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When Major League Lacrosse Commissioner David Gross talks about ESPN's commitment to lacrosse, he's quick to reference Sean Bratches, ESPN's executive vice president of sales and marketing.
The same holds true for Dale Kohler, senior business unit manager at Warrior/Brine, a lacrosse equipment maker. Kohler describes Bratches as one of the most influential backers of the sport and a big reason why lacrosse's visibility has increased on ESPN's video platforms.
MARK GAIER / ESPN
ESPN points to its history of supporting smaller sports and pushing them to the mainstream.
In much the same way that soccer aficionados credit ESPN's John Skipper for the company's interest in the sport, lacrosse insiders view Bratches as a similar champion for their sport.
Bratches, who played lacrosse in college at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is open about being a fan of the sport. But he also believes that the sport has a lot of growth potential, and he believes a relatively small investment today can pan out to bigger things down the road.
Bratches, who has been with ESPN since 1988, points to ESPN's history of supporting smaller sports that can grow.
"ESPN was really the catalyst that put together the NCAA men's basketball tournament and made it hum and ultimately vaulted it into the category where it is today. We were the entity that embraced NASCAR at a nascent stage and pushed that," Bratches said. "We think the opportunity is there long term for lacrosse. More kids are playing it than ever before, at the expense of some other sports."
ESPN's investments have been more than just producing games for one of its TV or broadband networks. ESPN owns 18 percent of the LaxPower poll that ranks college programs. For the past two years, ESPN has hosted an end-of-season tournament in Hartford, Conn., with Warrior.
To underscore the sport's growth potential, ESPN says the sport's advertising base is growing. Bratches pointed to Dick's Sporting Goods, Sports Authority and Spider as non-endemic advertisers that have started buying time in lacrosse telecasts.
"The advertising base is growing beyond endemics, which is always a good sign," he said. "On the horizon, it's something that we think could be material."
ESPN's investments will continue. Next season, it will telecast all of its lacrosse games in high definition. This year, only about 70 percent of the games have been available in HD.
"The more games we do in HD, the better it is for the sport," said Dan Margulis, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPNU. "It's a totally different game when we do that."
ESPN will telecast the sport's most prestigious college tournament outside of the NCAA championships next year: the ACC tournament. ESPN picked up the rights to the tournament and regular-season ACC lacrosse games thanks to the media rights deal it signed with the conference last year.
Lacrosse already has helped ESPN's bottom line. Bratches and Margulis cited the sport as a reason ESPNU gained distribution in the early days. When ESPNU launched in March 2005, it had a lot of lacrosse on its schedule. It now has distribution in 72.6 million homes.
"It's a sport where there's a small but passionate group that has a high degree of interest in it and was a catalyst for driving distribution for ESPNU at the nascent stages of that network," Bratches said. "It continues to be a significant part of what we do there."
Margulis said the sport still has regional appeal, with strong support in pockets like the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. As a result, nationally, ratings are not as big as other sports. But lacrosse is starting to increase its national exposure and ESPN's executives are confident ratings will follow.
"The core is passionate. That's our biggest reason for the investment right now," Margulis said. "The TV ratings are promising. TV-wise, it's a relatively young sport."
If you go to a lacrosse match expecting to see prep-schoolers in sweater vests, khakis and loafers discussing the benefits of exchange-traded funds between goals, think again.
Major League Lacrosse is expanding into Charlotte and Columbus.
"There's kind of this X Games thing that's going on in lacrosse now," said Bill Tierney, a coaching legend who embraced the change around the sport when he left Princeton in 2009 to take the head coaching job at the University of Denver.
Tierney had won six national championships in 22 years at Princeton and built one of the nation's most dominant programs, but he saw Denver as a hip, emerging lacrosse market that could be the launching pad for the sport out West.
"Lacrosse is like this cool new thing to be a part of. It really puts the sport at an interesting place," he said. "And we can be the gateway to the West."
A number of factors are propelling the sport into new markets and broadening the fan base, most notably the support of ESPN, new sponsor interest and two maturing professional leagues, one indoor, the other outdoor.
A National Lacrosse League game — the indoor version of the sport — "is not what you'd think a lacrosse crowd would be," Tierney said. "It's more like caged wrestling or a big-wheel event.
