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Against the Glass: A Look Inside the NLL’s Party Zones

NLL.com tasked contributing writer Greig Bethel with researching the league’s field-level fan experiences. This is his report from Vancouver’s Rogers Arena, home of the NLL’s first “party zone”, a unique fan experience that is general admission section behind the goal at many venues, and about what’s happening around the league.

PREGAME

The jam is pumping and the crowd is jumping. Get in the flow and the fun begins. The players are right over here. The DJ and the dance crew are right over there. There’s glare from spotlights and the fog machine is on full throttle. All this for $25. That’s what it is like in the party zone. And the game hasn’t even started yet.

Lacrosse and partying are nothing new, they’ve always gone together, music and good times included.

Bret Michaels truly got it right when earlier this season the Poison frontman, a new NLL fan, said games are “like a rock concert, UFC and hockey had a bad ass child.” Nothing but a good time indeed.

The party zone at Rogers Arena started in the 2018-19 season when the rebranded Warriors relocated to downtown Vancouver from suburban Langley where they had played as the Stealth.

“We were looking for a way to have our fans get as close to the action as possible, while also providing a unique experience,” says Warriors Chief Business Officer, Colby Fackler. “With the opportunity to push the seats back in that end and create an environment where they can be social, be by our DJs and bands, and be right up against the glass for all the goals, hits and action, it seemed like a great opportunity to create the special area.

“To be honest, I’m not sure if we were the first in the league, but pretty confident ours is the best so far.”

True enough. The party zone concept in Vancouver has been so successful that there are now two, one at either end of Rogers Arena with a combined capacity of approximately 700.

“The party zone was such a huge hit last year, that sold out every game we had it, we looked at ways to create another area where we could match the energy and vibe of the party zone that allows for more fans to experience it,” Fackler says, “and this season we created the second party zone at the other end of the arena. We’ve been able to more than double the people in those spaces, while also creating two social areas, that looks great on broadcast and builds a ton of energy within both sides of the arena now.”

Going back, it’s Calgary that lays claim to the league’s original party place with its “Come for the Party, Stay for the Game” slogan, which the Roughnecks started using in 2012. But there’s no party zone at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

“Being the third busiest building in North America, unfortunately our constant rotation of events does not allow for seats to be removed and reinstalled,” says Roughnecks Communications Coordinator Laura Barker. “We like to keep the party going in the stands!

“Almost every other area of the building hosts some kind of fan experience on game night, pregame tacos and tequila, postgame parties with live music, postgame meet and greets with the players and fans on the turf after every home game.”

Back in Vancouver, the bright TV lights have been turned on and the game is about to start.

1ST QUARTER

Party zones and other in-arena social hangouts are aimed at attracting new fans to the NLL, the casual sports/entertainment audience crucial to the evolution of the league to reach its next level. The concept has its roots in AHL hockey, arena football and baseball.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is expand and grow the game and bring in what we call ‘experience’ fans,” the Warriors’ Fackler says. “Those are fans that may not be as familiar with the NLL and instead will attend the game for the experience of a night out at a sporting event. By creating a large social area like the party zones, this allows us to bring some of those experience fans into the arena, see how great the game is, and ultimately keep coming back while also bringing friends and family.”

In Vancouver, the game has started and in typical West Coast fashion the fans arriving at the first faceoff. There are lineups down the stairs from the concourse to the party zones. Staff are scanning tickets on smartphones as fast as they can and giving out orange wristbands at one end, green at the other. The party zones are starting to fill up.

The party zone floors are bare concrete, easy to clean up spills. There are high-top tables, modern and lounge-ish at one end, wooden and functional at the other.

The fans are right up against the glass, they’re banging on it. There’s cheering, hooting and hollering. The players on the field are big and tall and fast. There are ohs, ahs and boos. There is fist pumping and there are high fives.

The DJ is playing everything from classic rock to hair metal, hip-hop to pop hits in 20- to 30-second snippets. Scorpions, AC/DC, Kiss and Def Leppard. Then Beastie Boys.

The quarter ends and the dance team takes to the turf. In typical Vancouver fashion, they are sponsored by a yoga apparel retailer. More music, more spotlights.

The first level of a beer-can pyramid starts to appear against the glass.

2ND QUARTER

After Vancouver, Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena started the NLL’s second party area in the 2019-20 season with the new Knighthawks franchise.

It’s called the party deck and it caters to groups, common in party zones around the league. In Rochester, it hosts businesses and clients, social organizations and youth lacrosse teams.

