real question is if he’ll score 100 points in his first season?
Having Dhane Smith, Josh Bryne, Chris Cloutier, Chase Fraser, Tehoka Nanticoke, and Connor Fields coming out of the front door on one team should be illegal. With Smith, Bryne, Fraser, Cloutier, and Transition player Ian MacKay coming off a Championship in the PLL, they should be firing on all cylinders from the start and looking to avenge their loss in the 2019 NLL Championship.
Veterans like Dane Dobbie, Shayne Jackson, Callum Crawford, Lyle Thompson, Mitch Jones, Mark Matthews, and others scattered around the league should still find their way to the top of the stats lists. Proven Goalies like Matt Vinc, Christian Del Bianco, Dillon Ward, and Warren Hill, and Doug Jamieson will give their teams an advantage, while teams that have young goalies or those with little NLL experience stepping in net will need their defenses to step up. Run and gun players like Zach Currier and Graeme Hossack could be crucial at the start of the season as teams get their game legs back.
We also can’t wait to root for Powell Athlete Blaze Riorden this season as he comes off a huge MVP season in the PLL. He is one of the craftiest lefty forwards in the NLL and always leaves it all on the floor.
It will be really interesting to see how so much player movement around the league and two draft classes of rookies change the landscape of the NLL. Which players step up? Who still has a pandemic hangover?
The NLL has brought fans to their feet since 1987. In 2022, it is still going strong thanks to the fans and the hardworking people who will do anything for this sport to reach its potential. The great players of the past like Tavares, the Gaits, Eliuk, Veltman, Kelusky, Grant Jr., Ryan Powell, Casey Powell, and so many others have paved the way for today’s players to have this opportunity to play in front of a national audience on ESPN and TSN.
The last time I was in an NLL arena was Feb. 29th in Rochester and it feels so so long ago now. Packing arenas with fans again to watch lacrosse is going to be cathartic for everyone. The 2021-2022 NLL season kicks off tonight as the Vancouver Warriors face the San Diego Seals at 10 pm ET.
No more waiting. No more Zoom calls. This is for real. The players are ready and the spotlight is on the league to shine on the big stage that it deserves.