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As we are all well aware the economy is struggling. In times like these, the key is for people to look for opportunities instead of fretting about things that are out of their control. The sport of lacrosse is no different. It should look to gain an advantage from the situation because there is a huge opportunity for the sport to capture a larger market in regards to ticket sales, merchandising, and TV ratings. The key is to identify where this market share can be obtained and how to accomplish this.
Over the past few decades the staple of the American economy has been consumer spending, but with unemployment rising, home prices falling, and the stock market well below its all time highs, the American consumer has been forced to cut back. Ordinarily, sports have remained relatively insulated from downturns and recessions, but this time has proved to be different. In fact, it has already shown signs of weakness. Not only has this downturn proven to be worse than in years past, we have simultaneously seen the price of attending sporting events sky-rocket as franchises have relied more heavily on corporations instead of the average fan (want to see the costs? Google “home plate Yankee tickets”). It costs the average family of four a minimum of $250 dollars to attend many professional sporting events when you add up the costs of tickets, food, parking, etc. As a result, owners, blinded by their pursuit of the “all-mighty buck”, have driven their most loyal fans to the edge and are close to losing many of them. Look no further than Dan Snyder of the lowly Redskins. In business, this is called customer churn, and the spring of 2010 might be a tipping point. The rapid boom in the value of sports franchises has ended and franchises may start to decline in value after years of unprecedented growth. Famed hedge fund manager, Julian Robertson, of Tiger Management stated recently that if sports franchises were publicly traded companies, he’d “short ‘em all”.
Lacrosse, whether it be the college or pro game (Major League Lacrosse or the National Lacrosse League), is in a much different position than other sports because it is still in its growth phase. In a global sense, lacrosse is China, whose rapid expansion has slowed but has still decent growth through this downturn and is still emerging. The other sports are more like the U.S. or Europe in terms of being established with small growth and a consistent revenue stream.
The sport of lacrosse is still in the process of attracting and building a loyal fan base. Attending a lacrosse game is as affordable as any sport and the game day experience is as good as it gets. Most games are general admission and fans can get as close to the field as they want. Tickets to college games range from $5 to 15 dollars with some colleges providing free admission. MLL or NLL games are only slightly higher. The food and concessions are moderately priced and parking fees are negligible. A family of four can attend a major college or pro lacrosse game for a third the cost of a MLB game (and that is for a front row seat at Homewood, Klockner, or most professional lacrosse venues compared to “nose bleeds” at an MLB Park). In a time when people are looking for any way to save a buck while maintaining a similar lifestyle, lacrosse seems like the perfect alternative. The key is to find the best way to promote lacrosse and to get the American sports fan to migrate over from other sports.
Lacrosse is in a position to capitalize on this shift. The sport has seen unprecedented growth and expansion in recent years. Attendance is rising annually: the NCAA Championships break records for attendance every year rising close to 50,000 in Foxboro; the South Regional Quarterfinals has seen around a 100 percent increases in recent years up to about 17,000; the 2008 UVA – Duke regular season game in Charlottesville was seen by a sellout crowd of more than 8,000 fans (while taking place at the same time as the Spring Football Game); and recent Hopkins – Navy games in Annapolis have amassed attendances of more than 16,000 fans. In addition, well-known business owners like Jerry Jones are craving to be a part of the sport. Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, has hosted a double header featuring Navy v. Holy Cross & Army v. Rutgers. Jones is not alone. Owners and stadiums in Boston, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia are competing over the rights to host future NCAA Championship weekends. The latest indication of mainstream growth has been the success of the inaugural “Big City Classic” at the Meadowlands outside of New York City which drew more than 20,000 fans.
The most dramatic shift for lacrosse and its most promising recent development has been increasing television exposure. ESPNU broadcasts at least two college games every weekend during the regular season and broadcasts every Division I first and second round game. ESPN covers the Final Four. The MLL was picked up again by ESPN and is getting better time slots each season. The NLL, arguably the most successful brand of lacrosse over the years, is consistently on networks such as MSG and Comcast. The platform for growth is obviously in place. Getting games on television is one of the most important developments for any sport because it is the best way to capture a large audience and generate revenue in the form of advertising. College lacrosse has made great strides in terms of television exposure. The professional game, both indoor and outdoor, needs to strive to achieve this same momentum in order to succeed on a national level. Achieving a higher level of television exposure will lead to an increase in advertising revenue, tickets, and merchandise sales as people across the country become more acquainted with the sport and the teams. This can only be accomplished by getting the networks to see the value of putting lacrosse on its channels.
Lacrosse needs to look at ways to build on this momentum to further expand nationally. The key is to focus on promoting the sport as an exciting, family-friendly, and affordable alternative. How does the sport accomplish this? Take a quick look at two companies that have thrived during this economic crisis: McDonalds and Wal-Mart. Both have promoted their products as equally satisfying, but more affordable. With slogans such as the “Dollar Menu” and “Rolling Back Prices”, both companies have captured market share from the grips of the “higher end” restaurants and retailers. A third company, Fed Ex, provides a different type of example as it opened up operation during the recession of 1973-1974. While other companies were contracting and pulling back business operations, Federal Express expanded their newly found enterprise in order to be better equipped when the country emerged from the recession. FedEx promoted a better product (faster delivery) at an affordable price. The result? The most powerful shipping company today.
During this “Great Recession”, U.S. Lacrosse, the MLL/NLL, and the university athletic departments should promote the affordability and quality of play surrounding lacrosse. The viewing public needs to see that lacrosse as a cheaper, yet equally exciting, alternative. If the sport is successful at this, crowds will grow. Strong attendance figures are the best indication of a thriving sport. With growing attendance comes more network television interest and more revenue. It could be like a row of dominos. Knock one down and the rest will follow.
The sport of lacrosse has a wonderful opportunity to expand the sport faster and farther than it already has. As the country tries to regroup from the current economic crisis, let’s give them an affordable outlet to escape from their troubles without burning a hole in their wallet attending a game at venues like Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. Lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the country and can buck the trend of the national economy by using this coming year as an opportunity to expand and steal market share from other sports.
Teddy Lamade played midfield at the University of Virginia from 2000-2004 where he was a part of the 2003 National Championship and captained the 2004 Team. He went on to finish his final year of eligibility at Georgetown while completing a masters degree in international affairs where he completed a thesis on the Invasion of Iraq and it’s Consequences. He is currently working at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York City on the fixed income rates desk dealing with a variety of products including government bonds, high grade corporate issuance, and mortgages.