This article was originally published to Sportico on January 21, 2021
Nick Sakiewicz is commissioner of the National Lacrosse League.
We all know how much sports and business are driven by numbers. So I’ll start by citing two that are significant to me personally and professionally: 25 and 35.
Major League Soccer, the league where I spent two decades as president and GM of three teams, turns 25 years old this year. The National Lacrosse League, for which I now serve as commissioner, will play its 35th season in 2021.
Those numbers are connected, not only for me personally, but for the broader American sports community. The lessons learned in growing MLS in its first 25 years echo in what we are doing to expand the reach and scope not just of the NLL, but of the sport itself, well into the future.
Of course, the differences in the two sports are clear, and go beyond the size of the ball and the configuration of the playing field. Soccer is a massive global sport that took a while to gain a large following in the U.S. Lacrosse is this nation’s most indigenous sport, played here for literally thousands of years, but one that has been slow to reach beyond its ancestral birthplace.
More recently, however, the two sports have shared a similar trajectory, one of rapid growth. I know this trajectory well. As a professional soccer goalkeeper in North America during the 1980s, I and my cohorts played for the passion and love of the game, in small leagues, some of which expired because it wasn’t their time. Shortly after I retired from playing in 1990, I joined a small group of executives assembled to start Major League Soccer and became its first VP of sponsorship sales. That began a 21-year journey in MLS that included stops in Tampa, New York and Philadelphia, and included the launch of an expansion team and the construction of two soccer-specific stadiums.
I never imagined a similar opportunity would come along, but five years ago, the National Lacrosse League knocked on my door. The NLL was a little-known league that survived for 30 years, and had experienced its ups and downs, but what was happening beneath the professional level looked awfully familiar. Over the last decade or so, lacrosse participation at the grassroots had begun to percolate, then explode, a pattern remarkably similar to soccer in the 1980s.
When we came aboard NLL five years ago, we knew that we had to take the assets that existed and reimagine them for where the business would be in the future. Who were our fans, what could our athletes and owners tell us, what could our media partners do with us, and how could we pivot to the future?
We had an example to follow: Under the leadership of some visionary owners and commissioner Don Garber, MLS had been finding answers to those same questions for two decades.
At NLL, we’ve been applying those lessons. We followed a plan we had seen work in MLS—have dedicated and smart ownership at the team level, build a core fan base and create a great, authentic experience in the digital space as well as at the venue. We made sure our owners—whose members have experience in the NBA, WNBA, NHL and NFL—knew our growth wouldn’t be meteoric, but that our plan made strategic business sense. And over time, our attendance, revenue and television viewership rose.
When the pandemic hit and we were forced to shut down, we were enjoying one of our best seasons in history, with record attendance, new brands coming on board and a more engaged digital native audience enjoying the storytelling around our teams and owners. We were set up to again trail only the NBA and NHL in attendance for winter sports, with a continued rise in fans to nearly 10,000 paid per game, over 65% of whom were coming to our games for the overall arena experience more than the sport. As one of our teams likes to say, “They came for the party, and stayed for the lacrosse.”
Like MLS, a key element to our core success is understanding the history of our game and how it applies now and into the future. The sport of lacrosse is owned by the Indigenous people. It is their game and we are the custodians. We made sure when we were reimagining the NLL that we took the steps to embrace that history. Now, in these times of expanded social consciousness, we continue to make sure we are listening and executing initiatives that are respectful and inclusive of all people, especially those with Indigenous roots. Many of the best lacrosse players not just in our league but on the planet have ties to Indigenous culture, so working with them to use the NLL as a vehicle for awareness and inclusion is vital. That ethos is part of all we do.
So where do all these lessons lead us today, as the calendar swings to 2021 and beyond? Without action in the arena, our staff worked to achieve unmatched social-media growth during the pandemic, connecting with our fans, and our athletes and coaches, in a way we really hadn’t before. We achieved follower growth on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and saw engagement grow from 20% to 76% per post.
We kept looking and listening to new expansion partners, and have added another key group in a growth area, North Texas, with the launch of Panther City Lacrosse Club in Fort Worth. Meanwhile, we are getting closer to adding a 15th franchise and will be announcing the ownership group early in 2021.
NLL and MLS are both leagues whose recent successes are decades in the making and whose futures are bright. The core story is similar, and the numbers don’t lie. And speaking of the numbers, we remind you to keep your eye on those properties that are now 25 and 35.
Since Sakiewicz was named commissioner in January of 2016, the NLL has attracted seven new owners, established five expansion franchises, and launched a digital streaming network, NLL TV. Prior to joining NLL, Sakiewicz was twice recognized as Major League Soccer’s Executive of the Year.