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The Buffalo News (New York)
The new commissioner of the National Lacrosse League has been on the job for a couple of weeks more than a year. Maybe Nick Sakiewicz will get to take a breath at some point.
But it probably won't happen soon.
"It didn't feel like there was an offseason. I don't think there is an offseason," Sakiewicz said during a visit to Buffalo on Saturday to watch the Bandits play the Vancouver Stealth. "We operate on a fiscal plan through June 30, so our budgets for our new plan really didn't kick in until July 1. It's been six months of grinding it out."
The NLL has tried to go in several different areas in those months. For example, the league signed sponsorship deals with Under Armour and New Balance. It has built a direct consumer database of almost 1 million names; the list was only at 4,000 a year ago. NLLTV.com has been launched.
Still, topic No. 1 with Sakiewicz is expansion. The league has nine cities, five in the United States, and most of the continent's major metropolitan areas are not represented in the NLL.
"I've focused my time on expansion and getting more teams in the league," Sakiewicz said. "We're talking to over 30 markets, and pretty seriously with four or five of them. That's a good sign. It's safe to say that they all love our plan. Many of them have had NLL teams in their buildings before, so they are very familiar with the league. It's a brick-by-brick effort to build on the history of the league and its teams."
The commissioner has tried to find ownership for new teams from a pool of other sports franchises, such as NHL or NBA teams. That follows the Bandits' business model, in which the franchise already has marketing and administrative staff members in place who can add an indoor lacrosse team to their responsibilities. It's much easier than starting from scratch.
The league took a step forward in the offseason when no teams moved or folded. That's been a problem for the NLL over the years, and some stability is welcome.
"That's part of what everyone is watching," Sakiewicz said. "It's no secret that we've been in a lot of cities for a season or two. That's not good. We've relocated teams far too often. People that run NHL and NBA teams want to make sure of that stability. They are sophisticated sports investors. They try to avoid mistakes. Those are the kind of owners that we want. The franchise fee is inconsequential to them right now. It's not about the franchise fee. It's about getting the right owners who can make this a 20- or 30-team league someday."
A number of cities have been mentioned for an expansion team, including Edmonton, Boston and New York. Sakiewicz says Philadelphia is one of the cities on the top of a wish list.
"That the league's home now (the NLL office moved there in the offseason), so we want to have a team there," he said. "It was an original team in the league. We need to be back there. It's an incredible lacrosse market. That team performed incredibly well for a long time, and it was unfortunate circumstances that saw the team be relocated. I get harassed by season-ticket holders every week, sometimes multiple times.
"We've got a prospective owner there. I feel it's not a matter of if the Wings are coming there. It's a matter of when. The demand is there, the business model is there, the arena is there. We have all of the pieces."
Sakiewicz expressed disappointment that no expansion has been finalized yet. Any new team needs time to get organized before beginning play, and the clock is ticking when it comes to having a new franchise ready for the 2018 season. However, the commissioner said that a business that has an administrative staff in place still could be ready to field a team by next January, so he's not ruling out expansion for next season.
The NLL has become a more active partner with US Lacrosse in the past year in an effort to expand awareness of the indoor game, and that can only help. A large majority of the players are from Canada, but the United States is the obvious target for growth for the NLL. Those who have played or watched the game in the past are an obvious target for efforts to turn them into paying customers. Even so, Sakiewicz thinks indoor lacrosse can attract casual sports fans as well as those who are more familiar with the sport.
"The beauty about our game is that it appeals to both," he said. "I'm not a lacrosse guy, but I love the sport. The lacrosse population is small, particularly in the United States, but it's highly appealing to the sports entertainment-seeking person. ... The millennials and the Gen Xers love the sport. It's two hours of sensory overload, and that appeals not just to lacrosse fans."
There are signs of success. Season-ticket sales were up 20 percent, and attendance is up 10 percent compared to a year ago. NLLTV.com has 12,000 accounts. We'll see in the coming months if such results can be building blocks for the league's future.
"We have a lot of competition," Sakiewicz said. "We are competing with a lot of other sports leagues, and a lot of other forms of entertainment.
"There's a reason 10- to 11-thousand people on average buy a ticket to this. When you can sell a ticket consistently, you can make a business out of it. But it takes a lot of time, a lot of strategy and a lot of work."
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