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National Lacrosse League: What's Holding Them Back from the Mainstream?

Jim FlanneryAnalyst IJanuary 7, 2017

National Lacrosse League: What's Holding Them Back from the Mainstream?

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    The National Lacrosse League provides some of the most entertaining sports action available at any price on Earth. In fact, I would argue that box lacrosse is the single best spectator sport ever devised.

    The 2012 regular season and playoffs have produced some exciting action and huge upsets, all adding up to great entertainment for the people who know about it.

    Sadly, as ilindoor.com noted, attendance around the NLL is down once again as the league continues to struggle to find its way. With the NHL lockout dragging on, this is the perfect opportunity to showcase their product and reverse the attendance trend for good.

    So why aren't they sitting at the very top?

    The reasons are many, and I'm going to try to itemize a few of them.

Under-Reported Stars: John Grant Jr.

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    As I've argued elsewhere recently, I think John Grant Jr.'s MVP season might be the sports story of the year, not just the lacrosse story of the year.

    Too bad nobody outside of lacrosse knows anything about it.

    Grant broke the single-season scoring record this season by racking up 115 points, breaking the 10-year-old mark set by John Tavares. Along the way, he also tallied his 500th career goal and his 1,000th career point, making him a lock for the NLL Hall of Fame when he decides to hang 'em up. 

    His exceptional year earned him the league's MVP award, which is the second in his storied career.

    The extraordinary thing about this, the thing no one seems to be talking about, is that it wasn't that long ago that Grant nearly lost his leg—and his life—due to a major infection that got into his knee in 2008.

    Although he lost a year of playing in recovery from that incident, he beat the odds to get back into the game again a year later. The fact that he seems to be better than ever now is a testament to his grit and determination as a player.

    This is a sensational, movie-of-the-week caliber story that isn't getting the kind of mainstream notice it should. Why the NLL hasn't been blitzing the media with the story is beyond me.

Merchandising

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    The NLL has an online store (shop.nll.com), like most everyone these days. That's a good thing, to be sure.

    What's not such a good thing is the selection—or lack thereof—on the site.

    If you're interested in getting yourself a tee-shirt, sweatshirt or a cool mug, that's not a problem. But what if you want a team jersey? Sorry Charlie.

    Seriously. This is a problem. Fans like jerseys, and if you have to go chasing around to various online team stores to find one, most people won't bother.

    This should be a one stop shop for all things NLL, and there's really no excuse for it not being exactly that. Unacceptable.

Video Game

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    Did you know that the NLL has had an Xbox 360 game available for download for the last two years? For the crazy low price of just $5?

    Neither did anyone else. 

    The 2010 game actually won Kotaku's award for best Indie Sports Game, so it's pretty good. It even has some of the awesomeness that is lacrosse fighting.

    But that doesn't help much when the publicity for it is almost non-existent.

    This is something that needs to get more press. Ads in lacrosse magazines, Sports Illustrated and all over the NLL website. I mean, if a video game is awesome and no one knows it, does it make a sound? Or something like that.

Trading Cards

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    This may seem like a small piece of the puzzle, but young sports enthusiasts love collecting cards of their favorite players.

    In a sport that is growing by close to 10 percent per year, lacrosse is committing the cardinal sin of not doing a good job of marketing their product effectively to their biggest potential demographic. Any toy manufacturer will tell you if you lock up demand from the kids, you'll get the parents' attention and money.

    Get a contract with Topps, Donruss/Panini or Upper Deck to start producing trading cards, sell them at games, and you have one more tool to keep the game in the minds of your younger fans.

Size of Fan Base

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    As noted in the link on the first slide, attendance at NLL games was down in 2012. Again.

    Needless to say, this is a problem.

    Participation in lacrosse is increasing by about 10 percent per year over the last decade in North America. In fact, it's the fastest growing sport in America. That means thousands upon thousands of new potential customers.

    Now, many of these newcomers to the game are kids, so they may be a couple years away from rushing out to buy season's tickets. However, they probably are old enough to start demanding mom and dad to take them.

    The problem then is getting the word out to the kids to get them interested in the product. Better merchandising—things like trading cards and a viable, well publicized video game—should help generate just the sort of buzz the NLL is looking for, appealing to that rapidly growing new market.

Lack of Cross-Country Saturation

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    This is a difficult one to overcome.

