The National Lacrosse League has received plenty of interest in potential expansion franchises, but the league has no specific timeline for adding teams and won’t rush the process, Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz tells IL Indoor.
With the 2017 season approaching, I’ve been hearing from fans and players, asking about the league’s stated desire to expand as soon as 2018. In particular, a Facebook discussion launched by some ardent fans in Dallas got me wondering exactly where things stand on the expansion front. So I reached out to the league and had a talk with Sakiewicz on Tuesday to address the state of expansion discussions.
“We are now in active conversation with over 30 cities and ownership groups,” Sakiewicz said. “The vast majority of them are with NHL teams and NBA teams that operate buildings.”
The commissioner, who joined the league last January, was adamant that while things are progressing, the NLL won’t add teams until they are absolutely convinced of the ownership group’s viability.
“I don’t want to put any deadline out there. The only deadline I will put out there is when we know we have things done right, we’re going to expand,” Sakiewicz said. “We’re not going to leave markets again like we have in the past. We’re not going to take teams away from owners like we have in the past. We’re building it for sustainable, long-term success.”
With the opening of the 2018 season just about a year in the future, many other observers had wondered if the window for announcing teams for that season is closing, given that the NLL stated that they want to give any team that will be joining the league enough time to adequately prepare for its launch.
Sakiewicz said that with many of the groups the league is talking to, there is still time to do what needs to be done to be ready.
“Some markets are ready to go quicker than others. An NHL team or NBA team that has date availability and all the business infrastructure and support structure to get up and running can do it a lot quicker than one that doesn’t have that infrastructure,” he said.
What’s most important is to ensure that the three pillars the NLL espouses are in place for any potential franchise: the right owner, a sustainable arena deal and a community that embraces the team.
Sakiewicz provided assurances that the fact teams have not been announced does not mean there isn’t interest.
“I’m seeing a lot of interest in the content. I’m seeing 30-plus entities that are really engaged with us and are really interested in bringing an NLL team to their venue and their city. They love the financial model because our financial model makes a lot of sense to them, particularly for the NHL and NBA teams.”
Selecting teams to join the league involves the development of mutual confidence. It’s partly about the league deciding which groups it believes will work, but it’s also about putting in place the strategic vision that the NLL launched back in May, to ensure that the best potential groups are confident about joining the league.
“We have to deliver on this strategic vision. Once we do, all these people that we’re talking to that love the content and love the league and love the financial model are going to be convinced that the NLL is the real deal. We’ve been around for 30 years, but people want to be absolutely sure that we’re going where we say we’re going,” Sakiewicz says.
One major pillar of the strategic vision may be announced soon, with preparations for NLL TV nearing completion, according to Sakiewicz. He says fan engagement and an improved viewing experience are critical. While that is the most visible pillar of the strategic vision, there is also plenty of development going on behind the scenes in terms of sponsorship and team services. All those areas are important to demonstrate that the NLL is headed for bigger things.
“We’re not minor league, we’re not second or third tier football. We’re not drone racing. We’re not minor league hockey,” Sakiewicz asserts. “We’re top-tier lacrosse and we’ve got to prove ourselves to the world that we are in fact the league that we’re saying we’re going to be.”
One idea that the Dallas-area fans had floated was playing a game in the city to gauge the potential for a team there. While Dallas may prove to be a good market for the NLL, Sakiewicz said he isn’t a fan of one-off games of that nature.
“It’s not really valuable because of the simple fact because a local team that’s truly connected to the community is a lot different than two teams coming from out of market to play a meaningless preseason game where nothing’s at stake,” Sakiewicz explained. “While it’s nice to do that and we’ve done that in the past, I don’t believe it’s relevant because to truly measure a team and its market viability is to do the market research ahead of time, understand the community and what its potential is, its population size, the demographics, does it fit a lacrosse demographic, is there a population large enough to support a team there?
“Do the market research ahead of time. That’s more meaningful than doing a one-off preseason game that nobody really cares about,” Sakiewicz continued. “We could always fly Buffalo and Denver into Dallas and do a preseason game. If you’re a person who lives in Dallas and you’re a hardcore sports fan and lacrosse junkie, you might go to the game but if you’re not you don’t really care about that game. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t go to a game for a Dallas NLL franchise that is part of the community.”
So… don’t hold your breath waiting for the announcement of one or more expansion teams, but don’t worry, either. The NLL is clearly doing its due diligence to ensure that when teams are added, it will be for the long-term. And for my friends in Dallas, you aren’t going to be seeing a one-off game. You could very well, though, get your very own NLL team to root for. It’s too soon to say how everything will play out, but signs are promising that the bright future the league forecast when Sakiewicz came on board is on its way.