Throughout history, sport has had a unique ability to unite communities through good times and bad times. At the National Lacrosse League, we ascribe to the view and live by Nelson Mandela’s statement that, “sport has the power to change the world.”
This has been the case at least in my lifetime, including through challenging times like the financial crisis in 2008-09 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
These past 11 months, however, have presented society, both personally and professionally, with a challenge that is unlike those of the past. Sports have struggled to return amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and offer the kind of reprieve, solace and respite that has historically been the case. The news cycle has been mired with the ups and downs of the pandemic, including starts and stops, which has contributed the challenges. This led to some of the hardest decisions of my career.
When the world closed down in March 2020 the NLL was in the midst of one of our most successful seasons ever: attendance, sponsorship, social engagement, brand relevance were all on the uptick, and our expectations for a robust championship leading into our 35th season were very high.
Then the reality of Covid-19 set in, and like so many of our colleagues we paused and started to look at what was next. While the NLL is a professional sports league that has many similarities to other leagues – including that more than half of our owners own teams in the other major North American pro sports properties – we also have our own set of challenges and opportunities.
First, our player population is quite unique. Not only do they have other jobs, but 70 per cent of them are from – and live in – Canada. Therefore, border restrictions, quarantines, and travel challenges made our circumstances nearly impossible to contend with.
Second, like many other challenger properties, our primary revenue is from the in-arena experience, with ticket sales and the game-day experience being the main source of our commercial business. We are – and have been – a digital-first league, which means we are less protected by a massive television rights deal that drive some of the larger North American sports.
We are a sport of digitally native fans and have taken a direct strategy aimed at engaging Millennials and Gen Z, and our numbers have been consistently rising. We believe this strategy has the NLL ahead of the curve, attracting a young growing audience in the migration to streaming and mobile viewing experience. But it created challenges for us in the short term in the midst of the pandemic.
Still, despite those challenges, we examined every scenario that we could to return to play, both in the Spring of 2020 as well as for our 2021-22 season. We looked at bubbles in the United States and Canada, outdoor games, and parallel leagues where players never crossed the border. Every option was on the table.
All through the process we had daily conversations with medical and government officials, building personnel, vendors who are leading the industry in technology and innovation, and every sports league and organization across the globe to glean best practices and guidance for our unique situation.
We were supported by the fact that our owners are deep inside the decision-making process of other leagues, and their learnings and insights were extremely timely and valuable. We also were in daily conversations with the Professional Lacrosse Players Association that represents our players.
We were driven largely by the fact that our fans more than anything wanted to see our game, even if it was just on a screen. Motivated by the desire to bring the NLL back to our fans, in December 2020 and January 2021, we built a “bubble” plan that provided opportunities to innovate new technologies and fan engagement vehicles.
As we examined the situation, and in particular, the continued unpredictability of the pandemic and the increasingly challenging landscape at the Canadian border, we realized that we needed to wait and not create a situation where the risks outweighed the opportunity.
When we made the announcement to delay our return and plan instead for a 2021-22 season, we were full of angst. Would we be letting our partners and our fans down? What we found in the days since our plan was revealed was actually the opposite of despair. We received calls and emails from similarly sized leagues and properties, from media companies and from building operators who thanked us for taking the stand on standing down.
To be clear, this wasn’t an easy decision. But for our sport, our players, our owners and our partners it was the right one.
I want to make one thing abundantly clear. We applaud and are rooting for every sports league who has returned. We will all feed off each other’s successes.
Sometimes the best shot is the one you don’t take. That’s the lesson learned for us, as we start the ramp up to next fall with 14 teams and a healthy business product, we can’t wait for what’s to come.
Nick Sakiewicz is the commissioner of the National Lacrosse League.