    There are pockets of lacrosse popularity around North America, and in those pockets the game is pretty big. But the indoor game is primarily only a big deal in small parts of Canada and hasn't really developed a lot of widespread popularity in the United States.

    To make matters more complicated, in many cases, there is a significant schism between the field lacrosse crowd and the indoor lacrosse crowd, so even in some places where lacrosse is a big deal, the interest in box lacrosse is only lukewarm. 

    The U.S. east coast is dotted with colleges whose lacrosse programs are respected and popular. Loyola University Maryland, Duke, Johns Hopkins and Maryland are all in the top ten in the NCAA Division 1 rankings. But there isn't a NLL franchise anywhere near any of those schools.

    The Baltimore Thunder were the very first league champions way back in 1987 but moved out of Maryland after the 1999 season and, after bouncing around to a couple different locales, now call themselves the Colorado Mammoth.

    No other team has moved in to fill the void in what should be a hotbed of lacrosse fandom.

    Muddying the waters even further are the several box lacrosse leagues competing for the same space. In addition to the NLL, there's the new NALL and also CLAX, all vying for the same players, fans and media attention. 

    At some point, these competing factions will have to either join forces as a unified product or accept the fact that they're much weaker apart than they could ever be together. 

Sub-Par Web Presence

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    Credit where credit is due, the NLL has gotten better at this, but the fact of the matter is that the league's web presence is not great.

    Trying to find historical pictures or video going back through the 25 years of the league's history is like searching for a needle in a haystack.

    I can show you a handful of picture's of Gary Gait, the greatest player in lacrosse history. Wearing NLL gear, I can show you shots of him in Rochester Knighthawks gear (the last team he played for) or the Colorado Mammoth (his second last team).

    But Gait wearing a Baltimore Thunder uniform? Or a Detroit Turbos uniform? Or even Philadelphia Wings gear, where he spent more time than any other city he played in? Next to impossible.

    Pictures of Gait playing for his college team, Syracuse, before he got to pro lacrosse, are easily located though.

    So why the gap? Why haven't they spent any time building an archive and establishing a better league history online?

    But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

    Photos in general can be tough to come by. Game-day pictures are slow to arrive on the NLL website, if they get posted at all. The team sites aren't much better. You might track some shots down on Facebook, but they're also hit and miss.

    The Getty Images library, which is commonly used for sourcing media photos, has virtually no NLL material in its massive database. The most recent shot I can find there is from the 2009 All-Star game.

    Likewise video highlights. Again, the league has made strides in getting highlights out in a timely fashion, but it's tough for media to present a highlight package on the evening news when there isn't one to present.

    And that brings us to the game stats.

    Supposedly, they appear on the website in real time, just like with most major pro leagues (and many amateur leagues). The problem is that the stats don't always show up on time, and they're often incorrect for hours or days until the NLL scoring officials have a chance to clean them up. This makes it very difficult to effectively provide coverage for a game. I frequently get better and more current info from various Twitter feeds.

    Problematic is putting this mildly.

    Make the media struggle to better cover your sport, and they'll find something else to do. Which is exactly what is happening. Aside from a small, dedicated cadre of lacrosse reporters, there simply isn't much coverage and little motivation to do better.

    Now, I imagine the primary reason for all this is lack of funds and personnel. But that is an issue that has to be solved to make this professional league look more professional.

    Act credible, and you'll be credible.

Television

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    The money tied to broadcast rights is what makes many a professional sports league tick. Without the massive influx of cash provided by these huge contracts, the resources to grow the sport, pay the players, advertise, etc. simply would not exist.

    Of course, the other reality is that a sport getting major media run in prime time will draw more fans and more attention, which continues the ball rolling and makes the product more credible and profitable.

    The NLL has been hit-and-miss with TV exposure over the years. Last season the CBS Sports Network covered a handful of games late in the season and the playoffs. In Canada, TSN broadcast several Toronto Rock games and Sportsnet showed a couple Edmonton-Calgary contests.

    Additionally, for the last several years every single game has been broadcast live—for free—through the NLL website. With the announcement this week that they're moving the live coverage for 2013 to YouTube, they're taking one more small step in the right direction. 

    This is all a good start, but it is just a start.

    For the NLL to truly grow their market, they need to have at least one weekly game on national TV all season long. They need to build on the momentum they may have built up last year and keep that ball rolling towards bigger and better things.

     

    Follow me on Twitter @calgaryjimbo

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