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Innovation

The New Direction of Major League Lacrosse

Sandy Brown, Major League Lacrosse’s new commissioner, is shaking things up while helping grow the game in new ways in the States.

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The league is looking to new ways to improve and grow. (Photo via Florida Lacrosse News)

Back in February, Major League Lacrosse appointed Alexander “Sandy” Brown as its second commissioner. That decision is already paying dividends as the league continues to grow itself, as well as the sport of lacrosse as a whole.

After a notable playing career, Brown entered the sports media world in the late 1980s and had great success growing television markets for brands like the NBA, ESPN, and CNBC in Asia. Brown then moved back to the United States, where he eventually became president of sports at Univision Sports and launched Univision Deportes as part of an impressive rebranding effort for the media outlet.

After that, Brown moved into a role as the president and CEO of ONE World Sports, a television outlet that broadcasted a variety of sports leagues from around the world from 2011 to 2017. This is a small sample of what made him a top candidate for MLL to recruit after the departure of former commissioner Dave Gross. Brown jumped at the chance to make a difference within a sport that he remains so passionate about.

SEE MORE: Major League Lacrosse is Turning to Digital Assets to Grow the Game

Brown channeled this passion throughout the 2018 season by getting a sense from league owners, players, and fans what the state of the league really was and what the next steps were.

“The first thing I was able to identify was that we have a very passionate fan base, very passionate owners, and very passionate players. That’s a good thing,” stated Brown. “But I do I think there were/are things that that this league can do much better. We’ve made some good progress this year already, which I think has been important, but we’re just getting started.”

One of the next steps that Brown sees the league taking is a rebrand of its marketing materials. MLL has begun interviewing creative agencies that can help spearhead the process. 

“The league has operated under the same moniker and the same marks for 20 years, and it was time for a fresh start,” Brown said. “There’s a much different message that we want to try to get into the marketplace this time around.”

Specifically, the digital, mobile, and social media side of its marketing/communications efforts have become a big focus for MLL as of late. This is part of the reason that it has done so well with the 12-to-20 and 24-to-41 age demographics.

SEE MORE: NLL Points to MLS As Benchmark for What League Could Become

“That 12-to-20 demo is a very highly sought-after demographic and we hit it right between the eyes,” said Brown. “So as a result, we want to focus a lot of our communication to this particular age group, and as we all know, it’s very mobile-centric. They don’t spend a lot of time consuming long-form content, so having an approach which speaks to this audience is very important for what we’re trying to do.”

Meanwhile, offline, Brown and the league are also working on creating and hosting new events and clinics in the offseason to maintain relationships with fans and sponsors. This includes teams being a bigger part of their respective communities in months following the regular season.

“We want to be able to spread the word. We have the best players in the world in our league and we want to do our part in terms of building the brand for our teams, our players, and for the game of lacrosse,” Brown said. “We may have a four-month season, but we need to be a 12-month league in terms of content. We need to be able to have things in which we can activate with our fan base as well as our sponsors. Having more offseason content gives us more opportunities to be able to do just that.”

In addition to new events, this offseason for MLL looks a bit different in that it will be a bit longer. Lacrosse fans shouldn’t worry too much. though, as the shift to a start date following Memorial Day in late May will certainly benefit the league and sport greatly. The new season structure will run from June to September.

SEE MORE: How The Lacrosse Network Has Become a Go-To Source for Content 

“Historically we’ve had three lacrosse seasons if you think about it,” Brown said. “We’d start our season in April. We’d have our core players; then we’d have college players that would come in as a result of their seasons ending around May. Then you’d have the NLL (North America’s professional indoor lacrosse league) players come in at the end of that season in June. So we just felt it made a lot more sense to have everything start all at one time, and this way we get to go into the fall with our season. That way teams get to have a consistent roster throughout the season.”

Brown and league owners have a few other tweaks this offseason to set the league up for future growth. Notably, MLL announced last month that the league salary cap would be increasing by 51 percent and each team can add one new player to its active roster. This way, the league’s nine teams have more resources to provide a better on-field product.

“It means that there’s more resource for these teams,” Brown states. “It frees up another slot to get some other guys some additional time to take a breather. It gives a coach more flexibility in terms of being able to have players for game day.”

With players and coaches focused on keeping what’s happening on the field at the highest level possible, Brown and league’s executive leadership team are free to focus on the off-field experience for fans and sponsors. This will continue to be part of their growth strategy moving forward.

