After more than 13 years of working in the NHL league office, Jessica Berman felt that she reached a point in her career that if an opportunity came about that would challenge and help her further develop professionally, she’d consider it.
That presented itself as an opportunity with National League Lacrosse, which Berman will join as its new deputy commissioner and executive vice president of business affairs.
Berman, who most recently was vice president of community development, culture and growth at the NHL, oversaw the NHL Foundation and had previously served as the league’s deputy general counsel, said this new role with the NLL will “bring together all of the different areas in my career that I’ve been responsible for, as well as some new ones.” Specifically, Berman will be tasked with overseeing all of the league’s legal affairs and transactions and managing its team services. Berman will also work closely with NLL Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz on the league’s overall growth strategy.
While the start of the NLL 2018-2019 season was delayed due to a work stoppage, the league and the players’ association signed a new five-year CBA in November, kickstarting a year of substantial growth.
The league’s total announced attendance across the league’s 11 teams this past season was 958,547, up 28% year-over-year. The league noted that 60% of those buyers had never played lacrosse before.
Thanks to its recently signed a deal with Turner to stream its games on B/R Live, the NLL saw digital growth as well. Average unique viewers increased 27%, the average minute audience increased 14% and total unit sales were up 151% year-over-year, according to the NLL, who did not provide additional viewership figures.
The NLL’s sponsorship revenues are also projected to increase 29% this season, thanks in large part to recent deals with brands like Geico and Michelob Ultra.
The league has also seen enhanced interest from significant ownership groups. In 2017, Brooklyn Nets and co-founder of Alibaba Group launched a team in San Diego. Last season, the Philadelphia Wings joined the league, which is owned by Comcast Spectacor. Pegula Sports and Entertainment also acquired an expansion team that will launch in 2019 in Rochester, New York. The NLL will also have a new team on Long Island this season as well, owned by sports media company GF Sports. In total, the league now has 13 teams.
Asked about the trajectory of the league, Berman said: “the quality of the ownership is a really good indicator of the health of the league and the ability of the league to be sustainable.”
“The NHL is obviously at a much different place in terms of its growth trajectory now, but within the NLL you have a lot of owners who also own NHL teams and know how to build brands,” she said. “[The NLL] is also in expansion mode, which is a really good indicator of the health of the league, and you can see how much interest there is in that, especially coming off the league’s first media rights deal with a great partner in Turner and B/R Live.”
Berman also noted that the sport of lacrosse is also on an upward trajectory. According to US Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body, there were 826,983 active players in 2017, up 0.1% year-over-year, according to its most recent participation survey released in July 2018.
While the number of new lacrosse players each year has been slowing down, the sport’s total participation numbers are still up drastically from where there were even a few years ago – for example, in 2017 there were 32% more lacrosse players than there was in 2010, according to US Lacrosse.
The boom in the sport has also come with professional leagues taking an interest, mainly Premier League Lacrosse, which launched in 2019.
Berman said that from her vantage point, “the increased exposure the sport of lacrosse gets from all of this activity from other properties is great for all of us – even if its played under slightly different rules, it’s all good indicators for the sport.”
While both are professional lacrosse leagues, the NLL and PLL are drastically different products; the NLL is an indoors box lacrosse league, while the PLL is an outdoor field lacrosse league. Perhaps more importantly, their schedules do not currently overlap.
“Lacrosse is a sport that for years people have said should be a mainstream consumer product – there’s no reason why it isn’t in my assessment,” she said. “If you look back at the history of the other big sports leagues when many were at the pivotal junctures that took them from niche and small to massive properties, there was a similar activity where there were different leagues and factions on the scene – history tends to repeat itself.”
Berman’s arrival to the NLL also has a far wider impact beyond just on the league itself – her role as deputy commissioner makes her the highest-ranking woman at a professional men’s sports league, and the first woman to fill such a role at a league.
“For really my whole life this is what I’ve been working towards, so I’m grateful to have the opportunity and hopefully others can realize women can contribute at this level,” she said. “I think it’s unfortunate that I’d be the first because you’d think it wouldn’t be the case, but the sports industry over the last five years has been enlightened in terms of the importance of diversity – I think this is another indicator of that.”
Still, Berman noted, it’s not just about ticking a box with a hire – something she knows she’ll prove wasn’t the case.
“It’s not just the hiring of women or putting a woman in a position, the more important part is inclusion – there’s an oft-used statement that says ‘diversity is the invitation to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance’,” Berman said. “Working alongside Nick, I’m confident it’s going to demonstrate that it was a good business decision to hire me.”