In February, the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League – the only professional league in the sport for female players – announced a restructuring heading into its third season of play, slated to begin on June 13 in Stony Brook, N.Y. The WPLL would contract from five teams to four and reduce rosters to 22 players, 15 of whom would make up a travel squad – all measures to reduce costs for the fledgling enterprise.
Then coronavirus hit.
Now, there won’t even be a 2020 season. The WPLL canceled the upcoming season on April 14, citing the uncertainty of when venues would be available, among other factors. The league plays games at college sites, which are currently shut down. It also partners for two weekends with the Premier Lacrosse League, which has suspended the start of its own season and is in the process of rescheduling in the hope sports start again this year.
Postponing the WPLL’s five-week June to July season wasn’t feasible in light of what the league anticipated would be increased competition for audiences and television attention, just as its emphasis on community made the consideration of games without fans hard to swallow.
“For us, one of the key differentiating factors has been engagement with our fans both pregame in-game and post-game – especially the post-game, where you see the community come together and we didn’t think that we could really do justice by having any events without our fans on location with us,” said Rick Alessandri, senior advisor to the league. “And the reality is once you start getting into August and in the fall if football does come back on time, if the other major sports start to come back, with our partners like ESPN as well as some other partnerships we were hoping to announce, you get lost in a sea of everyone scrambling back.”
The cancellation was the consequential decision made. Now, facing a year in which the self-funded league will not put out an on-field product for fans and partners alike, the WPLL must strategically proceed to protect its future financially and continue a growth pattern sparked last season.
The league, up until this point, has only had one-year partnerships. 2020 was to mark a bigger step: multi-year deals called “Champion Partners.” The WPLL was finalizing several such deals before the decision was made.
“Everybody wants to continue to support, but it’s really difficult for some sponsors to financially put money out, not knowing if we were going to have a season or not,” WPLL CEO Michele DeJuliis said. “I think [for] the Champion Partners and some of our smaller endemic sponsors, of course, nobody wants to see a season canceled, but they’re still supportive. All of them are wondering how can we remain connected or maybe do some social media content together?”
Allesandri added that although talks with new partners have “slowed down, the interest is not lost.” They’ve just “put a little pause on it,” he said.
In the interim, in addition to finding new ways to work with partners and new types of content to create, the league will look toward the WPLL Futures Program to stay financially afloat. The program is something the league said it “created to financially support the league when we’re off season,” DeJuliis said, which they now are – just for longer than normal.
The WPLL typically holds tryouts for the program across the country, with league executives and pros selecting groups of players from different regions to participate in an annual national summit – a two to three day camp for 550 middle and high school players.
Players normally pay a tryout fee and for the cost of the summit if selected. This year, tryout fees have been refunded and the summit postponed to a date to be determined.
“The money that comes in from that directly impacts the league, players, travel, pay, etc.,” DeJuliis said. “So we’re still continuing to run the Futures Program virtually by application and submission of film. The players get selected, still get to come to the summit which we can hold in late July or August, and hopefully, at that point, a lot will change as far as what lies ahead with COVID-19.”
The virtual application process existed previously. If players weren’t able to make a tryout or event in-person, they could try to get a slot at the summit this way. It’ll now expand substantially for this summer. Still, the same number of players will be selected: 20 per graduating class for 12 different regions will be invited to the summit.
Researching ways to expand their virtual ability beyond the summit, the WPLL is looking into creating a platform where pros can be available to do skill development, Zoom Q&A’s and “as much as we can to stay connected to that next generation,” DeJuliis said.
“It seems like we’re going that way in this virtual reality right now,” she continued. “And so you have to adjust and pivot to what’s needed. And [monetizing] that is being discussed among our executive team right now. A lot of people are trying to find ways to do this. As we speak, we’re looking to provide that opportunity for the majority of our players should they want to do it.”
The main goal – even above revenue generation – is to continue last season’s momentum. Without a season and with all players on one-year contracts, expenses this summer will be minimal as there is no travel to cover, no venues to rent, and no player salaries to pay.
In 2019, the WPLL formed strategic partnerships with the Premier Lacrosse League, tapping into their rapidly growing social audience and 15 million impressions per weekend of play. The WPLL was also able to engage ESPN’s women’s coverage team, espnW, which has reach in 61 countries, and USA Lacrosse, with a 500,000 member email database, among others.
That helped the WPLL grow to a collective 1.5 million followers on Instagram and saw a 100% increase in digital ticket sales, along with 30% increases in ticket sales at events and WPLL Futures youth programming participation. They aired the first-ever linear broadcast of professional women’s lacrosse on ESPNU and welcomed 12,500 fans across the entire 2019 season, up from 10,000 in the WPLL’s first season.
Rather than attempt a limited season, the league is now looking to next year.
“With the uncertainty ahead of us, [we believe] in focusing on the 2021 season,” Alessandri said. “Using this year to focus on engagement with social media and some other interactions between our fans and our athletes, that’s where we’re going to kind of redirect our energies towards.”
That engagement will be even more paramount without a product in 2020, DeJuliis said. But the league doesn’t just need to stay up and running for the fans.
It needs to stay operational for the sake of the sport, Alessandri adds, noting the status of the league as both the only professional lacrosse league for women and the “breeding ground,” for a potential Olympic team, as talks of 2028 inclusion continue.
“It’s going to be critical that we continue to engage,” DeJuliis said. “Anything that we can do to continue to gain more fans will be a win for us. Our success is critically important to the success and future of lacrosse for girls and women in this country.”
The next growth opportunity outside of social and virtual content in the draft. With the original 2020 WPLL draft canceled, a “Disbursement Draft” will happen this fall. Teams will take graduated college seniors and players currently not on the league’s four protected player rosters.
Delaying the draft allows the league to get a better sense of which college seniors will be available to play professionally, given the additional year of eligibility afforded to them by the NCAA after their spring seasons were cut short due to coronavirus.
“Right now, knowing that we’ve made this decision, we’re jump-starting into what’s next,” DeJuliis said. “And so we’re thinking through the draft and when we’re doing that and who from the senior class that was affected by the cancellation of spring semesters in college is going back to college and who isn’t.”