By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The idea for this column came to me after making a mild joke.
On Sunday morning, I needed to introduce on social media the piece I wrote the night before on the Buffalo Bandits’ home game. Remembering the lack of media in the bottom row of the press box for part of the game – at times it was just me, especially before and after the actual contest – I wrote, “I guess you could call this an exclusive, since no one else was in the press box.” It received some good reaction on Twitter.
I have been the only media member at sporting events in the past. That’s one of the benefits/drawbacks of covering most high school games. You don’t have to fight off a media scrum to ask one of your questions, but there aren’t many people available for conversation during the game.
Still, the situation with the National Lacrosse League concerning the media is a unique one – although some of the issues can be applied to other sports. Be forewarned, it’s going to take a little time to explain why.
It’s always been difficult for the NLL to attract media attention – or, as it can be called in a sense, free advertising. The sports calendar is pretty crowded with the four major sports operating essentially year-round in terms of news. Indoor lacrosse has been forced to grab leftover space and time in media coverage. The NLL hasn’t been able to get its games on television very often over the years either, in part because a relatively high percentage of the teams are based in Canada – which does American networks little good in terms of ratings and advertisers.
Speaking of the United States, it’s rather impressive that teams on this side of the border have done well in attendance. Remember, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in America who played the game at any point of a lifetime. Yet, Buffalo and Colorado have been the NLL’s traditional attendance leaders, although Saskatchewan – with a powerhouse team that moved into Saskatoon and had little competition for the entertainment dollar – has been first in fans lately.
Attention wasn’t paid
As for print media coverage, the NLL didn’t get much attention for many years. There were pockets of places where the games were newsworthy – Buffalo obviously being one of them. But the teams that went unnoticed in the big cities when they were born and when they died – New York City, Boston and Chicago come to mind – never could get a foothold. As for the broadcast outlets, well, you might see highlights of games on the late news if a feed was available, but you’d rarely see a player or coach interviewed unless it was opening day or after the NHL season had ended. You may have noticed hardly anyone does sports news on radio any more either. Eventually the league went down to nine teams, a footnote on the national sports scene – even if media coverage wasn’t the biggest reason why. (Shaky ownership probably was much more responsible for contraction.)
Enter Nick Sakiewicz, who became the Commissioner of the NLL in 2016. He correctly judged that the only way for the league to have more of an impact in North America was to expand to more cities – and have strong ownership to make sure those teams had a good chance at survival. Two teams arrived this season, and two more are coming next season.
Even so, the NLL’s timing was a little off in one sense. The collapse of mass-market newspapers seems to be speeding up by the week, with more layoffs popping up every so often. The number of the pages is also shrinking steadily. Those reductions have meant that newspapers have been forced to pick and choose what they cover, and the NLL is never going to win those discussions in the offices of mass-media outlets.
I am willing to argue that if 15,000 people do something together, like they have at times in attending Bandits’ games, it should be news. But these days, the rules have changed. Attendance matters less than the number of clicks on a website, so The Buffalo News stopped sending a reporter to home games this season. (Full disclosure – that reporter for nine years was me.) In case you were wondering, the Rochester newspaper stopped covering the Knighthawks a few years ago – so it’s not just here. I’d guess other teams are in the same boat.
Therefore, press boxes has gotten even more, um, roomy – not that they were ever too crowded. So, how do fans follow their favorite indoor lacrosse team?
The league has responded to these trends by stepping up its presence on social media, which has included some produced features. Game stories have been part of the team and league websites for years, with the experience level of the writers and thus the quality of the stories varying greatly from city to city. Other posted material seems like it is more about marketing than information, with silly photos of guys posted when they score in a given game. There are some other lacrosse websites out there with good, hard-working reporters, although it might take a little work for newcomers to find them.
Meanwhile, it’s very difficult to keep up with roster moves, injuries, etc., which sometimes go completely unreported. Information from “state-sponsored media” – news coming directly from the team or league – usually is a bit one-sided and often too enthusiastic. The big leagues – MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL – do this too, most notably with their own television networks. But those leagues also have independent voices following them in the media to offer a more complete and objective picture about the game. The NLL is missing that.
And don’t try to find NLL information on team or individual slumps. It’s not out there. The league also doesn’t even have a public relations director any more, which felt a bit like the equivalent of waving the white flag when it came to generating any interest from traditional media outlets.
A different approach
Add it up, and it seems like the league is appealing to those who go to games for entertainment alone. That makes the NLL look a bit like minor league baseball, where the standings take a back seat to the night’s show. (Just for the record, The Buffalo News cut back on coverage of Bisons games last year after following the team at every home game for years.) That approach can be successful, but it’s tougher to develop long-term loyalty to a team that way.
If that sounds like a “preaching to the choir” approach to marketing – appealing to those at least familiar with the sport – you’re right. I’m not sure how new fans would get drawn in this way to at least try experiencing the sport as a spectator. I also can’t see them paying to watch a broadcast feed of a game over the internet if they don’t know what sort of game they are getting. Yet the concept of “growing the game” ultimately will determine whether indoor lacrosse has a long-term future as a spectator sport.
It will be interesting, then, to see how these expansion teams do in luring fans through the turnstiles. Philadelphia is averaging about 11,300 so far, but the Wings do have more of an indoor lacrosse history on their side. San Diego is at 9,300 per game in two dates; we’ll have to see if the Seals can attract fans in a market far from the usual indoor lacrosse hotbeds. Next year, New York will try to attract enough fans to Long Island to survive after a couple of failures in that area, while Halifax hopes to become the next Saskatoon when the Rochester team moves there in the fall.
Is it possible to carve out a new, good-sized niche on the sports scene in this sort of media environment? That’s the question the NLL needs to know as it enters this stage of its development. I’ll be sitting in the press box, without much company, waiting for the answer.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)