Behind the 32-Year-Old National Lacrosse League’s Surprisingly Nimble Digital Strategy

New Facebook Watch show joins Game of the Week Twitter livestream

The NLL's Georgia Swarm visit the Colorado Mammoth.
Jack Dempsey/National Lacrosse League

Nick Sakiewicz has a lot on his plate. As the commissioner of the National Lacrosse League, he’s constantly trying to figure out how to take the three-decades-old niche sport and grow it in an era where it can be nimble in arenas that previous leagues, at their outsets, didn’t have available.

Sakiewicz said that because his organization has not been able to reach the types of television deals secured by larger sports leagues like the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, it turned to digital TV and social media to get its product in front of the masses.

“Going into this a couple of years ago, the questions began to come from the broadcast industry: What is television today?” he said. “It is crazy how dramatically the landscape has shifted from traditional TV and cable to multidevice.”

Kevin Collins, senior vice president of strategic investment, sports and events at IPG Mediabrands’ strategic media insight unit, Magna Global, is bullish on the potential of lacrosse, saying the sport has grown by “leaps and bounds from 20 years ago, even 10 years ago,” and adding that he believes it will become part of the Olympics in the next 10 years.

Sakiewicz described the NLL’s typical audience as “extremely young,” under 35, very tech-savvy and not necessarily subscribing to cable or satellite TV, instead consuming video content via multiple devices, often simultaneously. And in a digital environment in which sports leagues sign deals across platforms, it’s no surprise the league is experimenting with everything from Twitter livestreams to over-the-top channels.

The centerpiece of the league’s digital strategy is NLL TV, which provides access to games on multiple devices for $34.95 for the entire 2017-18 season, $24.95 for a single team pass or $7.95 for single matches through OTT devices.

The NLL dug in deeper last March, announcing a livestreaming pact with Twitter covering live games during the 2017-18 season.

The agreement with Twitter included an NLL Game of the Week, playoff games, Champion’s Cup games and highlights from the league’s action, all free to Twitter users. Terms of the deal were not revealed.

The NLL also tested adding tweets to its livestreams, and Sakiewicz told Adweek more is coming on that front, including allowing fans to comment during games and displaying those comments on-screen.

Sakiewicz said there is “no question” that the NLL Game of the Week on Twitter has helped grow NLL TV’s subscriber base, which now numbers more than 25,000, and it opened the league’s eyes to a “huge, underserved market,” adding that the livestreams on the social network averaged 344,000 views last season, exposing the sport to a much broader audience.

The NLL averaged nearly 7,500 fans per match during its 2016-17 season, and it said that for the 2017-18 season, which began Dec. 8, season tickets are selling at a pace 21 percent ahead of the previous season, and group sales are up 9 percent.

The Philadelphia Wings, a new franchise that does not begin play until next season, announced in a tweet this week that its “Turf Row” season tickets right on the glass are already sold out:

And the league announced a partnership with CBS Sports Digital last month to stream live and on-demand games via its subscription OTT service, SportsLive.

Other new business partners for the league in 2017 included Covo Drinkware, Signature Lacrosse, Egalet, Lacrosse.com, Xumo, Veraview, Right to Play, UHWK, Krossover, Warrior-New Balance, Epoch and StringKing.

The NLL built on its social presence with an announcement last week that its ReLax weekly show is now available via Facebook Watch every Monday at 6 p.m. ET. NLL Productions’ Tyson Geick and Ashley Docking, and Inside Lacrosse contributor Pat Gregoire present insights, reactions and analysis of the weekend’s games, and fans can interact and submit questions via Facebook during the first hour of each installment.

Sakiewicz told Adweek part of the motivation behind adding ReLax to Facebook Watch is to see how popular highlight packages can become on social networks and other digital platforms. The NFL and the NBA are also sharing highlights via the social network’s recently introduced video destination.

On the marketing side, Sakiewicz discussed the ability to geotarget the league’s fan base in a particular area via social advertising, pointing out that this sort of targeting is not available via linear TV.

Collins believes the sport is advertiser-friendly, particularly among the coveted younger demographics, who are also the most likely to turn to livestreaming.

He pointed out that while the NLL does not currently have a TV deal, the rights fees for advertisers are also lower.

The NLL is currently made up of nine teams—five in the U.S. and four in Canada. Two more clubs are set to begin play next season—the Philadelphia Wings and the San Diego Seals—and Sakiewicz told Adweek the league is using social advertising to geotarget messages into those areas as well as into markets where it would like to expand in the future, including Dallas, Chicago, New York and the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area.

Sakiewicz called digital platforms “a terrific marketing weapon to help grow a league that candidly doesn’t have the big rights deals that a lot of leagues have.”

What does the future hold? Sakiewicz told Adweek the NLL is working on a couple of marketing partnerships, including one that would tie a livestreamed game in with a fantasy league.

The NLL is also looking into potentially developing a video presence on Snapchat but has no concrete plans on that front.

Image courtesy of Kyle Hess/NLL.