It’s been a little over eight months since former Major League Soccer executive Nick Sakiewicz became the Commissioner of the National Lacrosse League. Since then, we’ve been flooded with an influx of news, rumblings and rumors on expansion, increased media coverage, and a better vibe off the floor. It’s all thanks to the new skipper at the helm.
Over the 30 years of the National Lacrosse League’s existence, countless teams have come and gone. Arenas have been filled and then vacated. Media deals have been come and gone. A seemingly never-ending game of musical chairs perpetuated a sense that pro lacrosse was barely more than an amateur or semi-pro men’s league. Well, according to Nick Sakiewicz, those days are over and the National Lacrosse League is aligning itself to go shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the biggest professional sports entities in North America. The best part: I believe Nick Sakiewicz.
I’ve been hearing about the potential of pro lacrosse for years. I’ve seen a lot of promises get broken and hot air being sent into the aether. I’ve also watched the game start to take a step forward, before taking two backward on many different avenues. I don’t know Nick Sakiewicz that well yet, but he certainly speaks with a great deal of confidence about growing the game and expanding the NLL without giving off the slightest stench of a locker room at playoff time.
When I heard that an American businessman with no lacrosse background and reputation built off of soccer was the next Commissioner of the National Lacrosse League, I can’t say I felt much hope. Now that I have spoken with him personally and watched him put his plan into action over the past few months, I’m starting to be convinced that we’re all staring at a new horizon.
The picture is morphing, and it’s going look much different in the coming years. It’s going to be good.
Why? Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz isn’t here to sell you the National Lacrosse League, he’s going to empower the NLL to sell itself and the plan is all based on five pillars: expansion, team services, digital marketing, a grassroots program, and commercial broadcast strategy.
Read on for a transcript of my interview with Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz after his first season with the National Lacrosse League.
Q&A with Nick Sakiewicz, NLL Commissioner
Mark Donahue: Mr. Commissioner, thanks for the time. Let’s get to it. Do you mind recapping how 2016 went for the National Lacrosse League and for yourself?
Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz: It was a great 30th season. For me, personally, I probably attended over 20 or 30 games live, watched a lot of games live on TV and I’ve got to tell you I wasn’t disappointed walking away from a single one of them. I continue to say, and believe, that the product has incredible entertainment value, it’s fun as heck to watch, usually in any league you have your dud games. Honestly, I did not walk away from any dud game. The product is sensational. We’re really excited that we had an uptick in attendance this year and we’re going to continue to build on that.
I think a lot of the teams are starting to invest in marketing, ticket sales and developing fan engagement and it’s great to see that across the league. We’re going to continue to support the teams in our team services function that I talked about as one of the key pillars of our 5 year plan. Really excited about a number of teams across the United States and Canada that are interested and that we are in talks with for expansion, another key pillar of our 5 year strategic plan. That was really good to see throughout the season and not just me reaching out to them, but we’ve had a number of sports entertainment companies reaching out to me saying, “hey we’re interested in your product, we’re interested in your league” so that was a real positive sign and I’m just pleased overall with our 30th season.
Having said all that, we need to move forward. We have a lot of work to do in terms of expanding this league, in terms of getting it to the level of the other big leagues, frankly. I feel that we are like the NHL maybe 30 or 40 years ago. We have this awesome product, a traditional Canadian product, which is finding it’s way into America and we have great platforms to work off of.
MD: It seems like you’ve been convinced by what’s happening on the floor. How have you gotten to know box lacrosse and the box community? Do you know the game well by this point or have you been tied up in the business?
NS: I’ve been figuring out the game and I’ve had a lot of help along the way. From people like Brian Lemon, who is our VP of Operations, a former player in the league. I’ve talked to a lot of players and a lot of coaches along the way so I’m picking up the technical part of it but it’s really no different than MLS and it’s no different than any other league. It’s about the fans. It’s about engaging with the fans and they make the game, they make the atmosphere, they’re knowledgeable. I’ve found that box lacrosse fans in every market are knowledgable about the game and they have been really helpful in all of that. Listen, we’re in the business of lacrosse, the two are tied together, it’s not separate. What happens on the floor has a direct impact on what happens off the floor. The business portion and the lacrosse portion is inexplicably tied together and I’ve been learning a lot about lacrosse product.
MD: You’re right, the game experience is fantastic. You’ve talked about the 5 year plan, but what’s the landscape look like down the road? Can we be shoulder to shoulder with the other major sports or are we stuck as a niche sport?