“I think we want to have a broader media strategy than what we currently do. That’s something that we’re going to be taking a hard look at,” Brown said of next steps for the league. “That includes creating more content, creating more events, and creating a better game day experience. Our league is all about bums in seats, so we want to be able to create an experience off the field which, for all intents and purposes, is better than the experience on the field, which is a high bar for us to reach. We’re an entertainment property, so we have to treat it as such.”

It may not be immediate, but keep an eye on MLL’s growth strategy including expanding its geographic footprint on the West Coast. With the University of Utah recently becoming the third NCAA Division I school west of the Mississippi River to sponsor a men’s lacrosse team, the sport is clearly trending up in that part of the country.

“I think that the game has grown nationally and we play a big part in that. We want to continue to do so, so we’re going to plan to do more out on the West Coast,” Brown said. “Obviously, we want as many fans to experience the sport as we possibly can and that’s a big part of our game plan.”

Even in his early days as a lacrosse player, Brown says he always felt there was great potential for the sport in the Western United States. 

“I’ve always felt, even back to when I was in high school when I first went to California, that it would be a tremendous place for the game of lacrosse to grow. I also think with what’s happening in football right now and that game’s head-injury issues provides us with a unique opportunity to be able to have a contact sport that has all the speed and the agility of football, but without the concussion issues.”

After traveling around the world and back, Brown has helped new markets embrace sport quickly and passionately. Based on his track record, there’s not much reason to think he can’t do the same thing with professional lacrosse in America.

Joe is currently a freelance marketing professional, writer, and podcaster. His work can also be found on the SB Nation network. Joe earned his bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Louisville in 2014 and a master's degree in sport administration from Seattle University in 2017. He can be reached via email at joe@frntofficesport.com.

Innovation

ISlide Thrives Off Self-Expression Five Years After Launch

International superstars such as LeBron James, DJ Khaled, Conor McGregor, and others have turned to ISlide for comfort and a customized experience.

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After 13 years in the athletic apparel industry that included a stint as the head of Reebok basketball, Justin Kittredge founded footwear company ISlide in 2013. ISlide sells sandals decked out with designs licensed by the NBA, NCAA, Nickelodeon, esports organizations, and others. The main selling point of iSlide, however, is that customers have the option to create a pair of custom sandals all their own using the creation tools on ISlideusa.com.  

Each year since the founding of ISlide in 2013, the company has more than doubled its revenue. Several NBA players such as Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas collaborated with the company and now have their own designs available for purchase on the site. The company’s sandals have even been regularly seen on the feet of international superstars like LeBron James, DJ Khaled, Conor McGregor, Ellen DeGeneres, Diddy, Dwyane Wade, and Justin Bieber.

For reasons like this, Kittredge expects the company to keep growing at this pace.

READ MORE: 3 Ways to Hone Your Skills for Your Sports Business Career 

“We’re living in a time now that people love customization,” Kittredge said. “Our tagline is ‘stand in what you stand for.’ So I think people love to be able to stand for something, and for the first time we’ve kind of given them the opportunity to be able to do it with a really comfortable pair of slides. When you combine that with the growing trend of slides as a whole, I think we’re able to really capitalize on what’s what’s happening in the world right now.”

During 2017’s eighth season of “Shark Tank,” Kittredge ultimately turned down an investment from Robert Herjavec. Kittredge’s boldness has paid off, however, as the footwear company recently signed retail deals with Neiman Marcus, LIDS, Fanatics and Urban Outfitters. Kittredge and the company have also brought in several new investors, including Evan Turner, a small forward for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.

Turner has reportedly been a big fan of the company since its launch and even has a small collection of sandals he has purchased from the company over the years. Kittredge believes that Turner and other athletes are drawn to his company for the opportunity to showcase their creativity in their style.

“Evan’s a pretty creative guy. So, I think that was one element that he loved,” Kittredge said. “He loved the fact that we sent him a really cool custom design. After he got that, I think his mind started to spin where he saw the possibilities of what could be created for it. So, I think that’s what really drew him in. He’s been a big fan of us for a while, and then once we decided to open up a round of investment, it was kind of a perfect match.”

“I’ve always admired the creativity and hustle of the ISlide team,” said Turner. “I love the quality of their slides and the message of self-expression behind them.”

As far as what’s next for the company, Kittredge has no plans of slowing down and will likely continue partnering with more great brands and personalities in the future.

READ MORE: Whistle Sports Look to Long-Form Content for More Opportunities

“We’re definitely going to be increasing our licensing portfolio,” Kittredge added. “I think our product kind of leads really well into that world of licensing. Then we just plan on growing our partnerships.

