National Lacrosse League (2007-2008)
Born: February 2006 – NLL expansion franchise.
Folded: December 11, 2008.
Arena: Sears Centre
“This is the best thing I’ve done for Chicago since drafting Michael Jordan in 1984.” – former Chicago Bulls Head Coach Kevin Loughery Sr., on bringing a National Lacrosse League expansion franchise to Chicago.
The birth of a pro sports franchise calls for a heavy dose of hyperbole and NBA veteran Loughery went all in by invoking the J-word when announcing the launch of the Chicago Shamrox in February 2006. Safe to say the feeling didn’t last long for the elder Loughery, his son Kevin Loughery Jr., the team’s managing partner, or their primary financial backer Donald Sallee. Their investment lost an estimated $6 – $7 million dollars during the team’s disastrous two-season run in the National Lacrosse League.
Sallee and his partners paid a $3 million expansion fee for the Chicago franchise in February 2006, buying in at the peak of a speculative bubble in the 20-year old box (indoor) lacrosse league. Although franchise fees had escalated from $500,000 to $3 million over the previous six years, the Shamrox entered a league that had yet to solve the problem that had sunk countless pro sports start-ups: how to break even as a tenant in someone else’s building. Labor strife also loomed on the horizon, with the league’s collective bargaining agreement due to expire shortly after the Shamrox’ inaugural season in 2007.
The Shamrox set up shop at the brand new $62 million Sears Centre in suburban Hoffman Estates, Illinois. The 11,000 seat building opened in October 2006 and was already troubled by the time the Shamrox debuted in January 2007. Ryans Cos., the arena operator, was a Minnesota-based property developer that had no previous experience managing venues. They signed up a menagerie of doomed sports franchises from cut rate leagues to fill dates. In addition to the Shamrox, the logjam of tenants included the Chicago Hounds of the United Hockey League, the Chicago Storm of the Major Indoor Soccer League and the Chicago Slaughter of the Continental Indoor Football League. The Hounds had to cancel their inaugural game when Ryan Cos. officials failed to prepare the ice surface or install safety glass in time for the game. 4,000 stupefied hockey fans were sent home after watching hapless arena employees blast the gloppy ice rink with garden hoses and fire extinguishers for two hours in a novel (and fruitless) approach to ice making.
The Shamrox debut on January 6th, 2007 went much, much better. The Shamrox defeated another NLL expansion club, the New York Titans, 15-12 in the inaugural game for both clubs. A Sears Centre record crowd of 8,456 turned out for the game, which was televised nationally on the NLL’s cable package with the Versus Network.
After a 2-0 start, the 2007 Shamrox finished the season 6-10 and did not qualify for the playoffs under Head Coach Jamie Batley. Attendance was disappointing and the opening night numbers turned out to be a peak. A screwy schedule offered no help the Shamrox ticket sales department. After the thrilling opener, the team spent over a month on the road before returning for the team’s second home game. At the conclusion of the season, the Shamrox’ final four home games – half of their entire 2007 home slate – were crammed into a 21-day stretch. The Shamrox averaged 6,025 fans over eight home matches – far short of the NLL’s purported league average of nearly 11,000.
According to a lawsuit against the National Lacrosse League in April 2009 (later withdrawn), Shamrox ownership realized they had bought a lemon almost immediately. The team’s 2007 inaugural season was characterized as “a financial disaster”. As early as August 2007, according to court documents, the Shamrox owners were desperate to sell but allegedly encountered obstructions from the league office.
Meanwhile, the National Lacrosse League was mired in a chaotic offseason. On October 16, 2007, the National Lacrosse League announced the cancellation of the 2008 season due to an impasse with the Professional Lacrosse Players Association over a new collective bargaining agreement. Under the previous CBA, salaries average $14,500 across the league, with a $6,800/year rookie minimum and a $25,552 ceiling for up to two “franchise” players. At the time, most NLL players held jobs during the week, practiced one night a week, and played in the league on weekends. 70% of all NLL players were Canadian, so the Shamrox actually held their Wednesday night training sessions in Ontario and then flew players to league cities for matches.
