Is two leagues too many for women's professional lacrosse?
Digit Murphy was at her home in Providence, Rhode Island, when she got a text from a lacrosse colleague. Strange rumblings were making the rounds.
Word had it that there was a new professional women's lacrosse league in the works. The curious thing was, there already was a new professional women's lacrosse league in the works. Murphy, in fact, had co-founded the United Women's Lacrosse League in 2016. As CEO, she was looking forward to the Season 2 opener, which was just days away.
On Memorial Day weekend, from the strange rumblings came an astonishing announcement. Starting in 2018, the Women's Professional Lacrosse League would begin play. Its founder was Michele DeJuliis, a member of the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame who also happened to be the original commissioner of Murphy's league.
"Seeing this other league come up, to me, it's insanity," Murphy said. "The fact that in the second year you're going to try and add another league, it's another mistake that women's sports are going to make. I chuckle at it, because everyone wants to get in it, but people don't understand there's a lot of work involved and it's a lot of educating and changing social norms.
"Women's professional sports is in its very, very young level and time in our society. Everyone wants everything to happen quickly, and it can happen quicker if everyone lifts up the sport and we don't try to detract from it or separate it."
While not ready to divulge too many details about the newest league, DeJuliis said it has a different goal than the UWLX.
"We have a different focus, a different mission and therefore we are a different league," she said. "I just know what we are about and I don't want to really get into anything negative that would impact [the UWLX]. I was a part of that league."
Contributing to Murphy's shock was that the UWLX had already experienced growth in its short existence.
In Year 1 of UWLX, the league didn't pay its players, but, it is paying a stipend in Year 2. It has big-name sponsors, too, such as STX, a lacrosse equipment manufacturer, and Nike, the global sports brand. Its four teams -- the Baltimore Pride, Boston Storm, Long Island Sound and Philadelphia Force -- also have local sponsors. Plus, games are often held at large-scale youth tournaments, so that the UWLX players, many of whom are also college coaches on the recruiting swing, are already in attendance. That's led to an average of 500 fans per game with tickets costing between $10-$15.
The UWLX has also tweaked some of the women's lacrosse rules, instituting more contact, reducing the number of penalties called and allowing for more movement on free position chances.
All of which helps explain the shock waves pulsing through Murphy's core.
"I pick up the phone and ask [DeJuliis] 'What's going on?' " Murphy said. " 'Call me back. There's not enough room for two leagues.' Crickets. Doesn't call me back and the league is announced basically the day that we start."
So, how exactly is the WPLL different? And why start it?
For one, the WPLL is looking to attract the best players on the planet, and fans can expect them to play there starting in 2018. National team stars Taylor Cummings, Kayla Treanor and Katie Schwarzmann have already entered the WPLL draft, which will occur in early August. The WPLL is also working with US Lacrosse with the goal of pushing women's lacrosse into the Olympic Games, according to a US Lacrosse Magazine report. DeJuliis is pushing for "mentorship programing, character development and everything all wrapped into one." She said she plans to roll out further details about the WPLL in the coming weeks, hoping to keep excitement ramped up.
As for the UWLX, Murphy said that league is open to showcasing players of varying lacrosse backgrounds -- be it a Division I, II or III player -- and promoting the sport overall. Landing those elite players, Murphy said, isn't her biggest concern. Murphy said she wants to create "heroes, leaders and role models" in women's lacrosse and show youth that there is an opportunity to continue to play after college.
The good news is that they have a deep pool to work with, according to the 2016 US Lacrosse participation survey.
Youth participation -- girls 14 and under -- has nearly doubled from 81,609 players in 2006 to 161,832 in 2016. High school girls participation has increased from 65,244 athletes in 2006 to 135,488 in 2016. And, at the college level, participation has increased from 10,207 players to 17,019 across the same span.
Such growth inspires Kara Mupo, an attack on the UWXL's Philadelphia Force, who wants an opportunity to play, wherever that ends up being.
"Whatever platform it is that gives us an opportunity to go out there and grow the sport that we love, that's given all of us these unbelievable opportunities, we just want to play," Mupo said. "What Digit has done thus far is taken a huge step in the right direction, and we couldn't be more thankful. Whether it's moving forward with the UWLX or the WPLL, whoever it is, I can assure that all the players will have so much gratitude and be so thankful just for the opportunity."
But there are questions as to whether two leagues can simultaneously exist in 2018, with the WPLL in its infancy and the UWLX -- also still in its infancy -- planning to expand from four to six teams.
"I think it's going to be tough," DeJuliis said. "And there's probably not enough room."
Mike Bedford, coach of the UWLX's Philadelphia Force, points out that the Professional Lacrosse League and North American Lacrosse League -- two men's professional indoor leagues based in the United States -- quickly ceased operations after beginning in 2012. Plus, he said, Major League Lacrosse, the men's professional league, was "struggling financially" in its early days.
"I can only hope over the next months that the opportunities for these athletes just gets greater and greater and greater," Bedford said. "From the coach's perspective, I really just want what's best for the athletes, all these women's lacrosse players. I want them to have the opportunity to play. We're already into Year 2, so it'd be easier to continue to push the UWLX, but if people don't seem to think so, then that's absolutely their right."
As for lessons, Murphy, a trailblazer in the women's hockey world, said there are many to be learned from the different iterations of those leagues.
"Unless the players get involved, unless they're a part of the delivery of the product and are out in the community and part of the discussion of the success of the league, it doesn't work," Murphy said. "It has to be a relationship between management and players to have women's pro sports succeed."
The other big piece, Murphy said, is a stable business model. Ed Saunders, director of marketing at STX, thinks UWLX has that. The company got heavily involved in the "post-collegiate" women's lacrosse world through Team STX, a travelling squad of international-level players, and now feel like it has a suitable partner.
"Our goal is to help the women's lacrosse community become more accessible at every level, so we're aligned with UWLX and would like to them succeed," Saunders said.
For now, Murphy thinks it's high time for some soul-searching.
"We're the pioneers in women's professional sports, and what does that mean to those players? They have to do some soul searching in what their role is in growing the sport and how they value their commitment, moving forward, as a pioneer," Murphy said. "If the answer is, 'I'll do everything it takes to make this successful,' then you're pioneer. If not, then it is what it is. If players are not going to value that they're the pioneers of the sport, then the sport grows more slowly."