The Hurricane Games

As I head into my final months as Commissioner of Major League Lacrosse, I find I’m being asked by many people to reflect on things that I’ve been party to or witnessed over the course of my 14 years as Commissioner and 17 total years with the league.

Of all the questions that are being asked the one that was the easiest to answer has been, “What has been your most stressful moment in the league?”

The answer is Hurricane Irene.

The 2011 season had been void of any major issues. MLL was then a six-team league gearing up to add two new teams (Ohio and Charlotte) in 2012, marking the first expansion teams since 2006. Things looked to be on the upswing for the league as we headed for our Championship Weekend, which was scheduled to take place for the third consecutive year in Annapolis, Md. at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium.

Typically, a week out before Championship Weekend, I start looking at the forecast. It was on Saturday, August 20 that I first read about a tropical storm in the Caribbean. It meant very little to me then as I just assumed at worst we would get the remnants of the storm. Inclement weather during MLL playoffs was not a new phenomenon. It was just the year before in 2010 when the Hamilton-Long Island Semi-Final game was played in a downpour and disrupted by a lengthy lightning delay. I was most concerned with how rain would impact our day-of-game walk-up crowd.

By the time I arrived in the office on Monday, August 22, Irene was no longer a tropical storm but a category three hurricane – with winds of 130 miles an hour – on its way to the East Coast. My concern went from, “How will this impact the walk up?” to, “Will we be able to play at all?”

Looking at projected storm timelines, it showed that the worst part of the hurricane wouldn’t hit Annapolis until Saturday night, after our games were completed. While we had a good shot of getting the games in, it was time to look into what our contingencies might be.

The first call was to our broadcast partner, ESPN, who would be airing both Semi-Final games live on ESPN2. I asked them to start looking into alternative broadcast windows in case we had to postpone. I then reached out the folks at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium to see what flexibility they had. Waiting on answers, I was glued to the internet watching for updates on the path and timing of the storm, which was remaining consistent.

By Thursday, August 24 most sporting events for the weekend from North Carolina to New England were being canceled. States began declaring a state of emergency ahead of the storm, but the MLL semi-finals were still on. Navy-Marine Corps Stadium had advised that if we couldn’t play our Championship Weekend as scheduled, we would need to find another venue, as they didn’t have any weekend dates (or even weekdays) available in the next few weeks.

ESPN’s situation wasn’t any better. We might have be able to squeeze in games on Monday, August 29, but even that wasn’t guaranteed. With MLL players having other work responsibilities, playing early in the week would be challenging. Waiting until the next weekend, which would be Labor Day Weekend, we would need to find a new venue and forgo having the games broadcast, which wouldn’t be ideal or practical. The only thing we had in our favor was the fact that the brunt of the hurricane still wasn’t expected to hit Annapolis until after our Semi-Finals were over and it would supposedly be completely gone before our Championship Game the next day.

With all the other professional sporting events in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast being canceled, an opportunity was being created. People would be indoors during the storm and we would be live on their TV’s without much live sports competition. The concern became, “What if we are able to drive a TV audience, but the conditions diminish the quality of play?”

On Friday, August 26, MLL owners all convened for our scheduled league meeting and I walked the group through my rationale for not postponing Championship Weekend:

  1. There would be no TV broadcast if we postponed (this was prior to LSN and Twitter, so our options were limited).
  2. We would need to find a new venue if we postponed.
  3. It would be difficulty for the players to choose another date.
  4. The brunt of the storm wouldn’t hit the region until after games were over, so players and spectators should be safe.

We agreed to go forward with playing and we announced on our website that we were playing! I called both ESPN and Navy Marine Corps and told them we were a go.

TV news was dominated with the pending arrival of Hurricane Irene. Grocery stores were being emptied of bread and bottled water. Our hotel passed out their emergency procedures to the guests. Message boards on lacrosse sites were critical of our decision. The basic argument was that Maryland had already been declared a state of emergency and every other pro game in the region was canceled. We were the dumb ones to plan on playing during a hurricane. How could we endanger fans and our players? Even my Dad chimed in with a text message calling me nuts to even consider allowing the games to be played.

These were very valid concerns and ones that we didn’t take lightly. We weighed our options and moved forward.

On Saturday, August 27, Hurricane Irene arrived and MLL played its Semi-Final games. The crowds were sparse as people decided it was safer to watch from their homes. The first game, Boston and Chesapeake, wasn’t decided until Max Quinzani of Boston scored with 0.3 seconds remaining to win an amazing back-and-forth game. Yes, it rained for most of the game, but the winds weren’t horrible. The weather during the previous year’s Semi-Final was worse.

The second game was when Hurricane Irene decided to make her presence felt. Denver and Hamilton was the match up. The two teams had to battle each other and the elements. Early in the game, we were forced to take down our field-level signage boards as the wind was whipping them off the ground (even though they had sandbags to hold them down). The rain was so fast and heavy that there was standing water on field. Five minutes into the game, my contact at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium called and said we needed to cancel the game. I begged him to allow the game to go until we hit the five-minute mark of the third quarter – as that would make it an official game (although, I hated the idea of ending a playoff game early). MLL Founder Jake Steinfeld was standing next to me and urged me to call the game off.

What was most amazing about the day was the quality of play. I’ve never appreciated the skill of MLL players as much as I did that day. The crispness of play in the worst of conditions was something to marvel. The level remained so high that you would never have guessed that they were playing in a full-blown hurricane.

Hamilton was up 6-2 at the end of the first quarter and I figured if the game turned into a blowout, then it would ease the sting of ending the game early. The Outlaws, to their credit, came back in the second quarter and went into the half down only two goals. With a tight game, I pleaded with the venue to allow us play the game to completion and they agreed (I think they were enjoying the action as much as everyone else). Hamilton won in the end, 11-9.

We spent the night in the hotel listening to Hurricane Irene batter Annapolis. By morning, the hurricane had moved up the coast and we were left with the most perfect weather for our Championship Game (which Boston won by a goal). Five days later, ESPN Classic re-aired the Semi-Final games as an “instant classic.” Those games most certainly were classics and everything worked out, but the stress they caused that week was unbelievable.

About David Gross

David Gross joined Major League Lacrosse’s front office as its Chief Operating Officer in December of 2003. Prior to that, Gross was named Vice President & General Manager of the Boston Cannons before their inaugural season in 2001. After leading that organization for three years, Gross transitioned to the League office as COO, and was subsequently named the League’s first ever Commissioner in 2004.


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