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Lacrosse Invades Anaheim

A New Jersey pro team is moving to Arrowhead Pond, where niche sports have struggled. The league's Denver experience was key.

September 18, 2003|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Indoor soccer, arena football and roller hockey couldn't survive at Arrowhead Pond. But the National Lacrosse League believes it has a future in Orange County, and announced Wednesday the arrival of the Anaheim Storm.

Officials with the arena and the indoor league say they hope the sport, played widely on the East Coast and in Canada but generally a stranger out West, will be welcomed by spectators hungry for physical, high-speed play that combines elements of basketball and ice hockey.

The league officials said they hope the Storm, which is moving from New Jersey, mimics the success of the Denver-based Colorado Mammoth, which averaged about 16,000 fans per game last year, its initial NLL season.

"Denver gave us the courage to move west," NLL Commissioner Jim Jennings said Wednesday. "It's been a goal of ours for a long time to be in the Los Angeles market."

Franchises have also been established in San Jose and Arizona, which join Calgary, Colorado and Vancouver in the 17-year-old league's newly formed West division. The East division consists of Buffalo, Philadelphia, Rochester and Toronto.

More than 70% of the league's 230 players hail from Canada; most of the remaining players come from the East Coast.

The Southern California Lacrosse Assn. has eight adult, eight high school and a dozen middle school teams in Orange County.

In indoor lacrosse, each team, playing on a covered hockey rink, has a goaltender and five runners who use cradle-shaped sticks to carry and pass a ball downfield. Points are scored when the ball is flung into a hockey-type net. A 30-second shot clock, requiring a shot on goal within that time, ensures fast play. Offensive and defensive formations are similar to basketball's, in which players set screens to free their teammates. The free-flowing pace is similar to hockey as teams substitute during the game.

Although the Pond has been unsuccessful in recruiting a professional basketball team to Anaheim, officials said they were delighted to be approached by the NLL to establish its first Southern California presence.

Jayson Williams, a retired professional basketball player facing manslaughter charges in the shooting death of his limousine driver, is the team's majority owner. In New Jersey, the team averaged about 3,000 fans a game in its first two years.

Ogden Entertainment, which manages the Pond, will take part ownership of the team. Pond management will oversee the business, marketing and day-to-day operations of the Storm.

The team will rent the facility, which is owned by the city of Anaheim and also used by the Mighty Ducks hockey team. The Pond also holds the Wooden Classic basketball tournament, boxing and gymnastics events, and concerts.

Other niche sports have struggled in Anaheim. The Anaheim Bullfrogs' roller hockey team played at the Pond in 1998 and 1999, but the league folded before the 2000 season. The Anaheim Splash played four seasons at the Pond until the Continental Indoor Soccer League folded in 1997. In Arena Football, poor attendance and management problems plagued the Anaheim Piranhas, which folded after two seasons.

Jennings said he hopes the Storm will attract more than 10,000 fans per game in its first season, which begins Jan. 10 with a home game against Arizona. Team officials say they must draw about 7,000 fans to break even. The Storm will play 16 games, eight at home. All will be played Friday nights and weekends.

League officials acknowledge that with just four months until its home opener, the Storm has little time to develop a strong fan base.

Jennings said unfamiliarity with the sport can be overcome, given the experience in Philadelphia, where 85% of the fans had never played lacrosse.

"We feel that lacrosse is such an exciting game that it gets addictive," Jennings said. "Once you get people out to the games, you have a good chance of keeping them."

In Denver, about 12,000 fans remained after a Colorado Avalanche hockey game to view an exhibition lacrosse game. A month later, many of those same people came back for the Mammoth's home opener, which had to be delayed because of a huge walk-up crowd, said Alexandra Santiago, the lacrosse team's director of operations.

League officials say one of the more appealing aspects of indoor lacrosse is the ticket price. In Anaheim, ticket prices will range from $8 to $32. The average ticket will cost $15.

"You can bring a family of four to a game for $60," said Mike O'Donnell, the Pond's assistant general manager. "It can cost [one person] that much just to get into a major league hockey or basketball game."

O'Donnell said players will promote the team to the community through clinics and camps. Steve Sombrotto, the Storm's captain, said the future of the franchise rests on the players' ability to sell their sport to Southern California youth.

"We've got to stress to people that this is a pro sport," Sombrotto said. "It's not the XFL or minor-league baseball. These are the top-level guys of the sport. Kids will gravitate to it because you can make your own plays, it's physical and it's got skill."

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