August 15, 2013

Atlanta Poised to Welcome MLL Expansion Franchise

Ownership group targets 2014 start date

by Phil Shore | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

An ownership group led by Liam Banks, a former MLL player and founder of LB3 Lacrosse, is seeking to bring a pro team to Atlanta for the 2014 season. MLL commissioner David Gross said the league hopes to start a franchise in Atlanta as a pure expansion team, not a relocation of the Rochester Rattlers as rumored.
© Bob Markey

All year, rumors have swirled that Major League Lacrosse would be expanding and new cities and getting teams to call their own.

Nothing concrete has happened thus far but things seem to be heating up in Atlanta.

According to the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the city and local investors are making a strong push to get an MLL franchise and enough progress has been made where an announcement could come by MLL Championship Weekend, Aug. 24 and 25.

Liam Banks, a former MLL player and the founder and CEO of LB3 Lacrosse, is helping to lead the charge to bring a team to Atlanta and he is very optimistic a deal will get done.

"We're still targeting 2014 for our date," Banks told LaxMagazine.com. "The next two weeks are going to be critical leading up to championship weekend. We're working as hard as we can on our side to make that a reality."

While MLL commissioner David Gross didn't want to label Atlanta the "favorite" to get a team, he did say there was a lot to like about the area. Gross also tweeted Thursday morning that he was at the airport headed to Atlanta.

On June 7, the Rochester Rattlers and Boston Cannons played in front of 4,417 fans at Kennesaw State University Stadium in Kennesaw, Georgia. It's common for the league to play games in markets they want to try out for future MLL teams and the Atlanta area seems to have passed that test.

"The reaction we got was incredibly strong," Gross said. "We also think it has a tremendous venue with its amenities and seating."

Banks was also proud of the effort the city put forth for that game and said that it definitely plays a role in the emergence of Atlanta as a possible MLL destination.

"We've been targeting a team for a long time but having the game down there reaffirmed for myself, the league offices and the Atlanta Sports Council... on what this could be," Banks said. "The whole package together — the production on the field, the response from the fans — got a lot of people excited for the future."

Gross has previously stated his intention to expand the league. He also went on record in January that there was a possibility Atlanta could have a team in 2014.

That sentiment hasn't changed, but Gross was a bit more noncommittal than Banks when asked about impending expansion.

"There isn't much of a status now," he said. "We don't have a timetable right now."

So what is the holdup?

"Any time you're taking on such a large project, you need to do your due diligence with people you'd like to be involved in it, the capital involved, and to make it a deal that works," Banks said. "We have people in place that we talk to on a regular basis, but before I put my name on the line and my company's name on the line to back it, we want to make sure 100 percent that all the right people are involved."

No news was made whether there would be a team or not, but there was news as to what kind of team — relocated or pure expansion — the city would get should a deal be reached.

There was speculation that the Rattlers could potentially leave Rochester and move to Atlanta. That does not seem to be what the league is considering, however.

"Right now, we're looking at when we go to Atlanta that Atlanta be an expansion team," Gross said.

That still leaves the Rattlers' status in Rochester in limbo right now, but Gross said that every effort would be made to keep the team where it is. The team is looking for new ownership.

"Rochester had some struggles but we're looking to make it work in upstate New York," he said. "We think there's a fan base in upstate New York that we can tap into."

Those struggles that he talks about include the lowest total and average attendance in the entire league. Gross, however, did commend Rochester management for choosing to be a part of the test-market games in order to help grow the league. But the Rattlers' drew their largest crowd this season when they played in Georgia.

This season Rattlers head coach Tim Soudan even said, "There hasn't been a whole lot of marketing done in town."

When asked about the ability for the Rattlers to be profitable in Rochester, Gross opened the discussion up beyond upstate New York.

"We think Atlanta is a terrific market. It's a market we want to be in sooner rather than later."

— MLL commissioner David Gross

"I think you can't limit it to Rochester. We need more people to buy more tickets in all of our markets," he said. "A strong professional league will help grow lacrosse."

The Charlotte Hounds and Ohio Machine, both expansion teams in 2012, have done relatively well in attendance and provide a strong indicator that success can be had in non-traditional lacrosse markets like Atlanta.

Atlanta is also not the only possibility. Gross said that cities such as Seattle and Portland have shown strong interest in having teams. Florida has been a test-market site numerous times. Championship weekend is being played this year at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, to help gauge if it's a possibility to bring the league back to the city (the Barrage played in Philadelphia from 2004-2007).

For now, however, Atlanta seems to be the city of focus.

"We think Atlanta is a terrific market," Gross said. "It's a market we want to be in sooner rather than later."

An expansion team in Atlanta, without any change in Rochester's status, would give the league an odd number of teams for the first time in history. The league is prepared to go with an odd number of teams if needed.

"While we have always had an even number of teams, the league has modeled out playing with an odd number of clubs and are prepared for that scenario if it is presented in the future," Gross said.

The common sentiment heard in the lacrosse community is to "grow the game." The literal definitions of expanding are to spread and to increase. Still, there is a necessary hesitation to make sure all parties involved are ready for the commitment and are in it for the long haul.

Banks expects that a team in Atlanta would not only grow the game in Georgia, but throughout the entire region.

"It's important, one of the things we want to do, is not only to have a professional lacrosse team in the south but to grow the game of lacrosse in the South," he said. "With an MLL team in the area it will only speed the process of more coaches in the area and put sticks in kids' hands."


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