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United Women's Lacrosse League Strives For Success With Unique Business Plan

July 15, 2016
When examining the realities of pro sports startups, there is a simple fact the founders of the United Women's Lacrosse League have recognized and believe they can overcome.

Women's pro sports across the board have had a rough go of it. Yes, the pro basketball WNBA survives, but there's no denying the considerable assistance rendered by the NBA, which once owned all the WNBA franchises.

Given the history, the prospect of a pro league for women's lacrosse would not appear bright.

However, visionaries have a different world view than most of us, and in the case of the UWLX, co-founder Digit Murphy believes she may have concocted a model for success different than anything that has been tried before.

"I know this is going to succeed because the people who started it, who are involved with it, believe in the concept," said Murphy, who serves as the league's CEO. "This is a concept that is sustainable because it allows the athletes to bond with the community and to make a living."

Murphy's strategy is indeed novel. The idea is to use the sport as a way to introduce athletes into the community where they can serve as educators, coaches, role models, mentors, even nutritionists and wellness professionals.

"It fits for women because women want to stay in a place if they can," Murphy said.

It appears to be a still-evolving concept, but Murphy clearly believes in its potential.

From a pure business perspective, there's no question UWLX is an extremely lean operation. No real angel startup money meant Murphy dug into her own pocket to get the UWLX off the ground with co-founder and COO Aronda Kirby. It's no stretch to assume a new restaurant would need more capital to open its doors than the women's lacrosse league had to launch its inaugural season.

Everyone, coaches and players, is working for either a meager stipend or for free, including Baltimore native Michele DeJuliis, who left her job as a coach at Princeton University to become the new league's commissioner. DeJuliis played on the United States national women's lacrosse team that won the gold in the 2009 World Cup after she starred at Penn State and Loch Raven High School.

In the UWLX, there are four teams that represent Baltimore (Ride), Philadelphia (Force), Boston (Storm) and Long Island (Sound). League play started in late May and will end at the end of July, with a championship tournament at a site yet to be determined.

The games have been played at various locations in sort of barnstorming fashion, places such as St. Joseph's University and Lehigh University, in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Amherst, Mass., respectively. 

Some of the league's most substantial material support has come from lacrosse equipment company STX and the New England Sports Village in Attleboro, Mass., which is as close to a home base that the UWLX has.

Through early July, Long Island was undefeated at 5-0 followed by Boston (3-2), Baltimore (2-3) and Philadelphia (0-5). 

DeJuliis, an inductee in the U.S. Lacrosse National Hall of Fame with a raft of coaching and playing honors, has been the league's hands-on architect, hiring team managers and coaches and writing the rule book for a game that's been tweaked to make it more appealing to fans.

Some of the changes are reducing the number of players to 10 versus 10 (from 12) and to six versus six on either side of the field (from seven).

The pace has been quickened, with no stoppage in play after a whistle, and the scoring has been juiced with a two-point shot.

"It's exciting, and we are making history," said DeJuliis, who interrupted her lacrosse career at one point to serve as a Baltimore police officer, including as a SWAT member. "There are a lot of players who don't want to hang up their cleats, and they want to continue playing post-college. This league allows them to continue to compete against national team-caliber players. And we are building a fan base for the league."

It certainly makes sense that one of the four founding franchises in the UWLX represents Baltimore, considering the rich tradition and deep roots lacrosse has in the region and state.

The Baltimore Ride bears the stamp of Baltimore and Maryland. Just a partial list of familiar lacrosse names that have been associated with the Ride's first season include: head coach Jen Adams (Loyola); former University of Maryland superstar and current nominee for the ESPY Award for the best female college athlete of the year Taylor Cummings; ex-Terps Katie Schwarzmann, Alex Aust, Beth Glaros and Brooke Griffin; Loyola assistant coach Dana Dobbie and former Greyhound players Maddy Lesher and Kerry Stoothoff; and a raft of stars who played at Maryland high schools, such as Kitty Cullen, Sam Farrell, Kristen Carr, Morgan Stephens, Ally Carey and Erica Bodt.

"There's a lot of talent to go around," DeJuliis said.

Interestingly, CEO Murphy's background is not in lacrosse. Her sports expertise is in ice hockey, which she coached at Brown University and became the winningest Division I women's ice hockey coach.

"This can go beyond lacrosse," Murphy said of her community-oriented approach to keeping athletes gainfully employed while playing their sport. "When we show how this can work in one sport, we can do it any number of sports."

Issue 223: July 2016