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Rushing out of town – the future of professional lacrosse in Edmonton

Nearly a decade after professional lacrosse debuted in Edmonton in 2006, the once City of Champions can finally boast a championship-winning lacrosse franchise. But looking forward, the city may not even host a pro lacrosse team at all in the near future.

In 2015, the team’s 10th season in the NLL, the Edmonton Rush finally reached the pinnacle of NLL competition. After a first place finish in the league’s West Division, the Rush went on to eliminate their provincial rivals, the Calgary Roughnecks, in the semi-finals, before sweeping the Toronto Rock in a best-of-three series to win the NLL Champion’s Cup on home turf, earlier this month.

The championship-winning contest in Edmonton drew more than 12,000 fans to Rexall Place in support of the Rush, a turnout much more impressive than the entirety of Edmonton’s regular season and post-season up to that point.

“That crowd was unbelievable,” Edmonton’s top scorer in 2015, Mark Matthews, said in a post-game press conference after the team’s championship win. “We get four or five strong every night, regardless of what’s going on. Then to pack in 12,000 – they’re loud as it is at five (thousand), so put another six or seven in there and it’s unbelievable.”

In fact, Rush attendance has dwindled for years in Edmonton. Average attendance as a whole in the NLL dropped in 2015 to 8,970 per game, but Edmonton still found themselves well below the average, as they have been for the past several seasons. After averaging more than 10,000 fans per game in the first two seasons – in which the Rush’s overall record was 7-25 – average attendance at Rexall Place has consistently dropped in the years since then, despite the team’s vast on-field improvements.

Last season, Edmonton fans seemed to rally around the Rush’s near-undefeated record, as the team went 16-2 – their best regular season record in franchise history – and averaged 7,844 fans per game, the team’s highest attendance numbers in five years. But, despite having another strong year in which they were expected to compete for the NLL championship, the Rush averaged just 6,578 fans per game this season, the third worst average in the league.

Naturally, with lowering attendance numbers, regardless of on-field success, talk of moving the team has persisted for years.

Throughout the Rush’s playoff run to the Cup, questions about the franchise’s future in Edmonton hung over the team’s success. Having not yet been invited to play in Edmonton’s new downtown arena, and with Rexall Place’s future unclear, the Rush may soon find themselves without a home to play in. As the Rush received more attention in the city from their deep playoff run, team owner Bruce Urban released statements commenting on how the Rush “ has never been offered any kind of solution or consideration by Mayor Iveson or the City of Edmonton” about this arena problem.

Urban also told the Edmonton Journal in a story published on May 20, that it appeared professional lacrosse in Edmonton was coming to an end. Rumours have circulated since 2013 that the team might move to Saskatoon, speculation that’s supported by Urban’s visits to their arena to watch Saskatoon’s WHL team play. Here in Edmonton, the franchise has reportedly refused offers from the Oilers to buy the team. By comparison, the top three teams in NLL attendance – Buffalo, Colorado and Calgary – are all owned by their city’s NHL club.

But all of the rumours and speculation didn’t hurt the team’s playoff hopes this year, as the team maintained it wasn’t difficult at all to block out the noise surrounding the Rush’s future.

“We like it when things don’t go very well. It’s the truth,” Rush assistant coach Jimmy Quinlan said in the post-championship press conference. “That’s always been our mantra, no excuses. At the end of the day we’ve got take care of our business, believe in our systems, believe in each other, and I think that came to fruition tonight.”

Bringing in 12,000 strong to win the championship bodes well for the Rush’s future, and if Edmonton hopes to keep professional lacrosse in its city, the Rush will need to see their attendance increase in 2016, off the back of that Champion’s Cup. But the only other time the Rush played in the NLL championship, back in 2012, attendance actually dropped the next season from 7,050 fans per game to 6,714. A similar dip next season could spell disaster and force the franchise to rush right out of town.

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