Even in its 34th season, National Lacrosse League Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz says the league is “still a bit of a startup.”
Since joining the NLL in 2016, the former CEO of the Philadelphia Union has certainly had the lacrosse league in growth mode.
Under his watch, the NLL has expanded from nine to 13 teams and has secured the largest media rights deal in league history with B/R Live. In the last year, the NLL has seen double-digit percentage growth in attendance and partnership revenue.
The league is also attracting more prominent owners, ranging from Alibaba Group co-founder Joe Tsai to Comcast Spectacor.
This season, the NLL is moving into new areas sports betting, while Sakiewicz helps plot even further expansion.
“We’re making plans for our 35th anniversary, which is a big, big milestone for any league, but we’re still no less a challenger league,” said Sakiewicz.
Sakiewicz spoke with Front Office Sports about the growth of the league, why lacrosse is booming across the U.S., and the impact of sports betting.
Front Office Sports: Lacrosse is traditionally viewed as predominately a Northeastern U.S. sport – what is driving the growth of the sport and interest in it across the entire country?
Sakiewicz: Lacrosse has hundreds of years of history. But If you think about the indoor game, box lacrosse has over a hundred-year history in Canada, and that began dripping down into the states, which is why there is such a high concentration in the Northeast. But I think in a lot of where the growth is coming now in places like the Southeast and the Southwestern areas is that moms and dads today aren’t necessarily allowing their kids to play American football due to the issues related to injuries. Lacrosse is pretty rough, but there are far fewer injuries, while kids still like the physicality of the sport. That is making them pick up lacrosse sticks, and we see considerable upticks in places like Florida, Georgia, North and Southern California, and Texas. With all that growth at the grassroots level, you can see why investors see opportunities to capitalize on that growth.
But with all that said, it’s important to know that of the nearly one million fans that came through our turnstiles last year, 60% of them never played lacrosse. They attend the games because of the entertainment value.
FOS: Who are you marketing that game-day experience to?
Sakiewicz: It’s sensory overload for two hours, and I think it speaks to a young generation – a young demographic of gen-Z and millennials. Our teams have been able to create a great business off of selling a ticket off of an entertaining event and commercializing it that way while the lacrosse market grows.
A typical NLL game has 25 to 30 goals, with 80 to 100 shots on goal. There is live music and entertainment throughout the game, including during the run of play, which doesn’t happen in other sports. It’s also a very affordable ticket, a price point that works for those gen-Z and millennial fans as well as lacrosse and non-lacrosse families.
It’s still early days for the sport, and it reminds me of where we were in Major League Soccer when I was a founding executive in the league back in 1995. I think there are similar growth rates ahead.
In my view, it was the perfect time for Major League Soccer to grow in that period – I think it’s the NLL’s time now.
FOS: Is that what is drawing both big-name owners and big brands like Geico, AB InBev, and Turner to invest in the league?
Sakiewicz: Although we’re 34 years old, I think we’re coming into our own – we believe lacrosse is the sport of the future. Brands that want to connect with this demographic authentically can do that through our league. We’ve tried to be very nimble, which allows us to pivot our marketing strategies very quickly. I think for these brands that want to figure out what the next consumer looks like and how to reach them, the NLL is a great vehicle for that.
We were a nine-team league in 2016, and we’re a 13-league team right now. I don’t think pound-for-pound there is a better group of owners in a sports league – we have five NHL owners, two NFL owners, two NBA owners, and a number of well-resourced businessmen who have owned teams in a variety of markets.
In the early years on NLL, perhaps the league wasn’t as discriminating on ownership as we are now. We have a blue-chip group of owners from top to bottom, and we have to make sure we keep it that way, as any league is only as strong as its weakest team.
We’ve expanded two teams in each of the last two seasons. Our goal right now is to get three new expansion teams in this next phase. We have seven cities vying for those spots.
There has been a 100% plus increase in expansion fees since the San Diego Seals were awarded in 2017 [Editor’s note: The Seals paid a reported $5 million expansion fee]. This next round, we’re into eight figures. Those fees have been rocket fuel for our growth.
FOS: What opportunity does sports betting provide the NLL?
Sakiewicz: As the sports betting landscape has begun to unfold, we put a strategy together that had three pillars. First, we needed to get our stats in order, and not just basic stats but next-level stats and the reliability of those stats. The second was around integrity – we partnered with Genius Sports to do a top-to-bottom audit to ensure our competition remains clean. The third is a world-class marketing partner to help both in terms of getting our brand out there, but also placing odds on our competition and distributing the betting opportunities.
MGM was the last piece we put in place on that in January. They understand the growth cycle we’re in right now and what is happening in lacrosse at the grassroots level.
Right now, we’re not simply motivated in the short term to only grow revenue from sports betting. For us, it’s really marketing There are only a handful of states right now. It’s really a blowtorch marketing tool – research shows that people that are involved in betting on a sport are 80% more likely to become an avid fan of that sport. That’s what is really motivating us to get to the market quickly. It seems like experts are saying in maybe two or three more years, we’ll see true widespread online sports betting; I think that’s when we’ll see the scale of it and that’s when there will be a huge revenue opportunity.
FOS: Lacrosse is booming, which clearly benefits the NLL. But it also brings new players in the space – mainly the PLL. Can this be a case of rising tides lift all boats?
Sakiewicz: There is a big difference between the products. It’s more lacrosse and it’s more lacrosse. We support both of the outdoor leagues. We do what we can to co-promote and work together with them, and our seasons are very different since we play in the winter and they play in the summer. Many of our players play in those leagues as well.
We all have the common desire to grow the sport, and they’ve all been very helpful in growing the sport at the grassroots level. We will continue to look for ways to collaborate and grow the sport together. So, they’re nothing but complementary to what we’re doing.