NATIONAL LACROSSE LEAGUE(2)
The National Lacrosse League has built an enthusiastic following. Like its outdoor counterpart, Major League Lacrosse, it is looking to expand
They want to see somebody get the crap knocked out of them."
The growth by the professional leagues, college programs and overall participation in nontraditional markets such as Denver, Columbus, Ohio, and parts of Texas, California and the Southeast, explains why lacrosse stakeholders believe the sport is elevating out of its niche status and onto bigger stages.
"It's going to be a major league professional sport," said Jim McPhilliamy, a veteran sports marketer and former NBA team executive who is starting a new Major League Lacrosse (the outdoor version) team in Charlotte, where he once was the lead marketer for the Bobcats.
Unlike many stakeholders in the sport, McPhilliamy never played lacrosse. He just saw what he thinks is a sound business opportunity, one he thinks can yield a profit within five years with crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 per game.
"When we look at the MLL in 15 years, we're going to see average crowds of 15,000," he said. "It's going to be worth something."
Can it get there?
The question that many sports marketers come back to is this: Where is lacrosse headed and how big can it get?
"It has a good solid future, but its following is pretty narrow," said Bernie Mullin, president and CEO of The Aspire Group, an Atlanta-based ticketing consultancy. "What you've got to understand is that it's an incredibly crowded sports marketplace in North America, and that restricts lacrosse."
There's no doubting the current popularity of lacrosse. The sport's governing body, US Lacrosse, shows that participation numbers are growing by double digits each year and that the number of active players has doubled in the last eight years.
The sport has much of the rhythm and teamwork of basketball, the full contact of football and, unlike soccer, plenty of scoring. Games move at a brisk pace and typically finish in two hours.
"Will it become a mainstream sport? That's our mission," said Chris Davis, brand manager for Warrior/Brine, which has seen its sales of lacrosse equipment increase for all but one of the 19 years it has been in business.
Whether those participation numbers will manifest themselves into the same wild growth in the professional ranks is another question. The growth from a percentage standpoint is impressive, but it comes from a small, still highly regionalized base, even though it is expanding.
"It's really unfair to compare lacrosse to soccer," said Dale Kohler, senior business unit manager at Warrior/Brine. "Soccer has a longstanding international appeal and hundreds of millions of dollars have been pumped into promoting it domestically with the MLS and World Cup. Lacrosse is more of a challenge."
The interesting dynamic for the pro game is that it feeds off the popularity of the college game and the growing levels of youth participation. By the same token, those involved at the college, high school and youth levels are hoping that the pro leagues can develop the kinds of stars and rivalries that will enhance the sport for the casual fan.
Paul Rabil, a former Johns Hopkins standout who plays in both the MLL and NLL, has emerged as the sport's first real crossover star with endorsements from Red Bull and Under Armour. No one in the sport can remember a player endorsing non-endemic brands before.
Sponsor interest is on the rise for the leagues as well. The NLL, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, earlier this year hired IMG to cultivate that interest and create a brand strategy.
The MLL has broken through with two of its largest deals this year, a sideline isotonic agreement with Powerade and an exclusive sporting goods retailer partnership with Sports Authority.
The 10-year-old outdoor league hailed the Sports Authority deal as further proof that lacrosse is moving into the mainstream. The retailer will put stand-ups of MLL players in its stores and use the team and league marks in its advertising.
Other sponsors have been around longer. Bud Light has been the official beer since the league launched, while Ford has been on board since 2003.
MLL sponsorships range from the low six figures up to $1 million annually and the league has a broadcast agreement with ESPN for six live games on TV and streaming games on ESPN3. The NLL has an agreement with Versus for seven televised games, with the rest going online.
"It's an opportunity to be a part of something that's growing and right now is still fairly inexpensive for what you get," said David Gross, who is in his eighth year as MLL commissioner. "We also offer partners the chance to own the league. You're not going to run into a situation where Bud is the official beer of the league and Coors is the official beer for a team. The teams sell only the categories that the league hasn't filled."
Still, the perception remains that lacrosse can't offer a sponsor a national platform, at least not yet.
MARK GAIER / ESPN GETTY IMAGES
While many universities have been forced to eliminate some sports because of tight budgets, the number of lacrosse programs continues to climb.
