How a bet on the Denver Outlaws is paying off
The pro lacrosse team hits its stride on the Broncos' playing field
In August, Denver Outlaws attackman Eric Law scored the goal that gave the team its second Major League Lacrosse championship. Two years before, he signed a contract to play for the cross-town Colorado Mammoth of the National Lacrosse League. Before that, Law earned All-America honors for the University of Denver’s men’s lacrosse team. And before he took the field at DU, Law netted all-state honors at Arapahoe High School in Centennial.
When Law scored the Outlaws’ go-ahead goal with 13 seconds left in the 2016 MLL championship game, it was a capstone moment for a homegrown star.
“He’s become one of the elite players in the game,” says Rod Allison, a longtime lacrosse follower who runs Denver City LAX, a youth instructional program where Law works.
The fact that Denver and lacrosse are intertwined among rising players like Law brings particular joy to Outlaws president Mac Freeman, who was instrumental in bringing the team to Denver. Twelve years ago, Freeman, who does double-duty as the Denver Broncos senior vice president of business development, went to Broncos owner Pat Bowlen with an idea: present a professional lacrosse game on the same field where the Broncos score touchdowns.
Freeman had played lacrosse as a student at Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, and he was convinced popularity was rising for a game commonly associated with eastern U.S. prep schools and colleges. The response to that inaugural game between MLL teams from Baltimore and New Jersey helped convince Bowlen to invest in a new MLL expansion team.
The Outlaws first home game in May 2006 attracted a then-record MLL crowd of 13,000, and the team has been setting league attendance marks ever since. Its July 4, 2015 fireworks game at Sports Authority Field drew 31,644 fans, a record no other MLL team has matched.
With the team’s 12th season set to begin in April, the Outlaws continue to be one of Colorado’s most compelling sports-business stories. As the far lesser-known of two teams owned by the Denver Broncos Football Club, the Outlaws represent a bold gamble hedged by a unique advantage.
The gamble is a bet the team can draw enough fans over time to emerge as a sustainable success in a market where there are plentiful spectator-sport options, including another professional lacrosse team, Kroenke Sports Entertainment’s indoor-playing Mammoth, that hosts fans during the Outlaws’ off-season. The “hedge” part is that by sharing resources including the Broncos business organization and state-of-the-art stadium, the Outlaws enjoy economic and home-field presentation advantages no other MLL team has.
The experiment that began in 2004 is steadily proving itself. Freeman says the Outlaws have produced break-even results or generated modest profits while producing winning seasons each year. In part, the P&L results are a function of careful expense management, including relatively low salaries (veteran players earn around $15,000 per season and most maintain off-the-field careers).
The main revenue source comes from season-ticket and single-game sales. Unanticipated spikes in travel costs have pinched the budget from time to time, but Freeman says he’s happy with the team’s financial progress.
He sees bigger things ahead as momentum for the game builds. New research from the National Federation of State High School Associations shows the number of high school lacrosse players has doubled since 2005, to more than 188,000. On the media side, Freeman sees promise for greater exposure through a new online video platform, LAX Sports Network, which presents live games and archives.
Another signal of rising stature: Freeman notes the MLL has produced its first million-dollar earner, New York Lizards star Paul Rabil, whose endorsement partners include athletic shoe maker New Balance.
One last reason for Freeman’s optimism is the strengthening bond between the pro game and the Denver community. Freeman quickly ticks off names of high school coaches like Valor Christian’s John Grant Jr. who are former MLL and/or NLL standouts. He points to players from the two Outlaws championship teams (Law and elite defenseman Dillon Roy among them) who grew up playing the game locally.
And he says an entire generation of Denver-area lacrosse fans has come of age. Outlaws midfielder Bailey Tills, a Kent Denver graduate, is the perfect example: “He had his 13th birthday party at an Outlaws game,” Freeman says.