SBJ/May 2-8, 2011/In Depth

ESPN sold on sport's growth potential

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."

As seen on ESPN networks in 2011

NCAA Division I
ESPN/ESPN2: Two regular-season men's games plus seven NCAA Championship games
ESPNU: 32 regular-season games (30 men's, two women's) plus the eight NCAA Championship games
ESPN3.com: 12 men's games, simulcasts of five regular-season games, nine NCAA Championship games and three sky-cam feeds

Major League Lacrosse
ESPN2: Two regular-season games, three Championship Weekend games and the All-Star Game
ESPN3.com: 36 regular-season games plus three games from the Championship Weekend and the All-Star Game, of which six include simulcasts with ESPN2

US Lacrosse
ESPNU: Two US Lacrosse Champions Challenge games (one men's vs. Notre Dame, one women's vs. Maryland)

Source: ESPN

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."

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