"What's holding back lacrosse is the lack of reach," said Tyson Webber, vice president of client services at GMR Marketing and an avid lacrosse fan who grew up following the sport in Syracuse, N.Y. "The perception of the sport is still that it's mostly off the radar, that it's still very much a niche sport. But it's not the lack of excitement that's holding it back. It's a fast-paced game, it's done in two hours, it's media friendly and it's played in these short, amazingly athletic bursts.
"It's starting to get more attention, but really what it needs to do is define what they are as sport."
Defining lacrosse can be a bit of a challenge. The women's game is different from the men's game. The indoor game (NLL) is different than the outdoor game (MLL).
But what's clear is that no matter the shape it takes, the college and professional ranks are burgeoning with new fans, new markets and new sponsors.
The MLL will add Charlotte and Columbus in 2012 to grow to eight franchises, and plans to add eight more teams over the next decade. During that time, the league hopes to move into markets like Dallas, Orlando, Atlanta and possibly farther west into Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland.
The NLL intends to move out West as well. One of its most successful teams is in Denver, which averaged more than 15,000 fans this season at the Pepsi Center, and some of the markets in California hold promise, Commissioner George Daniel said.
In the college ranks, lacrosse is gaining a stronger foothold in NCAA Division I, even as many colleges are cutting programs. The number of men's lacrosse programs has grown from 56 to 61 in the last five years and two more are slated to begin in 2013. On the women's side, 90 Division I colleges sponsor varsity lacrosse, up from 79 five years ago. Seven more will be added in the next two years.
Nowhere is the growth of lacrosse more evident than at the NCAA championships, which bring the final four Division I teams to one location for the semifinals and finals. Those games draw 40,000 to 50,000 fans on the Saturday and Monday of Memorial Day weekend. When the Division II finals are added to the mix on the Sunday in between, weekend attendance over three days can total nearly 150,000 people.
"There are so many aspects to lacrosse that are compelling," said Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's executive vice president who oversees all 89 championships. "While the roots are in the Northeast, there are clearly growth patterns that show it is developing more of a national following. The question for us is how we grow a true national championship that coincides with the growth around the country."
The NCAA's final four rotates from Baltimore to Foxboro, Mass., to Philadelphia. While the NCAA isn't ready to step outside the markets that have been so good for the sport, it has become a topic of conversation and there is interest in bringing the national championships to Denver.
Other college platforms have evolved, such as tripleheaders in Baltimore and East Rutherford, N.J., run by Inside Lacrosse, which is owned by American City Business Journals, parent company of SportsBusiness Journal/Daily. These one-day events draw 20,000 to 25,000 and are title sponsored by Konica Minolta.
"We want to be where people are passionate about their sport," said Kevin Kern, senior vice president of marketing at Konica Minolta. "It's hard to find a more passionate fan than a lacrosse fan, and when you combine that with the passion of a college fan, you've got a great demographic you're reaching."
Kern understands the sport. He grew up in a small Massachusetts town where "high school lacrosse was bigger than football."
"As the population from the Northeast migrates around the country, this sport is going to keep growing," Kern said. "It's probably more of a niche sport right now, but there are going to be some long-term opportunities there."
Boyle, a standout player at Princeton, was known for his smarts on the field, and he’s taken that into the business world as well. Trilogy has become a leader in camps and clinics, with more than 40 events in 11 states.
Executive vice president, sales and marketing
ESPN will broadcast about 40 men’s and women’s college lacrosse matches on ESPNU this spring, making the sport a staple of the college network’s programming. Bratches has been the executive giving lacrosse the biggest push within ESPN’s walls.
National Lacrosse League
The 10-team indoor league runs through the winter and spring. Versus picks up seven games, as well as the playoffs, which culminate later this month. Daniel, in his third season as commissioner, has targeted New York and Vancouver for expansion, although no timetable is set.
Behind Davis’ push, New Balance has been one of the biggest investors in Major League Lacrosse and a staunch supporter of the sport. While Davis prefers to keep a low profile, he remains one of the most influential figures in lacrosse.
Major League Lacrosse
Behind Gross’ often-understated leadership, the league has a growing list of sponsors and a plan to expand from six to 16 teams through the next decade. MLL will put new teams in Charlotte and Columbus next year.
Morrow teamed with Jake Steinfeld to help form Major League Lacrosse. A former player and coach, Morrow has built Warrior into the industry leader for lacrosse equipment, and the company is an important financial backer of the league, while also leading the grassroots effort to grow the sport.
