SBJ/November 17 - 23, 2003/One On One

One-on-One with Jim Jennings

Jim Jennings is trying to plant the NLL in new Western markets far from its traditional base.

In his fourth year as commissioner of the National Lacrosse League, Jim Jennings oversees the development of "The Fastest Sport on Two Feet," and his success in transforming the NLL from regional to national entity makes it hard to believe he knew next to nothing about the sport when he started in September 2000. What he did know was the business side of sports, after sundry stints with the NASL Cosmos (director of marketing), the CBA Florida Beachdogs (president) and the USBL Florida Sharks (general manager). This year, the NLL features 10 teams in the United States and Canada, with teams in three new Western markets: Anaheim, San Jose and Phoenix. Jennings talked recently with The Sports Business Daily's Kris Johnson.

Talk about your league's migration westward. It seems like you're moving away from lacrosse hotbeds.

Jennings: When I came in as commissioner, the one thing I noticed with this league is my gut feeling told me that these weren't lacrosse people watching these games. The first thing I did was go down to Philadelphia and we did an in-depth survey on who the fan was. One question we really wanted to get the answer to was: What has been your first experience with lacrosse? And 80 percent of the people said our first experience was when we came to this game. It proved what my gut was telling me, which was that these people aren't lacrosse people, but they are the casual sports fan that came to a game and got hooked. And I think that's really where we're headed with this sport. There are not enough lacrosse people even in the whole United States to support a 25- or 26- or even a 10-team league right now. So you can't count on those people. We're happy to know that the casual fan likes us, and that's why I think we're moving out of lacrosse markets in the Northeast and into other markets.

Are there any other expansion plans on the horizon?

Jennings: Minnesota, St. Louis and either Orlando or Tampa are three key markets that we want to get into.

So, there's some concern about sustaining a 10-team league, yet you don't have any trepidation about adding three or four more cities?

Jennings: Our model is not so much quantity but quality. Right now in the United States, we have all of our teams being run and operated by either an NHL team, which is in six of our markets, or an AHL team [Rochester Americans]. We have professional organizations running the teams, doing the day-to-day business operations and that's really what we're focused on, more so than letting a local doctor or lawyer own a team, open up an office in the town and try to sell tickets. That model is not going to work for us.

How has NHL cross-ownership affected the franchise values of NLL teams?

Jennings: It's much better to have Stan Kroenke in Denver owning our team and operating it because he's using his existing staff, [rather] than having the local guy try to rent the building. When they bought the lacrosse team, they hired two people. That was all they added to their staff. Everybody else — their PR, ticket sales, corporate sponsor people — are all Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche [employees]. Right there, it shows you how much money you can save. We're knocking out five, six, seven hundred thousand dollars off the budget just by doing that. That's enabling our teams to become profitable and ... if we're profitable, our values will keep rising.

Steve Ellman (left) welcomes NLL to the West.
How much has franchise value risen over the last three or four years?

Jennings: In 2000, the franchise values were $250,000. The current expansion price is $3 million and the last sale we had was almost $2 million [Columbus sale, relocation to Arizona for $1.8 million]. We haven't sold one yet at $3 million, but that's our price range.

Many hockey purists insist there is a strategic role for fighting in the NHL. As NLL commissioner, what are your views on fighting in indoor lacrosse?

Jennings: I'm going to be honest with you on this (laughs). Fighting has been part of the box lacrosse game; we're different than the field lacrosse game. We're more of a Canadian mentality. Most of our players are from Canada and most were hockey players also. The mentality is there and it's been ingrained in our sport for many, many years in Canada. That's part of the game to try and shake up the guy that scores and it's part of the strategy. It's going to continue to be part of the game and we think it has some fan appeal. When players fight, 16,000 people stand up and cheer, and that's marketing as far as we're concerned right now.

As a father of three, how do you explain it to your kids when a fight breaks out on the field?

Jennings: We tell them that it's part of the game. If you want to play lacrosse, you have to be tough.

You were a relative newcomer to lacrosse when you accepted this job. What compelled you to take it?

Jennings: "If you want to play lacrosse, you have to be tough."

Jennings: I never played lacrosse, never picked up a stick, but I was compelled when they asked me to interview for the position. I had them send me some tapes. ... I saw a game in Philly where people were very rabid fans and I got hooked on the game. I consider myself a builder and not a finisher. I've owned five companies that I'd built up and sold, and I see a huge upside to the opportunity here to build this league to where it could be a National Hockey League or National Basketball Association league 10 years from now.

Are there any new details you can share on your TV package for 2003-04?

Jennings: We're going to do a deal with Fox Sports and we're going to be in a minimum of 40 million homes. We were able to negotiate with a series of regional networks to make it a "Game of the Week." A lot of the games will be live, which is a challenge because of the time of year that we play and everything else these networks have to put on.

Do you view Major League Lacrosse as complementary or competition?

Jennings: I think it's complementary because it's going to help us keep our labor costs down. It's helpful that the guys that are playing in [that] league also play in our league and vice versa. Because now a guy could play in both leagues and make a decent living rather than waiting for [one league] to pay more money to get him to the level he needs to be paid. From the standpoint of having [them] in a summer season and having us in the winter, it definitely keeps our labor costs down.

How do you successfully juggle your professional and personal demands — commissioner versus father?

Jennings: People ask me, "What else do you do?" and I say, "I don't do anything. I have my kids; I work." Really, that's it. I don't have much of a social life outside of that. My kids are at an age now where they need me when I'm there. It's hard enough when I have to get on a plane and go somewhere and especially now ... San Jose, Anaheim and Phoenix — it's usually a two-day run. If I just do those two things [kids and work], I don't have much trouble. I have trouble when I try and do a third and fourth thing.

Toronto Rock took home Champion’s Cup trophy in 2003.

Give me your best pitch on why I should experience an NLL game in person.

Jennings: I think there's three things that you'll enjoy when you come to a game. One is that it's high scoring; there's a lot of goals. Secondly, it's a hard-hitting game. You'll be entertained by how hard these guys hit and play. And thirdly, it's very easy to understand and it's very easy to follow. There's not many rules in our league. It's guys trying to put the ball in the net.

What sporting event would you most like to attend for the first time?

Jennings: You ask that question to everybody. I should have done my research. You know what I wanted to go to and never did was beach volleyball. I think they do a great job marketing and I'm a marketing person. I think we can learn some stuff from them.

What trends do you expect to be reading about a year from now?

Jennings: I think you're going to see a lot of [arenas] coming up with innovative ways to put product in their buildings. That's where we've been successful in talking to owners of NHL teams that own their own buildings — and I think they're looking at just about anything to get in there right now that puts people in the stands.

For our complete discussion with Jim Jennings, visit The Sports Business Daily at sportsbusinessdaily.com.

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