Q&A: With MLS, NHL As Blueprints, NLL Strives For Marketing, Fan, Financial Growth
Thursday, December 7, 2017 at 05:23PM
NYSportsJournalism.com in MLS, NHL, National Lacrosse League, Q&A, Q&A, lacrosse, sports marketing

By Barry Janoff

December 7, 2017: Lacrosse is a sport whose roots date back hundreds of years to early Native Americans.

Indoor box lacrosse is about 150 years old, with its origins in Canada.

The National Lacrosse League has a history that goes back to the mid-1980s with the formation of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, which in 1997 was reimagined as the National Lacrosse League beginning with the 1998 season.

However, in many significant aspects, the NLL is still like the new kids on the sports block, in the early stages regarding growth, national marketing and national broadcast exposure.

Since November 2016, the NLL has signed 14 marketing or broadcast deals. The two most recent came this month via a partnership with CBS Sports Digital to stream live and on-demand NLL games on the subscription OTT service SportsLive, including regular-season and playoff games; and Precision Products’ brand Covo Drinkware (pictured below, relaunching this winter as Freeheart) as the league’s exclusive thermal insulated drinkware provider.

National partners already include Under Armour, New Era, Twitter and Warrior sports equipment, a division of New Balance. Games are shown digitally on NLL TV.

The NLL is also building a strong ownership roster, which currently includes Kroenke Sports & Entertainment with the Colorado Mammoth (also owners of the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and MLS Colorado Rapids) and Pegula Sports & Entertainment with the Buffalo Bandits (also owners of the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres).

Two new franchises will be added next season to the current roster of nine: the Philadelphia Wings and ownership group Comcast-Spectacor (Philadelphia Flyers, Wells Fargo Center) and the San Diego Seals, owned by Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Alibaba, whose net worth has been put at about $9 billion.

For future expansion, the NLL said it is looking at such markets as Baltimore-Washington DC, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York and Dallas.

The NLL said it ranks third in average attendance for pro indoor sports worldwide, behind only the NHL and NBA.

It also attracts fans from a sweet demographic for marketers and broadcasters.

About two-thirds of the two million lacrosse players in the U.S. are male; about the same proportion are between ages 13-34, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

In college, Div. I, II and III lacrosse is among the most popular sports, including more than 36,000 athletes and national broadcast partners ESPN and CBS Sports, according to the NCAA.

The NCAA has seen an increase of 33% in the number of teams playing the sport over the last five years while there’s been a comparable increase of 27% on the high school level, according to the NLL.

The NLL begins its 2017-18 season on what has been designated as Face-off Weekend, Dec. 8-9,  with eight of the nine teams in action — led by the defending champion Georgia Swarm — and runs through June. (See the full NLL roster here.)

Multi-media marketing supports under the umbrella theme, “Today is Our Day," anchored by a new spot, Internet, social media and in-arena activation.

NYSportsJournalism spoke with Nick Sakiewicz, who was named NLL commissioner in January 2016 following a career in soccer as a goalie (Major Indoor Soccer League’s New York Arrows) and executive (including being among the founders of Major League Soocer, president of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and then the New York MetroStars — now New York Red Bulls — and co-founder of the Philadelphia Union), about the rewards and challenges facing executives and owners, marketing the league and its players and the NLL's place in sports.

NYSportsJournalism.com: The sport of lacrosse dates back hundreds of years to Native Americans. What is the history of the National Lacrosse League?

Nick Sakiewicz: We are going into our 32nd season. The National Lacrosse League started as the Major Indoor Lacrosse League but changed its name in 1998 to NLL. Our version of lacrosse, indoor box lacrosse, last year celebrated its 150th year. It is a Canadian-born (version of the) sport. It is a lot like hockey.

NYSJ: You were named commissioner of the NLL in January 2016, but your background is soccer, as a goalie and then two decades as an executive with Major League Soccer. How did becoming commissioner for the NLL come about?

NS: To be honest, I didn’t know much about it at that time. I was in Major League Soccer for 21 years, one of the founding executives of the league. So my whole sports career has been in soccer, as a player and executive. After I sold my interest in the Philadelphia Union, I didn’t expect my phone to ring so quickly. I had a number of soccer opportunities overseas but my wife and I didn’t want to make that move. Some of the NLL owners knew me or knew of me, asked me about my interest in becoming commissioner and introduced me to the sport.

NYSJ: How would you describe the experience?

NS: I’m still learning the nuances of the game. But it has been an incredible joy to learn about the history of the sport and to see the league develop. I took a lot of time looking at it. And the more I looked at the NLL, the more I realized that it would be the next great team sport.