NS: Today, as we sit, we are clearly a niche sport that is amongst a group of other niche sports that are trying to find their identity in a very busy landscape of professional sports across North America. North America is a very unique place because there are very few regions of the world that have so many dominant sports. You’ve got the NFL, the NHL, NBA, MLB, the MLS, the MLS is still a niche sport but it is stepping out very quickly and becoming more mainstream and our goals are to follow in those footsteps and we have a very powerful tool in this day and age. The NHL and the six teams in the 60’s didn’t have the internet or social media, but today we do and I think you’re going to see us use the power of social media and digital video delivery and digital access for fans to enjoy our sport, to accelerate exposing the great stuff that our players do every weekend in these arenas. When I say I feel a little bit like the NHL maybe forty or fifty years ago, I have a powerful marketing tool at my disposal through social media and digital media that they did not.
MD: It’s clear that in order to be like those league, you must dominate the local markets. But then there are markets like Vancouver with box lacrosse is huge, but attendance is dismal. How do you get involved and grow the game in markets that only get a few thousand fans per game or are the efforts better focused where the game is booming?
NS: That falls under the team services function that we’re building at the league office. We’re about to hire a Chief Operating Officer whose going to be all over building that team services function and deploying, well not just deploying the best practices in markets like Vancouver, but actually helping the teams to execute them. It’s not really about the budget, per se, but it’s about the brainpower and the people that are thinking about the strategies and tactics to execute on that budget. You can have a million dollars, but if you spend it foolishly you’re not going to move the needle. You know, in Philadelphia I had a tiny budget. In fact, some National Lacrosse League teams have a bigger advertising budget than I had in Philadelphia, but we had really smart people that were executing against that budget and they were getting tremendous results. They were amplifying their market voice with the fans and with the marketplace for a lot less money than some of our teams in the NLL currently spend.
So, yes, it’s nice to have a marketing budget, but it’s really critical to have people that are smart with the strategies and the tactics they come up with and the ideas employed. Lee Genier and Bruce Urban, the ownership there in Saskatoon, have been absolutely dead-on in their strategies to build the relevance of the Rush in Saskatchewan. I was at the first game and I was at the last game, and what happened between the first game and the last game was the fans embraced the team at game one, and the team embraced them back every game after that, right to the finals. That was hard work, it doesn’t happen just organically. I does to a certain degree but the folks up there did a tremendous job. I mean it was a love fest by the time the season ended and that doesn’t happen just because. You have a lot of smart people working their tails off, running the team the way it should be.
MD: The move to Saskatchewan, as you mentioned, was a tremendous success story. What does the process of expansion now look like? Which are we looking more for, Canadian or American markets? What’s your approach and how quickly can we really expect any moves?
NS: Well, building the strategy will happen quickly. Finding the right teams with right owners in the right markets with the right arenas, will not happen quickly, so I wanted to set that expectation right now. We’re going to do this right. It’s really important to say that, because over the last 30 years we’ve been in a ton of places. We’ve been in more places than I can count and we’re not going to do that anymore. When we go set up shop a city with a proper arena, with a proper owner, we’re going to be there forever. Because the days of the National Lacrosse League stepping into a market for a year or two and then exiting are over. But, in order to do that, we’ve got to be really diligent picking the right ownership, picking the right building, having the right strategy going into the marketplace. Is it the right marketplace to begin with? Is that marketplace ready for lacrosse? Those are all questions that need to be answered.
The strategy is going to be simple, we’ve hired InnerCircle Sports which is a renowned boutique sports financial advisory firm that has done a lot of deals in all of the big league. I’ve worked with them closely in Major League Soccer and they’ve done deals with MLS to bring expansion and investors into that league and have been extremely incredible group, based out of New York City. They’re on board now and we’re building a launch strategy for our expansion program. Then we’re going to go on a road trip and talk to a lot of people and really go through an interview process to see, are they really the right ownership groups, are they the right people we need around the board table to grow this league long term? Then hopefully we can come together with some of them for the 2018 season.
Got a peek into the NLL digital age today. Lax fans have a lot to look forward to! Can’t wait till our 31st season starts!! #amazingvideo!
