By the time I awoke on Thursday in the Pacific time zone, news of the closure of Collegelax.us had already spread. Without being too melodramatic, the news was saddening and had a deep impact on me. The website that was first in my series of daily website browsings was now gone. My portal to the MCLA community had evaporated, and the site’s founder left an all too cryptic message as to why.
The man behind the vision of Collegelax, and in truth the man behind the idea of an MCLA media presence in any form, was Sonny Pieper (yes, pronounced PEE-per). When the USLIA formed in 1997 with porthole mesh jerseys, bucket helmets, and non-offset stick heads, Sonny was the man who brought the league onto the Internet. He posted game scores, commentaries, team information, and more. When so many teams still had a club mentality of “good enough,” Sonny Pieper had visions of much more. Embodying the virtual varsity spirit that would drive the USLIA/MCLA, Sonny sought to create a website that would rival those of other established online sports communities. His website, first incarnated as USLIA.com and its later transformation into Collegelax.us, would stand as the social and cultural hub for the MCLA, its teams, its players, its fans, and its administrators for 13 years.
Sonny was The Original. Sonny was the entrepreneur of the USLIA/MCLA creating a business out of nothing. Sonny took what may have appeared to be a motley crew of non-varsity misfits to outsiders, and presented their collective passions creatively through his website. In fact, Sonny created a thriving online community. You aren’t reading this article unless you were already familiar with the Collegelax forums, a community with several thousand dedicated users. While newcomers to the league may now know of MCLA.us as the statistical site of record, USLIA.com used to serve as the end-all-be-all for information about what would be known as the MCLA. If you wanted to talk about the league, or read about the league, you had one site at your disposal.
However, the story of Collegelax as a business hit a controversial path in recent years when it came to its relationship with the MCLA and its administrators. What most newcomers to the league are unaware of, is that Sonny Pieper was a league administrator once himself. He sat on the league board and sat in league meetings as a crucial decision maker and consultant for most of the 15 years of the MCLA’s existence. His relationship with those among MCLA leadership goes back many years, in some cases much longer than the life of our young league. This cozy relationship became a point of discomfort when the league was considering expanding its information infrastructure and media coverage.
In the early years of the National Tournament, Sonny created the website as a labor of love to report on league happenings and provide a central source of information and interaction. Unfortunately from a business perspective, handshake agreements dominated and as dollar amounts increased the league sought to create contractual agreements with new partners. Enter MCLA The Lax Mag, LLC.
Under the leadership of then league president John Paul, the MCLA sought a third-party to develop and implement new content strategies. MCLA The Lax Mag, LLC, with its own content developers and coding engineers, was contracted to move forward with a print media resource in addition to building the administrative and archival statistical site for the MCLA as a league moving forward. This represented a stark shift in strategy for the MCLA, and the clear move away from an official and permanent relationship with Collegelax.us was not lost on many involved, not to mention Sonny Pieper.
What followed in the years since has been a period of brand confusion, information competition, and what many have described as a “feud” between The Lax Mag and Collegelax. Users of Collegelax were confused as to whether the league would continue to use Collegelax as an information portal, either through formal press releases or forum posts (it should be noted both tactics were used up until last month by league administrators). With the official league contract, The Lax Mag and MCLA.us content appeared to have “most favored nation” status. However, the forums and subsequent introduction of blogs, video content, and active Twitter integration gave Collegelax a consistent and continuous place in the MCLA world. It seemed that despite feelings of ill will between the two parties, both could coexist and play in different corners of the sandbox of the MCLA.
On a personal note, I experienced the raw tension between the two parties as a naive tournament staff worker in 2009 and 2011. As a volunteer for the MCLA, I worked two of the tournaments in Denver. I was expected to work table crews for games running time clocks and keeping stats, both paper form and updated to the MCLA.us live game pages. On my first trip, I was unaware of the tension between Collegelax and the The Lax Mag crew, the latter running the administrative backend of the live feed for game pages on MCLA.us. Upon being trained how to use the admin side of MCLA.us for stat input, I was then intercepted to help run a live blog for Collegelax coverage of a first round game. The site of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park being boisterous on the first day, I just assumed I was needed on another league task and went to work live blogging the Southwestern v. Western Oregon first round game. To my shock I was reprimanded soundly when someone realized no stats were being entered on the game I had originally been assigned. I quickly realized that there was “official” coverage and Collegelax coverage. Neither side was right, neither side was wrong, both sides needed bodies to staff there operations, I was awkwardly caught in the middle.
This uncomfortable tension surrounded a majority of the Collegelax operations at the National Tournament over the last two years I was present, while no one would freely admit it from either side. And for the MCLA web user, confusion has likely reigned as well. Where do I go for tournament score updates? MCLA.us has the live feeds, but Collegelax has the forums. Some games have committed users who post consistent updates, some don’t. Collegelax has video for some games, but not all, and sometimes the power goes out and there is nothing. And then if its a nationally televised game on Fox College Sports, well then that’s not on ANY MCLA site, but a totally different link altogether.
And that confusion must have certainly existed on a daily basis in the league as well.
Q: Where do I input roster information?
A: That’s on MCLA.us.
Q: Ok, well I have a question for a league administrator, where can I ask that?
A: Oh well that’s on the Collegelax forums.
Q: Ummm, Ok, well now I need to see who leads a team in goals, where is that?
Q: Ok, well who do you think is the best player in the league?
A: Well, you should probably ask that on the forums, because that’s where the league discussion takes place.
The confusion created by multiple websites intimately linked to the MCLA was not created by Collegelax, but it was certainly not resolved by Collegelax. Certainly, there was pressure on Sonny and Collegelax to continue producing content from its current user base, despite the conflicts in dealing with the league. For the developers at Collegelax, how long could they continue to produce content and functionality that so glaringly duplicated or distracted from the official MCLA.us site? How could they produce video content without the blessing of the league? Many uncertainties faced Collegelax in the 2012 season.
At the Summer Meetings in Greenville this past month, I may have witnessed Sonny beginning to grapple with the mortality of Collegelax. On Saturday at the meetings, Sonny asked to address the MCLA Board of Conference Directors. He asked, very plainly, for the league board and president Tony Scazzero to make clear their commitment to Collegelax and their views on its place in the MCLA world moving forward. Scazzero could not promise a perpetual agreement with Collegelax, however he thanked Sonny for his service to the MCLA and his site’s role in the community. What Scazzero didn’t say in words, but what was clear in meaning, was that the MCLA had outgrown Collegelax.
Just as the site was born of an idea of a single man, so too it appears to have been taken down. Despite the impressive growth of the site and those involved in building it larger, Sonny Pieper was still the man who would turn out the lights.
The story of Collegelax is one of entrepreneurial spirit, visionary foresight, and a complex mix of personal and business relationships. The websites USLIA.com and Collegelax.us ushered along classes of lacrosse players who chose to dream beyond mere “club ball.” What Sonny Pieper created was more than a website, it was a meeting place and a crossroads. Where the league turns from here is unknown, but we are all better for having been led down the path we came.