By Budd Bailey
The National Lacrosse League doesn’t receive much coverage from the mainstream media these days. As a result, it’s really tough to figure out what’s going on when it comes to league business. In other words – where’s Adam Schefter when we need him?
Last week, the NLL announced the departure of Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz, who had been in the job for six years. He cited personal reasons for leaving; his contract was expiring at the end of the year. Here was the start of the news release:
“The National Lacrosse League (@NLL), the largest and most successful professional lacrosse property in the world, today announced that Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz has decided to leave his current position to pursue other interests but will continue to advise the league until June 30, 2022. The league has also announced that Deputy Commissioner Jessica Berman will assume the Commissioner duties. The league will announce the selection process for a new Commissioner in the near future.”
If Roger Goodell had departed without any notice as the Commissioner of the National Football League, you can bet everyone would still be talking about it and wondering what the heck happened. That applies to the other major sports too. But the NLL tends to fly under the radar in such matters. I’m not exactly well connected to NLL officials. Still, I reached out to a few people who basically followed the company line in their description of events. Others did not express shock at the departure. It all seems from the outside rather abrupt.
Sakiewicz certainly put an aggressive face on the NLL during his time on the job. He started in an interesting way when he moved the league offices from New York to Philadelphia. Sakiewicz said that one of his major goals was to put a team in that Pennsylvania city, which is where he had built a reputation in marketing for his work in Major League Soccer. It was curious because most sports leagues like the idea of having a major office in New York, the business capital of the United States if not the world.
Sakiewicz’s major goal during his tenure in office was to increase the league’s footprint across North America through expansion. The thinking was that people who were exposed to the game seemed to like it, but it was difficult to show the ones outside of NLL markets what they were missing without a team nearby. That is very reasonable. The NHL took the same approach when it expanded into the Sun Belt areas of the United States. It’s also risky, since no one in those areas knows anything about the game. Sakiewicz also sought out people and companies who would not operate new teams on a shoestring – another good move.
We’ve seen new teams come along in Philadelphia, San Diego, New York, and Fort Worth. Las Vegas is coming next year. Rochester also counts on that list, as the old Knighthawks moved to Halifax and the city received an expansion team as a replacement. New England moved to Albany, and Toronto moved to Hamilton (sort of). Notice that no teams have excited the league completely in those six years, which had been a problem for the NLL in its history.
The league has added a variety of new sponsors through marketing agreements over the years. It says that revenues are up more than 700 percent in those six years, and expansion fees have grown rapidly. And after all sorts of trial and error, the NLL worked out a television deal with ESPN (and TSN in Canada) this season to air all of its games. It’s not an ideal arrangement, since almost all of the broadcasts involving streaming. That’s not exactly like turning on Channel 4 at 1 p.m. on Sundays to watch the Bills. But the broadcasts have become more professional this year, especially in terms of production. And if you want to see any game in the league by hitting a few buttons, you can (with the right equipment). It’s the best arrangement in league history.
That’s the good news. There is a downside to the story, though. As I’ve written, attendance is way down around the league. At last report, the average crowd for NLL games is a little more than 6,000 – a drop from of more than 20 percent from the last full season. Most of the new teams have been way down the list in size of crowds in the past few years, perhaps because indoor lacrosse is unknown to most Americans who don’t live near the Canadian border.
Attendance, of course, doesn’t refer to people attending games in the world of sports. It means tickets distributed. That means some teams count freebees. In Fort Worth and New York this season, based on what I can see on television, let’s say “social distancing” is not an issue. Rochester had more than 1,000 Bandits fans come to town last weekend for a game, and still couldn’t hit 5,000. Some around the league blame the pandemic for the drop, and it could be keeping a percentage of the fans home. But is it just the pandemic, or has something else gone wrong? We’ll see if the numbers rebound as restrictions start to be dropped.
Meanwhile, it’s almost time for another round of collective bargaining with the players. I would suggest that it won’t be an easy process. Revenues may be up for the league, but there were no games in 2020-21 and attendance income is down this year. It’s not going to be easy to negotiate a fair deal for both sides under the circumstances.
That’s the landscape as Berman takes over the reins for at least the rest of the season. The league has promoted her work, and with good reason – this is a bright, accomplished woman who is by all accounts a fine addition to the NLL. And she has plenty of experience in collective bargaining, which can’t hurt in this particular year. Good luck to her; she’ll need it.
In the meantime, we’ll have to wait a while to see what Sakiewicz’s legacy is. If fans come back after the pandemic and expansion teams become established in their new cities, he’ll be remembered as a lacrosse visionary. If the opposite happens, well, don’t ask.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)