“The party deck has been in existence at our arena for many years with our AHL hockey team,” says Knighthawks Ticket Sales Director David Aitken. “It is an area of the arena, an open space, that we are utilizing since it is a giant space with no permanent seating.

“We focus on groups of 10 or more people, any demographic can take part in the experience, food and drink for the entirety of the game is included with the ticket admission, so it’s a great deal [at $55].”

Back in Vancouver, goals are being scored. The DJ plays the Warriors’ hip-hop goal song. There’s dancing and fist pumping and high fiving.

It’s a young multicultural crowd, mostly between 19-30. Everyone gets along. There are fans in visiting team jerseys, others from local amateur teams. There are international visitors from Australia and Ireland, each country with its own unique lacrosse history. It reminds the Irish fans of hurling and home, they say.

The music goes from Motley Crue to Boston to Abba to Van Halen to Heart. The DJ then spins some grunge, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains.

The buzzer sounds. It’s halftime. The beer-can pyramid against the glass is getting bigger.

HALFTIME

At Rogers Arena, fans from the party zone move up the stairs to the concourse level where there’s more mixing, perhaps a bathroom break and a quick bite to eat.

The game restarts and the fans snake back down. It looks like the hot souvenir item of the game is a big flashy Warriors logo hanging off a huge fake gold chain, a few lacrosse Flavor Flavs ready to get the party going again.

3RD QUARTER

The NLL’s next party zones were all established last season in 2021-22, after returning from the pandemic break, in Albany, Colorado, Panther City and Philadelphia.

At Albany’s MVP Arena, “the party zone was something we used in the Arena Football League,” says FireWolves Media Relations Director, Jordan Lomaestro. “Our former president, George Manias, launched that team back in 2017 and when we launched the FireWolves last year, he carried that over.”

Like Vancouver, there are two different party zone areas located behind the nets in Albany. There’s the party zone and the field zone, which offer different options starting at $35.

“The party zone features beer specials and includes hamburgers, hot dogs and soft drinks,” Lomaestro says. “The party zone demographic is, well, your partying crowd. That section gets a little wild at times, it’s standing room only and people are right up banging on the glass.

“The field zone is a little more upscale, more of the business crowd, it is a great place to bring clients [and] features high-top tables for four and an all-inclusive food spread, beer, wine and our branded Wolfbite cocktail.”

In Colorado at Ball Arena, the party zone is attracting both long-time and new fans.

“We wanted to offer an exclusive view of the game to our dedicated fans while giving them an area to be social, move around during games and have access to additional entertainment,” says Mammoth’s Senior Public Relations Coordinator, James Youness. “We’ve [also] seen success with folks buying [$30] tickets that weren’t traditional lacrosse fans, [an] opportunity to educate those on the game while providing next-level views for all down there.”

For Panther City at Dickies Arena, the party zone debuted last season during the team’s inaugural campaign and the club has a slogan similar to that of Calgary’s with “Game time, Party time.”

This season, the party zone has been revamped and is now an upscale area that “was created to be the go-to space for all Panther City games, offering premium access and drink options, while allowing fans to experience the action as close as possible,” says Panther City Communications Vice President Andy Esworthy. “The space allows for fans to line Panther City’s home tunnel and greet the team as they enter and exit the floor, while providing the best spot for postgame autographs.

“The best part is it attracts all demographics of fans. Want to come for the action, fast-paced game of lacrosse? Now you have the best vantage point in the arena with the most access to the players. Want to come for the party that is an NLL game? Now you have access to a live DJ and multiple cash bar offerings on a multi-level viewing perspective.”

In Philadelphia at Wells Fargo Center, the party zone concept was first introduced for the final home game of last season and has become a permanent fixture this season.

“Throughout the 2021-2022 season we were experiencing tremendous demand for the various, but limited, all-inclusive group seating areas that we offered,” says Wings President, Marc Zamarin. “The social aspect of attending games is climbing on fans’ priority lists and, simply put, we ran out of space to provide what fans were asking for.

“This setup provides space for groups of friends, families and co-workers to socialize without being confined to a single seat, all while experiencing the action on the floor from a truly unique perspective at turf level, up against the glass at an affordable ticket price [of $45].”

Back in Vancouver at Rogers Arena, the kiss cam is on the jumbotron then the dance cam. These both cause a bit of action in the party zones.

Drink sales stop at the end of the quarter. Other cans, mostly pre-mixed cocktails, have been added to the beer-can pyramid and it grows ever bigger against the glass.

