National Lacrosse League (NLL) still Stealth Launching Franchises

The LEC was filled to just 56% capacity for the franchise's second home NLL game in Langley. (Photo: Dan Brodie)
The LEC was filled to just 56% capacity for the franchise's second home NLL game in Langley. (Photo: Dan Brodie)

Editor’s note: Steve is a marketing professional in the Vancouver area who applied to work for the Stealth last summer. He worked with the Vancouver Ravens in the past and played minor lacrosse with some Vancouver players.

He has promoted sporting events in Abbotsford, at the Richmond Olympic Oval, Rogers Arena and BC Place, and also worked with the NHL Vancouver Canucks, Sport BC, Canada Basketball and Canadian Interuniversity Sport. The last major sporting event he helped to promote drew 25,000 fans into BC Place.

When the New York Titans moved to Orlando and the San Jose Stealth relocated to Washington for the 2010 National Lacrosse League (NLL) season, I was skeptical either franchise would last. Neither did. In fact, the Orlando experiment lasted just one season and – despite making it to the finale in three of four years – Washington’s attendance was always weak in the city of Everett, averaging just 4,038 fans per home game before deciding to pull the plug and move to ‘Vancouver’.

Is the outlook healthier for the Stealth and committed owner Denise Watkins in Langley? Team quotes are provided in the latter half of this article.

The Stealth franchise is actually drawing less than what it did in Everett, averaging 3,951 fans through their first three games at the Langley Events Center (LEC). Even if the Stealth boost that number, can they really thrive in an arena that only seats 5,276? Is Langley the right location? And did the team do enough during its re-launch to excite fans?

There would be more optimism if the Stealth could attract the lax community of the lower mainland. But have you seen the LEC and other Western Lacrosse Association (WLA) rinks during the summer? Sadly, they’re practically empty, and it’s an up-hill battle to have those same laxers who aren’t going to WLA games pay double the ticket price to see similar talent play in the NLL.

Turn to the casual sport fan – the fan the NLL desperately needs to survive – and you’ve got another tough sell, especially with limited marketing dollars.

Location-wise, like Everett isn’t Seattle, Langley isn’t Vancouver – home to B.C.’s other pro sport franchises in the Vancouver Canucks, BC Lions and Whitecaps – so the franchise likely won’t benefit from people attending just for the electricity of their surroundings, that crowd that just wants to be seen, as happens at Rogers Arena and BC Place.

When there’s under 3,000 in the arena, a number the Stealth posted for their second home game filling capacity to just 56%, there’s not really a feeling you have to be there. And for any successful sport franchise, being able to appeal to that group affiliation need is a must.

Marketing-wise and from a media standpoint, the Stealth hardly make a dent in Vancouver’s sport scene and they’re not investing heavily in traditional advertising. Aside from a few great beat reporters, B.C.’s pro indoor lacrosse team flies under the radar.

Compare that to three years ago when another pro franchise re-launched back in B.C. and it’s such a drastic difference.

Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Vancouver Whitecaps FC executed a great re-launch, leading to more than 23,000 fans in attendance for their home opener of 2011. The team invested in print, TV, radio, web and outdoor advertising, including a media blitz with a 30-day countdown throughout the City that couldn’t be missed. It helped that the ‘Caps were valued at $35M right out of the gate, and backed by a solid list of sponsors. They also announced their return 24 months in advance, not a rushed 6.5 months prior like the Stealth.

That MLS approach of launching aggressively has proven successful in so many other markets, including in the former NLL markets of Portland, Montreal and Washington, with the Seattle Sounders FC executing a brilliant launch at CenturyLink Field – sharing their home with the NFL Seattle Seahawks – averaging 30,943 fans during their inaugural year of ‘09, and growing that average to an impressive 43,000 fans last season.

The Portland Timbers have sold-out every home game since joining MLS in 2011, and the Montreal Impact drew over 58,000 for their launch in 2012.

“The biggest thing is what you do at the very beginning because it’s hard to turn around a brand once you’ve launched,” adds Adrian Hanauer, co-owner of the Sounders.

When the National Lacrosse League (NLL) looks to expand again, I’d contest it needs to take that same approach and not be so stealth with its promotion. It needs to put significant resources against the project – time and money – to create excitement and sales, sponsors and season ticket holders. Because without going big with its locale and marketing from the very start, the NLL has shown it’ll just go dark.

The Stealth still can turn it around in Langley. It has to start by trying to fill that barn for every home game moving forward – no more numbers under 3K – so it can pump limited availability and a sense of urgency, appealing to socio-cultural motives and group affiliation needs. The on-field product, although World class, almost has to become secondary to the environment.

From the Stealth:

“I believe the launch has gone very well,” offers Stealth President and GM Doug Locker, noting they’ve partnered with the British Columbia Lacrosse Association (BCLA), LEC and Township of Langley. He says the lacrosse community is well aware of what they’re doing, adding “the finite resource with advertising is money and I do believe we have, and are doing, a good job on that front.”

“’Winning fans’ is a process that takes years to do. At this point in time, we have to show them that we have a great product and are committed to working with them to grow the game, and I think we are doing a good job at that… I also believe we are making headway with the general sports fans and that’s another area that simply takes time.”

“I would argue that we are in the perfect venue for fans who want the atmosphere of being in a building where every seat is good.. and where you can see the best players in the world and high quality entertainment happening all around you,” adds Locker. “We can provide fans the rare opportunity to participate in pro sports in an intimate setting.”

“We did not consider moving downtown as we had a great relationships already with the LEC and believe it is the best possible location for the NLL’s return to B.C. Virtually every lacrosse association is located in our backyard here… We are extremely happy with not only our location but the venue itself.”

“We are not comfortable sharing specific aspects of our business model, however, yes the franchise can do well in a building the size of the LEC,” concludes Locker, where capacity at the LEC is nearly half of the next smallest-sized NLL arena, and 45.4% less than the 2013 NLL regular season attendance average of 9,663.

An All-America at Simon Fraser and a decorated Jr. A player for Coquitlam, Kojima began covering lacrosse in 2003 and started working for Inside Lacrosse in 2007. Email him at steve.kojima@nllinsider.com or go to www.laxfuj.com.

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