‘Every sport got to play but us’: The state of women’s lacrosse

Behind the scenes with the sport's biggest stars, and what it all means

Hi! Howard Megdal here. I’m extremely excited to present this look inside the state of women’s lacrosse from expert Celia Balf, who spoke to key new members of Athletes Unlimited’s new venture into the sport.

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By Celia Balf

Special to The IX

Kayla Treanor. (Photo courtesy of Athletes Unlimited)

Athletes Unlimited announced lacrosse as its third professional sport last week, giving the future of women’s professional lacrosse, finally, a real chance. 

While there have been women’s professional lacrosse leagues, the most recent WPLL (Women’s Professional Lacrosse League) closed its doors in August due primarily to the economic burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The WPLL had made significant strides before it folded; a partnership with ESPN that showed a thrilling championship on ESPNU in addition to games on ESPN3. However, even with the eyes from TV, it wasn’t enough. Players all over the country were left without a league.

“There are a bunch of unbelievable women’s lacrosse players that haven’t had a chance to be able to play in a long time,” Kayla Treanor, a 2017 World Cup Gold Medalist and member of the US National Team told The IX, “Whether that be that they were cut from the National Team or never not got to play this summer. Every sport got to play but us.”

Just while lacrosse players like Treanor were forced to pack up the lacrosse bags and cleats until further notice, the sport and its players found a way to rally. When WPLL CEO Michele DeJuliis confirmed the halt of the third season, she told sources that she saw an opportunity with Athletes Unlimited. It had always been DeJuliis’ mission to provide an opportunity for women to play professional lacrosse, yet she didn’t think it’d be as difficult as it was to gain the financial support that we’d need,” she told US Lacrosse Magazine.”

Several months later, DeJuliis and Athletes Unlimited are on the quest for creating a stable, fast, and exciting league for these women. 

The league is scheduled to begin play on July 19, with a schedule that runs through August 22, following the 2021 World Lacrosse Women’s World Championship in Maryland. Expect a fast-paced game of eight-minute quarters. Teams will consist of nine players and the league will have 56 players total. There will be four teams of 14 players. There will be a 60-second shot clock, adding even more pace to a game made up of sharp stick checks, detailed footwork, and blink-of-an-eye passing and shooting. With only 60 seconds to shoot, fans should prepare for a high-scoring exciting game. 

DeJuliis is at the forefront of Athletes Unlimited’s Lacrosse League. She will serve as the Senior Director of Lacrosse. She was the captain of the U.S. National Team that won a World Championship in 2009 and a four-time All-American out of Penn State. If anyone can rally the women’s professional lacrosse scene — it’s Dejuliis.

This is women’s professional lacrosse 3.0, as DeJuliis also was involved in forming the United Women’s Lacrosse League in 2016. The UWLX played three seasons, and eventually folded in 2018 just before the WPLL kicked off its inaugural season. 

Michelle Tumolo. (Photo courtesy of Athletes Unlimited)

“I’m 29 years old and I’ve been in two leagues already. I just wanted an opportunity to keep playing in itself,” Michelle Tumolo, a 2017 World Cup Gold Medalist and current attacker for the US National Team said. “I’m excited to get the sport seen. Some sports don’t even know what lacrosse is and the coverage that we’ll have will be amazing. It’s going to get younger kids involved, we get to get into the community and make sure that we’re connecting with the younger generations.” 

So far, there are 22 confirmed athletes in Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse. Athletes Unlimited leagues; softball, volleyball, and now lacrosse will feature unique innovations to bring excitement and connection between athletes and the fans. Individual athletes earn points from team wins as well as their own performance. The dynamic of individual success and earning in a team sport is how Athletes Unlimited is separating itself from other leagues. Teams will also change each week, adding an element of surprise and chance for all in the league. 

Tumolo said she was fully in when she learned about the coverage women’s professional lacrosse will get. It all started with a phone call from DeJuliis. 

“The future of pro lacrosse was up in the air a few months ago, and then I got a call from Caitlin [Jackson] and DJ [DeJuliis] and they were the leaders of the pack with WPLL,” Tumolo recalled. During the phone call, Jackson and DeJuliis spoke with Tumolo about Athletes Unlimited and wanted her to join forces on the Player Executive Committee for the league. “ I was honored and just the idea of having players in charge and leading the way and just the opportunity to play in itself, I was excited.”  

In June, Athletes Unlimited reached an agreement with CBS Sports and ESPN to broadcast the softball league’s inaugural season. The success and exposure of that league has set the foundation and hope for volleyball and lacrosse. 

“It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to watch women’s sports, so just to have the opportunity to get coverage and get seen…will be amazing.” Tumolo mentioned she did love getting to watch the NWSL Championship and WNBA during quarantine, but it was difficult being the lone professional sport without a chance to play during the pandemic. 

Treanor, who found out about Athletes Unlimited over the phone while she was in Cape Cod this summer, agreed.

“It’s going to be exciting. I think having the resources is what ignites me and fires me up that people want to invest in our game and care about our game,” Treanor said.

Treanor admitted when she first heard about the league she had a fair amount of questions, especially given the format of the game and how it would all work. “Talking with Michelle, she’s one of the best players ever, so to hear how excited she was about this league… she was the one that convinced me to play!”

“Women’s lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States and incredibly popular among young players and fans,” Jon Patricof, CEO and Co-Founder of Athletes Unlimited said in a statement on AU’s site. The most recent US Lacrosse Participation Survey shows a 15.4% growth rate in the professional game from 2017-2018. In 2018 there were 180 women playing professional lacrosse compared to 2017 which had 120 players. 

“Our leagues are all about excitement, storytelling and fan engagement so lacrosse is the perfect addition to our network of pro sports leagues which already includes softball and indoor volleyball.”

“We need this,” Treanor said. “We don’t have a professional league and we absolutely need it — I’m excited there’s another way to play outside of the National Team.” 

Similar to softball before Athletes Unlimited, many of these athletes had to pivot away from the sport after college. College was its own bubble of coverage, swag, and glory, but right after that fourth collegiate season there wasn’t anywhere to go if you weren’t a National Team player. Athletes Unlimited gives these women a team (a new one each week!) either in addition to their National Team commitments or on its own.

“This league will give us the opportunity to reach younger generations and let them know that they all have a place and a chance to play at the highest level,” Tumolo said. “Lacrosse is for everyone and this league preaches that. It’s not just about the people that were brought up from great high schools, this is for anybody who is skilled enough and has a passion for the sport.”  

In the coming weeks expect the athlete signings to proliferate. Word of mouth in the lacrosse community spreads at a rapid pace, especially during a time where players haven’t been playing. 

Written by The IX Team