You know things are going well with sponsorship sales when you convince a company to create a new category so they can be your sponsor.
That’s the kind of roll that the National Lacrosse League (NLL), the 13-team indoor (or “box”) lacrosse league, commissioner Nick Sakiewicz and CRO Kevin Morgan have been on this year.
In March, working together with the league’s new media partner, Turner Sports — whose B/R Live streams all NLL games — the NLL landed GEICO as their first true, cash-based non-endemic partner. In May, A-B InBev’s Michelob Ultra climbed on board. That’s two big brands lending a lot of credence to the health of the NLL. When the league announced Sakiewicz’s contract extension that will take him through the 2022 season, it cited sponsorship revenues already up 29 percent year-over-year.
Since then, the league has kept the momentum going, inking new deals with Alterna Bank, Grabyo and Sportlogiq while extending with endemic partners including StringKing, Warrior and Team 22/Under Armour.
And with the 2019-20 season getting underway on Nov 28, Morgan promises they are not done yet. “We have a few more announcements on the way,” he teases.
Perhaps the most interesting story, however, is Morgan finding a new endemic partner that wasn’t even endemic until he let them know they were.
You read that right. It all sparked during an NLL practice earlier this year.
Like the savvy sports marketer he is, Morgan watches games and practices through a sponsorship lens.
Honed through past stints that include stops with NHL Washington Capitals, NHL New Jersey Devils and Prudential Center, he is constantly thinking “Are all our league partners visible on and around the field? Could we give them even more of a spotlight to boost their sponsorship ROI?”
Every logo, every stitch of apparel and every piece of equipment falls into two buckets: it’s part of a partnership or it needs to be sold in.
So, when he spots a brand or logo from something not in the NLL’s fold, he sees two outcomes.
Conflict with existing partner? Get rid of it. “We are going to protect our partners in the equipment pool,” explains Morgan. “They’ve invested tremendously in marketing their product and our league. We’re going to protect them.”
But when there is not a conflict? Let’s sell ‘em in! “We strive to work with the best equipment companies with the best products because we have the best players in the world,” adds Morgan.
At this particular practice, he caught a glance of a FOGO* wearing protection on his forearm and wrist area that was not something from any of the league’s official partners and suppliers. (*For those unfamiliar with lacrosse, FOGO is short for “Face Off, Get Off” — this player specializes in one thing: winning the face off, passing the ball to a teammate and getting off the field.)
“Obviously that piece of equipment’s not going to be allowed in games, so I reached out to the player after practice to learn more,” explains Morgan. “He told me it was a customizable EvoShield product. He knew not to wear it in games, but man, he wished he could because it was unlike anything else out there.”
The player then admitted this re-purposing was not his idea, but one he picked up from other fellow FOGOs. (For those uninitiated in lacrosse, wily face-off artists are known to clamp their stick down on their opponent’s wrist immediately after the referee whistles to begin play. This greatly hinders said opponent’s movement and worse, it hurts!)
That’s when the lightbulb went on.
The adaptation of EvoShield’s guard — thanks in part to the patented “Gel-to-Shell” technology that allows each athlete to mold each piece to their body before hardening — had already gained popularity organically among players as the best way to protect that exposed area.
“With our endemic partners like Epoch, Under Armour, StringKing, Warrior, etc., they’re all great companies – and truly are partners with us – but this is a product none of them made,” Morgan notes.
In other words, no conflict. It was on to the second bucket: bring EvoShield in as a partner.
One problem. Nary a mention of lacrosse when Morgan went on evoshield.com.
He was already familiar with the company as the Official Protective Gear for MLB. And thanks to his three sons, now ages 16, 18 and 20, playing football growing up, he remembered the logo from uses like rib shirts and back plates.
Morgan believed that the NLL would be the perfect place to launch a line of business that was ready to take off.
So, he set off trying to connect with the right people at EvoShield and their parent company, Wilson Sporting Goods. Soon, he was in touch with Wilson’s Pat Ryan, global product director, baseball, and Riley Wancket, associate marketing manager.
“We could give EvoShield and Wilson a fully-integrated platform not just featuring the best players in the world, but reaching the entire market thanks to our connections with youth, club, college and adult organizations,” Morgan adds.
To get to this point, we first have to look back over the past several years as the focus from Sakiewicz and the entire league staff has been on the big picture, not just the big deals.
The big picture involves growing the game of lacrosse, not just the National Lacrosse League.
To do that, the NLL has drilled down to the basic grassroots level and built a common lacrosse goal across all players, fans, clubs and associations: what’s good for one is good for all.
Working to eliminate fragmentation of the lacrosse marketplace, the NLL has partnered with groups and governing bodies such as U.S. Box Lacrosse (USBOXLA), US Lacrosse, Canadian Lacrosse Assoc., Collegiate Club Assoc., Arena Lacrosse League (ALL), Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Assoc. (IMLCA) and just formalized an agreement with Interstate Box Lacrosse Assoc. (IBLA) to help market the sport.
This is where all the grassroots work the NLL has done looking both big picture and big deal is now paying off.
“It’s like the SUM [Soccer United Marketing] model has done for Major League Soccer,” says Morgan. “By bringing together all these different entities, the NLL can give a brand essentially a global lacrosse reach.”
That is how we get to a lacrosse community approach that resonated big-time with the EvoShield team.
After all, EvoShield offers more than 100 different protective products, so adding a focus on the sport that is the fastest growing U.S. high school sport for seven straight years makes sense.
“From our first conversation with Kevin and the league, we could see they are not just league executives, but they are passionate about the game and growing the sport,” explains EvoShield’s Wancket.
“We’re always talking to consumers to find out what’s working for them and we love learning how athletes adapt the Gel-to-Shell technology for new uses,” adds Wancket. “We see our protective products in use a lot in other sports like lacrosse, hockey or even mud runs. We were definitely aware of a pretty high level of use among lacrosse players of five or six protective products, accompanied by lots of our compression, performance & lifestyle apparel.”
EvoShield saw the same things as the NLL: the sport is growing like crazy among American youth and the controlled environment of indoor lacrosse is an excellent way to reach those players and their families.
The NLL reports that for the 2018-19 season, 60 percent of their tickets were sold to people who had never played the game.
Wancket found the philosophies matched up very well, “EvoShield as a brand is about not just being a player in lacrosse, but looking at how we can help grow and accelerate the game. Our goal is to work with the NLL on any new product development.”
And now when you head to the website, there’s “Lacrosse” right next to “Baseball,” “Softball” and Football” across the top bar.
Just took a little nudging from the NLL to own their place in lacrosse.