When the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League closed its doors for good over the summer due to the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, many former players were left without a way to play.
In its wake, though, a company called Athletes Unlimited is starting a new league, slated to begin play in the summer of 2021, immediately after the World Lacrosse Women’s World Championship. A number of former Tar Heels have already decided to join Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse, whose goal is to make the game more fast-paced and attractive to fans.
Matches will be held on a smaller 80-by-50-yard field, with 9-person teams playing four shortened 8-minute quarters with a 60-second shot clock. There also won't be permanent teams. Instead, players will earn points based on how they perform each game, with a set number of points awarded for specific actions.
At the end of each week, the top four players in the standings will be named team captains and draft the team for their next match — almost like real-life fantasy sports. At the end of the month-long season, the player with the most points will be crowned the champion.
“You can watch a college game and it could go on forever, with the shot clock and how many minutes there are,” former Tar Heel defender Amber Falcone McKenzie said. “But with this, you're there for an hour, you watch a great game of lacrosse, and then you're on with your life. So I think it's a lot more viewer-friendly for sure.”
McKenzie also said one of the main reasons for trying to increase fan viewership of lacrosse is to eventually see it named an Olympic sport. The Federation of International Lacrosse hopes to see it added by 2028, although it would likely be with rules more similar to the new league.
“I love the traditional college model as it is for college, but I just don't think it’s realistic for the future or for the Olympics,” McKenzie said. “Just because of the way it goes, (the new rules) would allow for countries to compete with smaller numbers as opposed to big rosters, which obviously would be helpful for other countries because of travel and the amount of players on a team.”
The goal of growing popularity isn’t just wishful thinking, either. Athletes Unlimited’s first venture, a pro softball league, was able to attract broadcast deals from both ESPN and CBS, as well as a sponsorship deal with Nike. With lacrosse being one of the fastest-growing high school and college sports in the country, this new league will look to capitalize on that momentum.
“This new model will help us tremendously grow the game,” former Tar Heel midfielder Sammy Jo Tracy said. “Growing up, unless you went to a game, that was the only way to watch it. Now obviously, we have all these social media platforms, but it’s still pretty hard to find women’s lacrosse. So to finally have that be all over, I think, is huge.”
The league also features an unprecedented amount of athlete involvement. Through the Players Executive Committee, made up of players including McKenzie, the athletes will make decisions on everything from the match rules and point values of specific actions to how the weekly draft works. Emily Parros, a former Tar Heel midfielder and current assistant coach at UNC, said increased athlete involvement should make the league more fun for athletes and fans alike.
“We have the best perspectives on how to put value into our game, whether it's with the stats or just how we structure things in the league,” Parros said. “We’re going to be able to set ourselves up to best compete, show our skills and keep it competitive because we have been through that growth for this sport our whole entire lives.”
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