Major League Lacrosse
National Lacrosse League
Rabil is the first lacrosse star to cross over into the mainstream with endorsement deals that extend beyond the endemic brands in lacrosse. Rabil most notably has deals with Red Bull and Under Armour, and he’s active on Twitter as a way to promote the sport. He’s the first star who made lacrosse cool.
Major League Lacrosse
The “Body by Jake” guy started MLL in 1998 after reading about the growth of lacrosse. Play began in 2001 and Steinfeld has remained involved in most of the league’s major decisions.—Compiled by Michael Smith
Few NCAA championships attract crowds as large as lacrosse. More than 117,000 packed M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore over three days last year for the Division I and II championships, and the Division I semifinals have been known to draw as many as 50,000 or more. The man behind the lacrosse championships is Jeff Jarnecke, an associate director at the NCAA since 2005. He recently discussed the growth of the lacrosse championship, and what the event's future holds, with staff writer Michael Smith.
Duke players celebrate winning the 2010 Division I championship.
■ With attendance now solidly in the 40,000 to 50,000 range for each day of your Division I final four, where does lacrosse rank among the NCAA's best-attended events?
JARNECKE: Well, you've got the men's College World Series at over 300,000 over a much longer period of time (10 days) and certainly the men's basketball Final Four does very well. But as a three-day weekend, the lacrosse championships are right up there. Those numbers compare favorably with our top events for the association.
■ How does the attendance and tickets break down?
■ What about the competing schools?
JARNECKE: We hold back 750 tickets for each school to specifically create their own blocks. Some return some of the tickets, while others request more tickets. … And there's also a pretty good walk-up crowd that, the last two years, has been trending up. You're dealing with a holiday weekend (Memorial Day), so what we're trying to do is build this into an event that's about more than just the games and make it an experience and a great way to celebrate the holiday weekend.
■ How are ticket sales for this year's championship trending?
JARNECKE: Slightly ahead of last year, so we're very encouraged. We're in a better position for sales overall, so maybe there will be less of a walk-up.
■ Attendance in the early rounds, however, has been a challenge. How do you increase those numbers?
JARNECKE: We're looking at a number of different strategies. The preliminary rounds are played at the home site of the top eight seeds on campus and we're considering predetermined sites where four teams would travel and play doubleheaders. We'd have to be very strategic about where we placed those predetermined sites and the four teams we sent there, but we'd look for areas that are hotbeds for the sport and could draw well. We're discussing this with the coaches association now. It would be a way to take the sport to other areas, help grow the game and at the same time help develop the strong and powerful brand of NCAA lacrosse.
■ At what point do you start taking a hard look at moving the championship out of the traditional rotation of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston?
JARNECKE: The good thing is that there's a lot of interest from groups looking to host the championships, but I'd say we're at least three to five years away from moving the finals site. I think we'd rather look at some other sites maybe for the quarterfinal round to see how they do there first. We think there are opportunities at places like Columbus, Ohio; South Bend; Denver — areas that might be somewhat nontraditional, but could draw well. In the quarterfinals, we could look to go into facilities that are 15,000 to 30,000, like we're doing next year in PPL Park.
■ Is the strategy behind keeping the men's and women's final fours separate going to stay in place?
JARNECKE: I think so, at this point. The two committees (men's and women's) have discussed it and it's going to be an interesting year with the women going to Stony Brook for the first time. We had record attendance for last year's championship (at nearly 10,000) and ticket sales have been stronger than last year. … By putting the championships together, you would have some efficiencies, but we think there's enough of a different audience to keep them the way they are.
■ Lacrosse is pushing more to the West and the South. How important is it to the college game to have some nontraditional teams make a run?
JARNECKE: It's always exciting for the sport when you have a new team in there. It grows the attention around it, it can help grow the fan base, it becomes a new conversation in media outlets.
■ What kind of response have you seen from the NCAA's corporate champions and partners to the lacrosse championship?
JARNECKE: It's been tremendous. We might have a title sponsor for the fan fest for the first time. We're working on plans and a layout that's much larger than what we've had the last number of years. We're also talking about a new retail initiative as well and that would put merchandise and equipment in a mega-tent. That's something we haven't tried before.