NYSJ: Lacrosse has a long history, but is part of the challenge getting the NLL itself known to more people and companies and not just its core fans, players and endemic marketing partners?

NS: Exactly. We have the best athletes in the world in our sport playing in our league. I didn’t have that coming from the MLS. Just to see the game itself — it’s a spectacular product. NLL has been grossly under-marketed for 30-plus years. The No. 1 challenge is to unlock what has literally been locked up in arenas for three decades. Last year, our average attendance was up (to just under 7,500) with many games topping 11,000. That's a big number for a league that is not known.

"NLL has been grossly under-marketed for 30-plus years. The No. 1 challenge is to unlock what has literally been locked up in arenas for three decades."

What had been happening is that the league office, league leadership, never really had a plan to unlock the game. We now have a five-year plan with a big digital focus. Digital OTT streaming (such as the deal NLL signed this month with CBS Sports Digital). Whether it be live games or a weekly show. Highlight packages. And getting partners to distribute it.

NYSJ: How important is social media to your plan?

NS: Using Twitter last season was an eye-opener for us. When we did the Twitter ‘Game of the Week,’ we didn’t know what to expect. Lo and behold, with promotion and unlocking the game, we had almost 400,000 viewers per game. These weren’t just casual viewers. There were 39.7 minutes of viewing time per game. This is a real audience. That’s what we need to do. Have good broadcast strategy and get the product out there. The league hasn’t been exposed in more than 30 years, and now in just one year we’ve been getting it out there on a variety of platforms. And more people are interested — interested in watching it and interested in coming to games.

NYSJ: Are you seeing similarities between the growth of MLS and NLL?

NS: I draw two parallels: As a long-time soccer guy, I see the growth of lacrosse at the grass-roots level similar to what we saw with soccer in the 1980s and 1990s. Exploding popularity at the grass-roots level. In places such as Long Island, NY, it’s been around a long time. The Northeast is more mature than, say, California. But that is changing. We are seeing triple-digit growth rates in many areas. That reminds me a lot of soccer in its growth from a grass-roots perspective.

The other parallel I draw on a professional level is with the NHL. We play in the same length box. Use the same number of players. We have a goalie. It has some heritage in hockey. I see NLL as the NHL of 30 years ago. The indoor box lacrosse is a Canadian-born sport 150 years ago, now dripping south of the border as American kids are playing not just lacrosse, but indoor box lacrosse. Our Rookie of the Year in 2016, Tom Schreiber, was born and raised on Long Island (East Meadow). We are seeing more American players come into our league and indoor box lacrosse getting more popular in the U.S.

NYSJ: Are you also seeing a parallel with soccer in that because the NLL offers American players an opportunity to join a pro league where they earn a salary so that more younger players want to stay with the sport?

NS: Certainly. We are not quite where soccer is. I had a front-row seat watching those guys go from marginal salaries to being quite well-paid these days. A MLS player can make a hell of a living even as an average player. But we still have a ways to go. We need to grow. We need more teams. A bigger footprint. More sponsors. More TV revenue. But it’s not if, but when our athletes will make more money and our teams will make more money.

NYSJ: The NLL has nine franchises in the U.S. and Canada entering the 2017-18 season, but what is your growth strategy?

NS: We have two new teams coming in next season, in San Diego and Philadelphia. Blue-chip owners. Comcast-Spectactor with Philadelphia (Wings) and in San Diego (Seals) we have Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Alibaba. We want to grow at a steady pace. It will take a little bit of time, but we feel as if the next ten years in the NLL is going to be a lot of fun.

NYSJ: You have Under Armour, New Era and New Balance division Warrior among your main partners. How involved are they with activation and marketing?

NS: A little over a year ago, NLL had no meaningful sponsors. Since (November 2016) we’ve signed (14) deals such as Under Armour, New Balance’s Warrior and New Era. These are big companies that want to help us grow and want to market the league. Our Chief Revenue Officer, Kevin Morgan, is a 15-year veteran of the NHL and knows what he’s doing. So in just a little over a year we’re brought on some big-name companies.

NYSJ: Like any league you have to work at making companies aware of the potential of your league, but are you finding more doors opening than before and that the NLL name and brand is becoming more well-known?

NS: They are opening more than they have been. I think the reason for that is that everybody loves the demographic of lacrosse. It’s a fast-action sport with a young demographic and a growing audience. But, yes, we still have to knock on doors. We’re not a known entity. A year ago we were screaming for attention and not on the radar at all. Today, we are firmly on the radar of a lot of companies.

NYSJ: Do you get feedback from other pro leagues?