The 2008 season remained cancelled for nine days, but the sides continued to negotiate. On October 25, 2007 they reached agreement and the season was back on. But the nine-day shutdown cost the league two franchises. The expansion Boston Blazers delayed their start for a year until 2009. The Arizona Sting also suspended operations for a year, which later became a permanent shutdown.
With ownership still desperate to unload the club, the Shamrox opened their second season in January 2008. It was largely a carbon copy of the first. The team once again finished 6-10 and out of the playoffs with Jamie Batley as Head Coach. 2008 attendance dipped nearly 20% to an average of 4,964.
In the spring of 2008, the league introduced the Shamrox owners to investors from Sports Capital Partners (SCP), owners of the St. Louis Blues of the NHL and Real Salt Lake of Major League Soccer. Shamrox investors put together a sale agreement with SCP that would have moved the club to St. Louis at a “fire sale” price, as characterized by Shamrox owner Donald Sallee in the 2009 lawsuit. The league rejected the transfer application, killing the sale.
As the 2009 season approach, the nearly insolvent Shamrox owners were still stuck with the club. On December 5th, 2008 Shamrox officials notified the league that a shutdown was imminent, barring some unforeseen miracle. The league responded with a directive the Shamrox officials sell the franchise within 120 days, pursuant to the league’s constitution, or else lose all rights to their league membership.
The Shamrox formally shut down on December 11th, 2008, just fifteen days before the start of the 2009 NLL season. The league hurried to conduct a dispersal draft and rework the league schedule. The news came as a shock to NLL fans, who had little awareness of Chicago’s franchise turmoil. The clock was now ticking on Shamrox ownership to recoup some portion of their massive financial loss through a sale before the April 7th, 2009 termination deadline. Soon, it appeared they had a willing buyer.
Steve Donner and Curt Styers headed Orlando Sports Partners, LLC. Donner was a long-time sports investor and former NLL owner. Earlier in 2008 he sold his small market Rochester Knighthawks NLL franchise to Styres for an astonishing $5.6 million, a nearly 100% premium over the previous record price for the league. Donner’s group offered $1.5 million for the Shamrox with a plan to relocate the team to Orlando. At this point, Donald Sallee alleged in his lawsuit, the league interfered in the sale, telling Donner that the league would not approve the sale. Allegedly, the league then offered Donner an Orlando expansion franchise for the price of $5 million.
With the St. Louis and Orlando deals torpedoed, the April termination deadline arrived with no resolution. Sallee filed suit against the league on April 7th, 2009, as referenced above, on grounds of anti-trust violations, tortious interference, breach of contract and fraud. Although the suit was voluntarily withdrawn two weeks later, it’s worth noting that the suspended Arizona Sting franchise also sued the NLL just ten days earlier for interfering in their own attempted $1.5 million sale to Donner’s Orlando group. After Sallee withdrew the suit, the franchise was formally terminated in the spring of 2009.
After the Shamrox folded in December 2008, ownership declined to issue refunds to the small (very small) number fans who purchased 2009 season tickets by cash or check. This led to an extremely unflattering column by The Chicago Tribune’s consumer affairs reporter Jon Yates in June 2009 which laid bare some of the financial numbers to the public for the first time.
Ryan noted that the team only had 250 season ticket holders heading into the 2009 season and pegged the Shamrox’ two-year losses at $6 million to $7 million. As of December 2009, a full year after the shutdown, fans were still waiting for their refunds.
The Shamrox may have died, but they were outlived by their dance team, the Hot Rox, who continued to perform for several years at Chicago Fire soccer and Chicago White Sox baseball games, in addition to overseas tours to support American troops.
The Shamrox’ home debut at the Sears Centre against the New York Titans on January 6, 2007.