Can professional lacrosse turn a buck in Everett?

  • By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
  • Thursday, June 18, 2009 11:37pm
  • SportsEverett

Whenever The Sporting News comes out with its annual list of best American sports cities, the area in and around Everett typically ranks in the mid-300s, somewhere between Yakima and Bluefield, West Virginia.

Apparently, that news has been lost on owners of professional sports teams.

For the fifth time in eight years, Everett will welcome a new sport, and team, to town when the National Lacrosse League begins play at Comcast Arena in January. The Washington Stealth have relocated from San Jose, where a six-year stint at HP Pavilion fell short of expectations.

The Stealth will follow in the footsteps of some successful local franchises as well as teams that didn’t stick around long. The Everett Silvertips Western Hockey league team is Comcast Arena’s most obvious success story. The Snohomish County Explosion basketball team played in the venue for one season and then moved to Monroe High School. Everett’s arena football team, the Hawks, folded after just three seasons.

The big question is which path will the Stealth take?

“We have a different product,” said NLL commissioner George Daniel, who was quick to point out that his product is not a minor-league sport like some of the other franchises that have come in and out of Everett. “Our sport’s unique. It’s different. We’ve out-drawn arena football in Denver; we’ve out-drawn arena football in Buffalo. We sold 18,000 tickets per game in Buffalo, and (arena football is) no longer there.

“Just because another league or sport has failed, it’s not going to dissuade us from going there. We have confidence in our product.”

Daniel did a conference call with several members of the Stealth front office on Thursday morning, during which time the NLL executives stressed the widespread appeal of their sport. They were adamant that this would be the Puget Sound area’s team, not just Everett’s, and were hoping to tap the Seattle market as a fan base — thus, the Washington Stealth instead of using Everett or Snohomish County in front of the nickname.

The conference call revealed only a passing knowledge of the market on the part of the team’s front office. While Daniel stressed that the NLL has considered this area for relocation in the past, Stealth general manager Johnny Mauradian admitted that his team has been researching Everett for just “a week and a half.”

The team will continue to be owned by San Jose residents Bill and Denise Watkins, who purchased the Stealth in 2007. The team originally played in New York, under the name Albany Attack, before moving to the Bay Area six years ago.

“San Jose has been a tough market for us, frankly,” Stealth chief financial officer David Takata said during Thursday’s conference call. “It’s a big market, but in terms of filling building, it just hasn’t been there. We’ve been there six years. The thought has been with us for a long time: if not San Jose, then where?”

That answer led the Stealth to the north.

Working in the team’s favor is the novelty of a new sport — head coach Chris Hall describes it as “NBA-style entertainment with the crash-and-bang of NHL hockey” — as well as a team that should be competitive right away.

The Stealth roster includes one of the league’s most decorated players of all-time in 11-time all-star Colin Doyle, who led the NLL in scoring last season and ranks third on the league’s all-time scoring list. Everett’s newest team also has the reigning rookie of the year in Victoria, B.C., native Rhys Duch.

Working against the Stealth is geography. While the NLL is eager to build a solid fan base on the West Coast, the sport just hasn’t been as popular on this side of the country as it has been out East — which might have something to do with the move out of San Jose. While Daniel was quick to offer a figure of 16,000 fans per game at the Denver franchise’s home contests, the West Coast has very little experience with lacrosse. Not a single NCAA school west of Colorado offers a men’s lacrosse program at the Division I level.

The story is similar at the the high school level in this state. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association recently turned down a bid to have lacrosse sanctioned as a prep sport. It was the most recent in a series of rejections of lacrosse by the WIAA, which said there aren’t enough schools statewide fielding teams to sanction the sport.

The cards might be stacked against the Stealth, but the franchise and the NLL believe that this team can follow in the foosteps of the Silvertips, not those of the Everett Hawks.

“We’re very excited,” the Stealth’s Takata said Thursday. “There’s been a thunderous response to the idea of moving to the area, and the response in the last 24 hours has made us even more excited about moving there.”

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