NS: We are on the radar of pretty much every NBA and NHL team. We have four NHL owners, an NFL owner and an NBA owner in our league. But we have a lot of work to do if we want to stay on the radar in the next ten years. The business plan is in place. We have a five-point, five-year strategic business plan that is going to be laser-focused on such key elements as digital marketing, direct cast, commercial sponsorship, grass-roots development and marketing and expansion.

"Everybody loves the demographic of lacrosse. It’s a fast-action sport with a young demographic and a growing audience."

NYSJ: Are teams allowed to form their own local marketing deals in addition to the league marketing partnerships?

NS: That actually is one of the positive things this league has done. Local teams have a lot of inventory to sell, where they can monetize and maximize revenue. Frankly, that’s the key area that has kept this league going for 32 years. Teams at the local level have done a good job of selling tickets and sponsorships. But the league office never had a strategic plan to support it.

NYSJ: How about on the financial side?

NS: Most of our teams are profitable. We are going to leave that alone. That’s not broken so we don’t need to fix it. What we are doing is adding new inventory for the national platform. For national TV and national inventory for the league to sell. So rather than taking inventory away from local teams we are leaving them alone and allow them to continue to do what they are doing. We are growing the footprint on a national level.

NYSJ: Are players on each team well-known enough to appear in local marketing campaigns, and will you be able to have players rise to the level where they can appear in national marketing?

NS: Players are known on the local level, but making them national stars is just starting to come. Each team has one or two incredible stars locally. But the job of the league is to take the local stars and put them on a national stage and a national platform. The league had no plan for that in the past and had no platform. Today, we have NLL TV, a partner in Twitter, more distribution partners coming this year (such as CBS Sports Digital). Going into next year, you will see a long-term broadcast partner, meaning a multi-year, multi-platform distribution partner. That will highlight our superstars. And they are superstars.

NYSJ: You have been learning about the sport, but what are you learning about the players?

NS: When I came into the league, I wasn’t sure what the athletes were like. So I went to a game in Buffalo as part of my due diligence. There were 16,000 people in the arena. I was blown away to see that. After the game, I went to the locker room and met some of the players. When a player takes his jersey off you can tell whether they are serious athletes or beer-league athletes. I have to tell you: These guys were ripped. Big, strong, fast, talented. So I thought, Okay, we have a lot to work with here. Talented athletes, Great product. Lots of people interested in watching.

NYSJ: Opening weekend (Dec. 8-9) is being packaged as Face-off Weekend. How is that affecting the league?

NS: This is the first time we have tried this. We moved the schedule up a bit to early December. Traditionally, the season started after New Year’s. This gives our teams a little more breathing room by stretching out the calendar a bit. Face-off Weekend gives us the opportunity to showcase all of our teams at the same time. You’ll be seeing us do more of these types of events. We don’t have an All-Star Game, but we are working on it. Perhaps as early as next season when our two new teams come in. And developing event programming around it. We have to make up for lost time.

NYSJ: In seeking to attract more U.S. players have you been working with the NCAA where Div. I, II and III lacrosse among the most popular college sports?

NS: Absolutely. The league never had much of a relationship with the NCAA, and neither did U.S. Lacrosse, the national governing body for the sport. Now we have been involved with the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four the last two years. And you‘ll see NLL’s involvement with that growing. And one of the first things we did was to partner with U.S. Lacrosse and form a strategic relationship. We now cross-promote, cross-market, leverage each other’s data bases. We work on player development strategies. U.S. Lacrosse just announced new indoor rules,, which we worked on with them for close to a year to develop.

There is another organization, U.S. Box Lacrosse Assn. (USBOXLA), based in San Jose, California, which is the governing body for the indoor game. We are partnered with them to help develop the indoor game in the U.S.

NYSJ: Given all of the elements — lacrosse dates back hundreds of years, box lacrosse is 150 years old, the NLL is 30-plus, but you are essentially rebooting your product to reach a new fan base and more marketers — how do you explain what you have?

NS: Good question. (Laughs.) I would say what we have is a grossly under-marketed, under-performing sport that is 100-plus years old. It has been this tribal, cultish sport that was only played by groups of people who never really opened it up. Timing is everything. Lacrosse is a sport whose time has come. You see an entire generation of young kids in America playing soccer, playing lacrosse. It’s not your dad’s sport. You are seeing a shift not just toward lacrosse, but also in other sports. The timing is perfect for us now, and we need to position ourselves to capture that interest and growth to become a top professional league in that space. It feels like soccer in the 1980s.

NYSJ: And with your background, do you have an affinity for lacrosse goaltenders?

NS: (Laughs.) I tell you what: I was a goalie in soccer for 20 years of my life. The goalies in indoor lacrosse are a lot tougher. They have solid-rubber balls getting whizzed at them at 150 miles an hour. So I have lot of appreciation for these goalies.


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