TMR Q&A: NLL’s Kurt Hunzeker on Thinking Beyond the Box

St. Louis native Kurt Hunzeker joined the National Lacrosse League in February 2023 as EVP, Commercial Operations, and immediately put his 20-plus years of sports marketing and fan engagement experience to work on growing fans of the league and the sport.

Hunzeker was most recently VP, Minor League Baseball Operations at Major League Baseball, where came on board in 2021 and authored the initial five-year business strategy and activation plan for all 120 MiLB teams newly centralized business integrated within MLB. Prior to that, he was the President of the XFL‘s St. Louis Battlehawks, where in short order he helped build perhaps the league’s most engaged fanbase.

He previously was with the then 160-team MiLB as VP, Marketing Strategy & Research from 2015-19 where he led the creation and implementation of MiLB’s wildly successful Copa de la Diversión (the “Fun Cup”), as well as designing and implementing MiLB’s 10-year strategic marketing plan, which included MiLB’s first-ever national campaign, “MiLB It’s Fun to Be a Fan.”

Experience also included a stint as Sr. Director, Brand Marketing for Rawlings for four years, where his focus including creating engagement platforms targeting players, coaches and parents. To think he launched his sports marketing career in 2000 at TMR!

Last week, the league announced the launch of Hunzeker’s initial focus, a new grassroots campaign called “NLL UnBOXed.”

Designed to bring the NLL’s fast-paced “box” lacrosse game to more young boys and girls in more communities across North America, the NLL will expand its activation footprint to include approximately 60 communities by 2028.

Why 2028? That’s when lacrosse returns as an Olympic sport for the first time since 1908 at the Los Angeles Summer Games. LA2028 will feature “sixes” lacrosse, which is very similar to the NLL’s 6-on-6 box game play.

To get things rolling, the UnBOXed campaign will launch early in 2024 and target 24 markets initially. In addition to the league’s 15 existing team markets Albany, Buffalo, Calgary, Denver, Duluth (Ga.), Halifax, Las Vegas, New York, Fort Worth, Philadelphia, Rochester, San Diego, Saskatchewan, Toronto and Vancouver the league has tabbed nine new “NLL UnBOXed Lacrosse Communities”:

  1. Baltimore
  2. Charlotte
  3. Minneapolis-St. Paul
  4. Montréal
  5. Ottawa
  6. Salt Lake City
  7. Seattle
  8. St. Louis
  9. Tampa/St. Petersburg

To engage these non-franchise markets and grassroots participants, the NLL looks to generate unique, multi-tiered activations, starting with creating community-relevant “team names” and brand identities to illustrate the league’s commitment to growing box lacrosse across Canada and the U.S.

The second phase of the initiative also begins in 2024 with “NLL UnBOXed At School,” a physical education-centric lacrosse curriculum created by NLL Hall of Fame inductee Casey Powell and based on the successful SPEED Lacrosse platform Powell has honed following his retirement from the NLL.

Built specifically for elementary and middle schools, NLL UnBOXed At School also includes a lacrosse equipment endowment program with the NLL and its partners providing an assortment of sticks, balls and goals to participating schools’ physical education departments.

The 2023-24 NLL season commences with NLL Faceoff Weekend the first weekend of December.

We asked Hunzeker to share some insights on how and why the UnBOXed platform came about.

Team Marketing Report: What are key similarities and differences between NLL UnBOXed and the immensely popular Copa de la Diversión you shaped during your time at Minor league Baseball?

Kurt Hunzeker: There are some core similarities, notably the community-centric mindset and inventive approach to establishing relevant “team brands” that resonates with the intended audience. For NLL UnBOXed, that would be young boys and girls and their families; the names and logos reflect a more whimsical approach.

The primary difference for NLL UnBOXed is that this is a youth participation growth initiative first and foremost. We believe that once someone picks up a lacrosse sticks and starts to play, the likelihood they become fans is almost guaranteed.

TMR: This comes off the news of Lacrosse Olympic involvement, how does this position NLL for the grassroots box lacrosse growth in markets where NLL doesn’t play?

KH: Hopefully very favorably. As the longest-running professional lacrosse league worldwide, the NLL should be a leader driving the game forward to hopeful meteoric heights.

NLL UnBOXed is our unique contribution to growing the game globally, most notably in tandem with our partners at USA Lacrosse and the Elevate28 initiative to double lacrosse participation by the end of the decade.

Many of these initial NLL UnBOXed Lacrosse Communities are targets for upcoming NLL expansion franchises, and by engaging non-NLL markets now via NLL UnBOXed, we can cultivate a fan base before the new pro team takes the floor for the first time.

TMR: How can brands integrate into this program?

KH: NLL UnBOXed effectively connects the long-standing relationships and initiatives the NLL has worked on for years with governing bodies such as USA Lacrosse, the Ontario Lacrosse Association, British Columbia Lacrosse Association and similar provincial entities throughout Canada. In some of these previous efforts, the NLL supported those organizations as they took the lead to grow the game.

Now we will be more active through our planned NLL UnBOXed programs, starting with NLL UnBOXed At School, the first phase of our multi-tiered grassroots initiative.

Our goal is to introduce NLL-style lacrosse to approximately 100,000 young boys and girls – and their families – annually.

That number is based on if we’re the only contributors to the campaign. As brand partners join and more and more are authentically integrated into the program, we will be able to amplify the positive impact and engage with more communities and more schools.

I cannot think of many, if any, sports properties that can deliver the markets, consumer segments and engagement opportunities that the NLL will with NLL UnBOXed.

TMR: It starts with very specific cities, how were they chosen?
NLL teams and players have a long history of inspiring local youths to play lacrosse. Pictured above is Georgia Swarm star Lyle Thompson working with local youths at a recent clinic.

KH: I have a fully-interactive spreadsheet called “The Grid” that overlays various quantitative metrics, including census data, lacrosse participation trends, number of local elementary schools, etc. When coupled with more qualitative input such as number of sports teams in the market, potential NLL venue availability, etc., a robust list of “high potential” activation markets emerges, providing us with a strategically sound guide to planning where and when we should launch an NLL UnBOXed Lacrosse Community.

I would also note that this inaugural class is not the first nine markets on that list. We intentionally wanted to bring in very different communities with very different market demographics, lacrosse heritages and potential corporate support as the NLL is an innovation lab: we want to continuously test, try, and track new ideas and inventive concepts.

TMR: Lastly, you are going into your first full season leading the marketing side of NLL. What are the lessons learned to date?

KH: When one of the fastest-growing youth sports gets a hurricane strength tailwind of buzz and international prominence thanks to the LA2028 Summer Olympics inclusion announcement, the sky is the limit for the NLL.

So why not be bold: by 2037, which marks the league’s 50th Golden Anniversary, the NLL strives to earn its position as a leader among the “Big 6” North American professional sports properties.

With that as our North Star, planning marketing activities and commercial partnership opportunities has been some of the most fun I have had in my career.

And we’re just getting started.


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