SBJ/February 26 - March 4, 2007/This Weeks News

ESPN near deal for stake in MLL

ESPN is close to a deal that will see the network take an equity stake in Major League Lacrosse, a six-year-old league that has 10 teams.

While specific details of the size and value of the investment were not available, the move furthers ESPN’s strategy of shunning straight rights deals for smaller sports properties in favor of deals that allow the company to own part of a league. The deal, which is expected to close in the next several weeks, is similar to one ESPN signed with the Arena Football League at the end of last year.

ESPN2 has broadcast Major League
Lacrosse games for the past four years

“It’s clearly a different model,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming acquisitions and strategy. “We’re uniquely positioned with the array of assets we can offer a league. We’d like to participate in their growth as well. We hope we can contribute to their growth.”

ESPN2 has aired MLL games for the past four years. But the equity deal should lend the league some badly needed legitimacy, especially since the indoor National Lacrosse League draws bigger crowds and is planning an outdoor league of its own.

MLL founder Jake Steinfeld declined comment, pending completion of the deal.

“The pressure is on them [MLL],” said Bill Schoonmaker, vice president of client partnerships at LeadDog Marketing, New York, which has represented U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body. “Any league could benefit from the kind of promotion ESPN can provide, but they have to get a better time slot than Tuesday afternoons — and you’d assume both of those things would improve if ESPN buys equity.”

ESPN has a growing list of leagues and events in which it has taken a financial interest. In addition to the AFL, ESPN has a small stake in the Professional Bowlers Association and a bigger stake in the Skins golf event. It fully owns several other properties, including the X Games, Bassmaster Classic and several collegiate events including the Jimmy V Classic, college football awards shows and five bowl games.

“It’s an area of the company that we’ve identified as an opportunity for growth,” Wildhack said.

Wildhack said ESPN looks at leagues that have a good group of owners. He notes the AFL includes established NFL owners and other industry leaders, such as Casey Wasserman. Wildhack also singled out the owners of the PBA, who are former Microsoft executives that Wildhack described as “aggressive and creative.”

“Sports that are a little bit underserved or can benefit from being showcased through all of our media, those are the properties that we look to identify,” Wildhack said. “The AFL has room for growth. We think the same thing for lacrosse.”

ESPN2 covered 12 MLL games last year on its Tuesday afternoon summer schedule, starting at 3 p.m. ET. It also televised the league’s all-star game and championship game. In 2006, ESPN2’s 12 original games from May to August earned an overall 0.1 cable rating, representing 94,000 households.

Versus carries the indoor National Lacrosse League games. Its weekly 17-game package started Dec. 30.

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