— Nick Sakiewicz (@NLLcommish) August 10, 2016
I’m very bullish that our product is fantastic and that people need good content programing in their arenas and as hockey teams and NBA teams are starting to become sports entertainment companies, they need valuable content. We have valuable content. Just take a look a Buffalo. Take a look at Calgary. Take a look at Denver. Look what’s happened in Saskatoon. Take the 16% increase in Rochester. These are really good businesses that people need content for. We’re going to roll that out in the coming months and then we’re going to try to execute on that strategy.
MD: Over half of the teams you just mentioned are on this side of the border, but without box lacrosse being the most popular sport in the United State, how do you make inroads to the US Sports market? Are you building relations to US Lacrosse and other youth lacrosse entities to help propel this?
NS: We’re talking to anybody and everybody that wants to have a conversation about partnering. The whole strategy from our marketing side and our overall 5 year strategic plan is to find partners that want to grow the game. It’s yes to all of those. US Lacrosse, Canadian Lacrosse, the governing bodies, the Under Armours of the world, the endemic sponsors that we have, the non-endemic partners that we need to have. We’re talking to anybody and everybody, this is the mission of our new Chief Revenue Officer, Kevin Morgan, our new Chief Marketing Officer, Ashley Dabb, the new Chief Operating Officer that we’re going to bring in here very shortly. These are all strategies and initiatives, but we’re talking to everybody and we’re going to try to figure out who are going to be the partners that are best suited to help us grow the sport.
MD: You mentioned Ashley Dabb is coming on board as well and a recent press release also announced the partnering with the Brownstein Group. Can you talk about the decision to bring them on board and what they’re actually going to be doing to day for the NLL?
NS: Well, the Brownstein Group is our digital marketing agency, they’ll be handling all of the rebuild of the website, the redevelopment of the National Lacrosse League brand going into our 31st year. They’re also going to be in charge of public relations, media relations, and getting the NLL out there more visibly in the business of sports as well as the sports side of things. Ashley is our Chief Marketing Officer. I worked very closely with her building the Philadelphia Union brand and launching that team. That brand has become one of the strongest brands in Major League Soccer. They led the league a number of years in brand and merchandise sales in the marketplace. Ashley is going to be very focused on doing the same in the National Lacrosse League, making our brand more relevant across the whole continent, in Canada and the US. She’s going to be working with the Brownstein Group to help build out the new website redesign and the digital platform, the OTT network we launched during the playoffs, NLL TV, you’re going to see a lot more of that next year. NLL TV is the future and I think our fans are going to be really excited to access that next year to watch every game live-streamed, which will be really exciting and that’s what Ashley will do.
MD: We we’re elated to see the NLL work with NuLion to stream the games at the end of the season. Is that going to be a service that is offered again for free next season or will you move to a subscription?
NS: We haven’t decided yet which way we are going. Right now there is a lot of research being conducted with our fans, with our sponsors, with our broadcast partners. Right now, I can tell you that there will likely be a mix, there will be a lot of free content that we will deliver on NLL TV. There maybe some subscription based specialty content for fans to take advantage of, but we just haven’t decided yet which way we’re going to go.
MD: Well as a media guy, I’m excited either way. Well, it’s the summer now. The teams get back to work in November and December. What happens between now and then? Should we expect a lot of change?
NS: Next year is going to be that much better than this year. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of changes, per se. You’re going to see announcements with new initiatives to make next year bigger and better than this past year. I’ll use an old adage, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” The NLL isn’t going to be built in a day, or one season, but what I can promise the fans and what I can promise the world of sports is that the NLL is coming and it’s coming in a big way. All because we have ownership that is very committed to that and we have staff now that are experts in a a variety of fields: sales, marketing, technical, on-floor. We’ve got a lot of experts that are skilled and very good at what they do, so changes, no. Additions, yes!
MD: Can it just be the winter already? Everything is sounding so exciting, I won’t waste anymore of your time and let you get back to growing the game!
Nick Sakiewicz: Hey, thanks for having me, can’t wait to see where we go from here!
Special thanks to Nick Sakiewicz and the National Lacrosse League for the time. We at Lacrosse All Stars truly appreciate their dedication to growing the game.
National Lacrosse League Community Links
- National Lacrosse League selects Philadelphia region for new headquarters (NLL.com)
- League launches NLL Video Production Studio (NLL.com)
- NLL’s Nick Sakiewicz : A commissioner who asks what players want (The Province)
- NLL eyeing expansion on both sides of the border (Calgary Herald)
- US Lacrosse, National Lacrosse League explore collaboration (NLL.com)