4TH QUARTER

The bass is pumping and the decibel meter on the jumbotron has redlined at 102.9.

The DJ has switched from grunge to some classic ’80s cuts, Duran Duran and Eurythmics. Then YMCA and more Abba.

Fans in the party zone are awed by the size of the players and remark about the speed and physicality of the NLL. “It’s more exciting than an NHL game,” says one.

The league’s newest party zone is fittingly in the world’s biggest and best party city, Las Vegas, where the expansion Desert Dogs launched this season at Michelob ULTRA Arena.

The Nacho Daddy Doghouse not only has the league’s coolest name for a party zone, but is perhaps the best spot in the NLL to rub elbows with sports celebrities for only $49.

“I like to tell people that you never know what’s going to go down in the Doghouse,” says Desert Dogs Public/Fan Relations Director Keith Sneddon. “We felt like a party zone behind a goal was an opportunity we had to take advantage of. It has been the place to be at home games thus far.

“We’ve had the likes of UFC bantamweight champ Aljamain Sterling, Zach Whitecloud of the NHL’s Golden Knights, Devante Adams of the NFL’s Raiders and more all hanging out down there this season. You never know who might be bumping into.”

Earlier this season, the Desert Dogs put on an all-you-can-drink night. For $69 of course. It went smoothly.

“Our open bar package was a hit,” Sneddon says. “As we continue grow with our fans in season one, we have experimented with different experience packages like the open bar to get a feel for what our fans want. I think the people had a great time, and it is something we are going to look at bringing back.

“We are certainly trying to attract the most enthusiastic and passionate fans. You get a spot right up on the glass, up close and personal, and it’s an exciting place to watch a game.”

The only thing that didn’t run smoothly in Nacho Daddy Doghouse was at the Las Vegas home opener when Desert Dogs rookie Jack Hannah went through an unsecured gate in the boards after a hard check from a Panther City opponent, ending up in the party zone.

“Absolutely, you definitely notice them having a good time in there,” a chuckling Hannah says of his unexpected visit to the Doghouse. “It’s pretty cool. When you score a goal, they’re banging on the glass.”

In Vancouver, the game is winding down but the party is still going strong.

Fans are back to dancing and taking selfies. There’s a singalong to David Hasselhoff’s ‘Hooked on a Feeling’. Then there’s another singalong, the fans seem to really like this one, with almost all of Rogers Arena loudly blurting out Blink-182’s ‘All the Small Things’.

The beer-can pyramid has reached its limits. Well before the final buzzer sounds, staff take it down and put the empty cans into the recycling. The fans are a little disappointed, but everyone still goes home happy. And they will be back.

OVERTIME

“We created these zones to provide people who may never have been to a game before, with an affordable and social atmosphere where they can go with their friends, experience the game, but also have a great night out in a very unique space,” says the Warriors’ Fackler.

Fans can check out two of the top party zones this weekend as Colorado hosts Calgary at Ball Arena on Friday night (9 pm ET; ESPN+/TSN+) and Vancouver visits Las Vegas at Michelob ULTRA Arena on Saturday night (10:30 pm ET; ESPN+/TSN+).

“The appeal of having space to move around, a social atmosphere and varied activities resonates with everyone,” adds the Wings’ Zamarin. “The concept is no different than meeting at a local bar or restaurant to watch your favorite team. It just so happens that the bar/restaurant for this one [in Philadelphia’s case] is Wells Fargo Center.”

Other teams around the league offer other field-level fan experiences for groups events and VIPs, including the Goal Zone Club area at Georgia’s Gas South Arena, premium box seating at New York’s Nassau Coliseum, premium hospitality areas Seals Cove and The Pit at San Diego’s Pechanga Arena, and the Original 16 Deck and Lucky Bastard Lounge at Saskatchewan’s SaskTel Centre.

In other NLL markets, like Buffalo, Toronto and Halifax with more traditional in-arena seating arrangements, there are parties there too that extend from pregame happy hours to in-game activations to postgame festivities.

But the real action is in the party zones. In Colorado last season, Mammoth fans started from inside the party zone the world’s largest drink-cup snake, which extended throughout more than half the lower bowl of Ball Arena.

“I’d say it’s one of the most unique ways to watch a game,” concludes the FireWolves’ Lemaestro. “Even if you are not a fan of the NLL coming in, you will have a great time with an electric crowd, and you can’t be any closer to the action aside from being in the game itself.”

NLL