National Lacrosse League takes financial hit from sports shutdown but expands digital presence 

(Credit: Getty Images)

  • Indoor league hopeful of activating postseason after cancelling remainder of regular campaign
  • Senior executives taking 30 per cent pay cuts while some teams have furloughed staff
  • Instagram and Facebook engagement up markedly following new content platform launches

The National Lacrosse League is suffering some “financial damage” as a result of the sports competition shutdown caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic, its commissioner Nick Sakiewicz admits.

The league office has implemented senior staff salary cuts of 30 per cent, while some teams have furloughed employees. In addition to the loss of matchday income, NLL teams are refunding single-game ticket purchases for fixtures that have been called off.

But the financial consequences of the absence of live action for the indoor league have been somewhat mitigated by a determined effort to expand and develop NLL’s digital presence.

The 13-team NLL, which is based in the United States and Canada, suspended its regular season on March 12 after 15 weeks of action. Teams had played between 10 to 14 games depending on their schedules. With no return date in sight, league executives decided to cancel the remainder of the regular season, which had three rounds of action left until the scheduled finish of April 25.

There is an aim to stage the postseason of the 2020 campaign. But it remains unclear when and when this will happen and in what format. A significant issue is the fact that the United States-Canada border remains closed, posing a major problem for a league which has eight teams in the US and five north of the border. Meanwhile, within Canada, the cities of Calgary and Toronto – where NLL has teams – have banned local public gatherings until at least July.

Like many other major sports organizations, the NLL has expanded and developed its content platforms as a means to stay active and engage its fanbase amid the suspension of activities.

Last month, the league debuted the NLL True Classics series on its YouTube channel, which replays complete games from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, as well as other games from previous seasons. Also created was the In Transition: Live interview series, which features NLL players, coaches, staff, and executives. It is broadcast on official NLL Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram channels.

As a result, engagement on NLL Instagram and Facebook channels is up five times and three times, respectively. The new content output also serves as a means for league sponsors to activate.

SportBusiness spoke to Sakiewicz about the effects on the NLL of the coronavirus pandemic and how the league has looked to react to the crisis in the short and long term.

Why did you take the decision to cancel the remainder of the regular season?

We decided that since we had three weekends left in our regular season that it’s probably a foregone conclusion that it’s going to be very difficult for us to schedule those games without putting our fans, players, and coaches at health risk so we decided to make that decision to cancel the remaining three weekends. At the same time, we announced that this doesn’t mean that play is over for this season, we’re still working on multiple scenarios on how we can deliver a postseason competition to award the trophy to one of our teams. That is still in progress.

What exactly needs to happen for you to be able to complete the season, including the playoffs?

Lots of things. The top thing is the US-Canada border needs to open up because we have five teams in Canada and eight teams in the US, so that is a prerequisite for anything as we are traveling players and teams across that border. In individual states, we have three teams in New York state [Buffalo Bandits, New York Riptide, and Rochester Knighthawks] and that is probably the epicenter right now of all the coronavirus activity [in the US]. We’re going to need the states to give us the green light to be able to do gatherings in-arena and give people the comfort and confidence to be able to go back into the arenas.

Are you considering putting all teams in one quarantined location, as other sports organizations are thinking of doing?

In this scenario, everything is on the table. We’re exploring bringing all of our teams for a postseason tournament in one market, playing in a venue without fans, making it a made-for-TV event. We just can’t commit to a time frame because that would be foolish considering how fluid the situation is, so we’re exploring different scenarios across a pretty broad timeline without really pinning ourselves down, because if we do decide to come back on a certain date, we want to have as much confidence as we can have so we don’t have to change.

Is there a date by which it would make sense not to continue the 2020 season?

It’s hard to say, we just don’t know what will happen in the coming days and weeks. This particular global crisis evolves by the day and it’s really hard to say, not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring. It’s hard, given the fluidity of the situation to say, by July 1…or by August 1…or by September 1 that we’re going to make a decision.

What has been the general effect of the sports shutdown on the National Lacrosse League?

We’re very fortunate in that each team only had three or four games left in the regular season and close to 85 per cent of those tickets were either season tickets or group tickets. Many of our teams, who are prepared, will roll those over into credits for next year so that value will not be lost for the fan and the team. So we’re fortunate that the high percentage of our ticket revenue is in season tickets and groups. [But] obviously it hurts as there is going to be refunding of single-game tickets.

On the sponsorship side, we’ve being doing a lot to bonus our sponsors. We created four new communication platforms, where all of our sponsors have been bonused into that inventory. Teams have also created new inventory to bonus their sponsors and we’ve had great support for our sponsorship base. There will be financial damage but we’re cautiously optimistic that it won’t be as bad as we thought it was going to be.

What have you looked to do to stay active and relevant in the shutdown?

Almost immediately we created new content platforms to be able to communicate with our fans. One of the most successful is a NLL YouTube channel called NLL True Classics, which is playing the best games of the past three seasons 24/7. We also created three other platforms that provide interviews with players and league office staff. We’ve seen a five-times increase in activity on Instagram, a three-times increase on activity on Facebook. So fans are not only staying engaged with NLL but our social-media presence is growing on those platforms as a result of the new content that we created on the very day that we announced that we were suspending games on March 12. Our players have also been very active in creating content, while they are doing workouts to stay in shape.

Do you have a sense what the long-term implications of this shutdown will be on the NLL?

I think it’s a unique opportunity for a league like ours because we’re small and nimble and we can pivot pretty quickly. Our staff at the league office is very lean and mean. We’ve been around 35 years and I’m very confident about the future of the NLL. We’re planning for the celebration of our 35th season next year and this league has seen its share of global crises over the 35 years so we feel pretty good about that.

The world is definitely going to change, just as it did after 9/11 and the 2008-09 financial crisis. Consumer and sponsorship behavior changes, but live content is still going to be very valuable. We just have to pivot and re-engineer our business to address those behavior changes. We don’t always have the gift of time in the sports business but right now we have a gift of time as we’re not playing games and we are in a constant thinktank of thinking about innovative ways and anticipating what the world is going to look like when we return to a ‘new normal.’

Most recent

SportBusiness gathered a panel of experts at the All That Matters Online 2020 conference to discuss the challenges being faced in the sports media rights sector.

An upstart daily fantasy company with an unusual name and unconventional approach has quickly risen to prominence by challenging established market leaders DraftKings and FanDuel and striking a large series of team sponsorships.

ESPN is putting on major marketing effort to promote its new media-rights deal with German top flight league while also focusing on wider long-term content initiatives. Bob Williams reports

Liu Jiadi, partner, and Jeffrey Wilson, counsel, at Chinese law firm JunHe, explain the significance of new player image rights rules in the Chinese Basketball Association League.