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Thursday, June 13, 2024

How a Digital-First Approach Helped The Fastest Game on Two Feet Hit It’s Stride

Inside the NLL’s plan to grow revenue, interest, and team count.

NLL Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz enters his 3rd season leading the league (Photo from NLL.com)

What if you could combine a couple different sports concepts to get a fast-paced, high-scoring, indoor event? What if you played hockey but it wasn’t cold enough to have ice? Enter Box Lacrosse — a sport that is almost 100 years old but experiencing a stunning resurgence thanks to new leadership at the National Lacrosse League (NLL) offices, a well-timed digital first approach that appeals to today’s audiences, and an increasing number of influential ownership groups aligning with the league as its potential is becoming apparent.

Box Lacrosse was created somewhere between the 1920s and 1930s in Canada and quickly became that country’s official summer sport. Played in a hockey rink or “box,” this variation of lacrosse features six on six games, with five “runners” and a goalie. “Runners” are what American sports fans might term position players, or field players.

Not only is Box Lacrosse often played in a hockey rink, it also features free flowing substitutions much like line changes, penalties and power plays as well as four, 15-minute periods.

This high-flying, electrifying sport has constant movement, pick and rolls, and cross checking which creates intense periods of high energy for fans in the stands and those watching a broadcast.

The game is often referred to as the fastest game on two feet. With scoring that often reaches twenty to thirty goals per game, fans of all sports quickly become enthralled in a high-powered sporting event — even without understanding all of the intricacies of box lacrosse.

Just under half a million people are members of either US Lacrosse or USBOXLA, the two largest organizations for the sport. Both are growing rapidly with USBOXLA, adding over 1,000 new members every month. The overall expansion is thanks in large part to the aggressive marketing efforts being undertaken by the 32-year old NLL and its rebranding efforts that started a bit over two years ago when it brought in a new commissioner.

Nick Sakiewicz, entering his third season at the helm of the expanding league, brought a fresh eye to Lacrosse but plenty of sports experience when he joined the League.

A former professional soccer player turned soccer executive, Sakiewicz came to the NLL after 20 plus years in Major League Soccer where some of his highlights include launching MLS as a founding executive, managing two inaugural teams, building two soccer-specific stadiums, launching an expansion team and raising over half a billion dollars in investment capital, stadium funding, sponsorship and ticket sales.

While Sakiewicz may have stepped into a different arena of sorts, his experience within MLS has proven invaluable for the NLL. Last year, his second season leading the NLL, was one with many successes — key among them was seeing the league score a 295% increase in sponsor revenue growth from 2016 to 2017.

“The league (NLL) has been around for 32 seasons, which is a lot longer than many leagues ever last, but it hasn’t been marketed. I came in when the league was about to celebrate its 30th season, and we built a plan around our five pillars. Over what is now about 18 months, we have seen some extraordinary results.”

For Sakiewicz and his team, creating a platform in which to begin working with corporate clients was one of the first orders of business.

“We didn’t have our assets laid out, and we didn’t have the platform to offer any potential sponsors or corporate partners. Kevin Morgan, (NLL Chief Revenue Officer) came on board about six months after I did and he has built an incredible platform against a very valuable demographic; young upscale, high income Gen X and Millennials, that corporate sponsors covet.”

The other major pledge that Sakiewicz and the NLL made was in the creation of NLLTV.

“We made a commitment to digital marketing and broadcasting, and we have put all of our resources and efforts into NLLTV. We rolled it out last season and had great viewership. We had a Game of the Week with Twitter, something we are doing again this year where we averaged just under 350,000 viewers per game. This year we added CBS digital to our distribution, and brought in more talent for our production studio in Toronto. We have adopted the idea of all digital all the time, where anyone can get highlights, a pre-weekend show, a post-weekend show, player interviews, archived and live games and anything else related to our league. We are really very excited about it.”

With attendance numbers growing every year, up to more than 7,500 per game last season, behind only the NBA and NHL for indoor sports attendance, the NLL has no plans on slowing down, and with a diverse audience, Sakiewicz is excited about the growth opportunities.

“Much of our audience can be categorized as ‘event goers’ and by that, I mean 60% of our audience has never touched a lacrosse stick. They are fans of other sports that are looking for another great entertainment, sporting event to go to. That is very exciting for us. It opens a whole new world of potential new fans.”

“The other 40% is what I call “lacrossers”, people who play the sport, and want to go watch the best players do what they do. We truly have the most unbelievable lacrosse athletes in the game. These guys are the best of the best.”

Sakiewicz, the NLL, and others already in the sport are not the only ones bullish on the league’s potential. Some major players are also buying into the League. The NLL recently announced the addition of the San Diego Seals and the Philadelphia Wings for the 2018–2019 season. The Seals are owned by Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai, and the Wings are owned by Comcast Spectacor.

“In the next decade, we will be a 20–30 team league, and over the next five years, you will see more owners like Tsai and Comcast coming into the fold. These owners see the same vision that we do.”

A growing league, an exciting product and a digital platform that will continue to evolve has set the NLL up for continued success, success that Sakiewicz believes can alter the sports landscape.

“I’m not sure I could have said this a year ago, but after seeing the numbers from Twitter and NLLTV last year, I am convinced we are the next great professional team sports league. I spent 21 years within MLS, and think everyone will agree that MLS is 5th, and maybe even the 4th major league sport, but I’m confident NLL is the next one coming and it will be very exciting to be a part of it over the next decade.”

This piece has been presented to you by SMU’s Master of Science in Sport Management.

Front Office Sports is a leading multi-platform publication and industry resource that covers the intersection of business and sports.

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