It’s approaching game time for Philadelphia Wings’ forward, Paul Gait, and he is more than a little nervous. Today, he lost the shirt off his back. Indeed, if only it were as easy as getting stung in high stakes poker, but leaving his jersey in Syracuse, New York, is inexcusable. With time running out, the idea of setting a Major Indoor Lacrosse League precedent by playing “bareback” grows in plausibility. To find a Paul Gait jersey now is a stickler.
The irony is that with a large portion of the 16,000-plus people in the arena wearing Wings jerseys, the team itself is short one. Long pause. Eyes meet. Bingo. Sometimes the answer is waiting just outside your locker room door. There’s a veritable plethora of Gait jerseys that show up for every game as property of the superstar’s numerous fans. In the MILL, you can always count on the fans. The Wings’ equipment manager scoured the hometown crowd for Gait’s familiar #19 until he ran across sixteen-year-old Craig Smith, a season-ticket holder. Without hesitation, Smith gives up the “shirt off his back,” and Gait wears it during the entire game. Smith is then invited to the victorious Wings’ locker room and is given a personal thank you, in addition to receiving a team sweatshirt autographed by every player. And he gets his jersey back. “Wings fans are more loyal than any other sports fan,” says Wings General Manager Mike French. “Every one of our games is important and our crowd prepares as much as we do.”
A statement not to be taken lightly. Boasting a fan club membership of 700 strong, it is not unlikely to see five bus loads of fans follow the Wings on the road. These people know the aura of the MILL does not end with the players. In this league of the future, the fans are a big part of the show. At first glance, they appear to be identical to any other average sports junkie you run across. They look the same, they make it to the game the same way: cars, busses, subways, trains, walking, or running when they’re late. But once inside, MILL fans are as unique as a the league they root for. Capacity and near-capacity crowds representing a cross-section of North American culture, from blue-collar to urban professional, from the eager-eyed child to the elder statesperson of the family, are passing through the turnstiles of the MILL in record numbers. Now in its eighth season, the fastest game on two feet attracts weekly audiences averaging nearly 11,000 and the fan count will continue to climb as the MILL continues the patent on its self-styled brand of sports razzamatazz.
During this evolution, a notable, if unplanned, character trait of the MILL personality has emerged. The level of involvement MILL devotees have contributed to the flavorful atmosphere that is indoor lacrosse, is nothing short of amazing. MILL fan antics rate as the utmost tribute to the fastest growing sport in North America. The league featuring the finest lacrosse players in the world has made it a credo to present the game in a high-powered, energizing fashion. Now the realization of this non-traditional sports transformation has highlighted MILL fans as a unique sports audience in their own right.
Buffalo, home of the two-time defending champion Bandits, sold out all of their home games to the tune of 16,325 fans per outing last season. The ringleader of the Bandits fanatics is public address announcer Chris Swenson. “I’m kind of like a cheerleader out there, says Swenson, “but I have to be professional at the same time. It’s two hours of fun-filled activity. People love it. It’s nice to see people enjoying themselves. ” People driven to hysteria would be a better description. In keeping up with the frantic pace of the game, Swenson has an open dialogue with the Bandit faithful. It’s not so much a play-by-play that Swenson delivers, but a enjoyable prodding which keeps the level of fan involvement at a fever pitch. The usual chants of “DEFENSE” and “LETS GO BANDITS” are only the beginning of what has to be characterized as a personal conversation with his audience. Using an innate sense of timing, Swenson leads sections of the crowd in competition for the loudest response, often times pitting girls, guys and kids against each other.
Once, at the start of a nationally televised game, Swenson was not content with the already impressive amount of an euphoria and admonished his crowd, “C’mon, you don’t want to embarrass us on national TV, do you!? i WANT TO HEAR SOME NOISE!!! Later on, the Aud’s attention is turned towards “Earl Time.” With the opening notes of his theme song, Tequila, heard over the sound system, Earl Howze, a long-time beer vendor in Buffalo, does his thing. Momentarily leaving his hawking duties behind, “The Earl” jumps onto a ledge of the closest railing and grabs the spotlight by breaking into his “Pee-Wee Herman” dance to the never-tiring delight of the raucous crowd.
In New York, the Saints’ faithful average over 12,000 per home game and bring an intense lacrosse knowledge into Nassau Coliseum with them, in addition to a healthy sampling of MILL fervor. As visiting players are introduced, a unified voice numbering in the thousands is heard giving a friendly heckle to each one of the opponents. As in many of the league’s other cities, you may also book passage on a crowded bus excursion when the Saints take to the road.
Throughout the MILL, player/fan camaraderie is a bonafide reality. After each game, fans are invited to a post-game par with players from both teams to relax wit their heroes. In Baltimore, fans are invited to stick around for the “Thunder Thighs” competition. After one game each year, fans vocalize their thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote, along with the local media, as to which player owns the best pair of thighs on the team. Back in Philly, never at a loss for the off- beat, fans have traditionalized their own embellishments of the U.S. national anthem.
One writer described the scene: “She started quietly, “O say can you see…’and suddenly the Spectrum filled with the sounds of people shushing one another. At least that’s what I thought at first. The shushing sound came again after she paused following’..by the dawn’s early light.’ Oh, I get it. The crowd was providing the “Chish!” sound of cymbals at the appropriate moment. Needless to say’…the rockets red glare…’ was greeted with whistling sounds of incoming followed by the booms of bombs bursting in the air.” The list goes on. Bill Gabrielsen, better known as Mister Gabe, and his wife, Mimi, drive to every game in Philadelphia from Vermont. Clad in his trademark red suspenders, Gabe leads Wings cheers on the north side of the arena.
As a complement, Chopper, alias Jay Davidson, leads the Spectrum’s south side cheers dressed in his Wings jersey, hardhat and black and silver painted face. At season’s end in Buffalo, the Bandits booster club holds an awards banquet for the players to show their appreciation for a well-played campaign. This story is to express the MILL’s appreciation to the thou- sands of you who we consider a special breed of fan. If you haven’t already, contact your team to find out how you can get in on the act. You’re already part of the family. Now become part of the show. As you know, there’s nothing quite like a Major Indoor Lacrosse League game.