“For us, there’s there’s no reason why someone wouldn’t want to wear a pair of ISlides because instead of trying to promote a brand that they’re not that affiliated with, they can promote something that’s really close to them with our customization options. I think that’s why we’re going to have a pretty successful future, because we’re able to capitalize on that.”

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Innovation

Championship Horse Racing Set to Introduce ‘The Series’ in 2019

The company is bringing a team and league model to horse racing, aiming to enhance sponsorship and fan engagement opportunities.

Chris Daley

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The Series - Sports - Horse Racing

In July 2019, Championship Horse Racing (CHR) will be looking to disrupt the sport when it debuts “The Series” in Great Britain. “The Series” will present flat racing, as it is known in the UK, in a team-based, season-like format which CHR feels will modernize the sport and breathe new energy into it on a global level.

Great Britain’s history of racing dates back centuries, and flat racing continues to be one of the country’s largest spectator sports.  Prestigious international meets like Royal Ascot have continued growing their global appeal recently, and specifically with an American audience. In November, NBC Sports Group announced a six-year contract extension with Ascot Racecourse, granting the company United States media rights until 2025 and expanding coverage of Royal Ascot.

CHR respects the status and appeal of meets like Royal Ascot, but wants to distance itself from some of the perceptions that horse racing sometimes has among people inside and outside the sport. They do not want “The Series” to bring a feel that horse racing is only for the elite, that it is solely focused on gambling, or that the sport is too complicated for fans to follow.

‘The Series’ Format

“The Series” will feature 12 teams, each having a roster of 30 horses conditioned under one or more trainers. Each team will also have four dedicated jockeys. The horses will compete in eight fixtures or six races each, taking place on consecutive Thursday evenings from July to September. Each race will include 12 runners representing each of the 12 teams.

CHR announced its eight scheduled venues for “The Series,” which includes top racecourses in England, Ireland and Scotland. The branded teams will compete in 48 races with more than £100k of prize money per race.

READ MORE: Churchill Downs and the Breeders’ Cup Maximize Fan Experience 

Most horses racing around the globe fall into the handicap category, meaning their talent is not on the level of Graded Stakes or Group class. “The Series” races will all be handicaps to even out the competition, and giving owners a chance to earn more prize money with their horses in relation to those with horses competing at the Graded Stakes and/or Group level.

A points system similar to Formula 1 will be utilized to determine prize money winners on individual racing days, as well as “The Series” championships at the end of the season. Various prizes will be awarded to racing teams, as well as jockeys.

Sponsorship and Fan Engagement

With this new format, CHR believes “The Series” will provide sponsorship opportunities unlike others currently available in horse racing. The company’s goal is to have each racing team sponsored and become international brands. They are also seeking a title sponsor for “The Series.”

“We are looking at a range of sponsors across key categories such as automotive, airline, telco, as well as key brands from within racing,” said Oli Harris, CMO for CHR. “Sponsorships and racing teams will all be focused on enhancing the fan experience during ‘The Series.’”

Team sponsorships will bring opportunities to create fanfare at each event. “Our aim is to make sure that the fans have the best possible opportunities to benefit from our sponsors. The aim is to engage fans and brands on and off the racecourse,” Harris added.

The teams will have dedicated areas for their horses, along with equipment and branded apparel worn by the jockeys, trainers, and other stable staffers. “Each team will have its own space on the infield where they can entertain fans and run activations. I feel it’s a chance for sponsors to interact with their audience like never before,” Harris said.

Sponsors will capitalize not only at the racing venues, but also through media coverage expected during “The Series.” Harris explained, “We are going to be bringing an unparalleled amount of media coverage for the sport, which we are very excited about. This will allow us and our sponsors the opportunity to tell stories and produce engaging content over a two-month period, using one of the world’s most popular sports as a medium. It’s a sport in which women and men can compete as equals, and one that employs tens of thousands of people.”

Since current negotiations are underway, Harris was unable to provide specifics around the costs of sponsoring a racing team.  New York-based Leverage Agency is working with CHR on sponsorship sales and marketing advisory.

Fan Engagement and Gauging Success

Increasing fan engagement and reaching new fans is CHR’s primary objective during the first year of “The Series.” In addition to the racing teams and sponsors increasing fanfare themselves, CHR will utilize technology, including a mobile application dedicated to “The Series.”

“We are hoping our app will be the facilitator of genuine interaction between teams and their fans. Our #WeWinYouWin system rewards fans when their team does well,” Harris said.

“Rewards and benefits will be redeemed via the app. We also want the app to be a navigation tool for the events themselves. We will have a lot of different things going on alongside the action from the track and we want to help fans find their way around in a more intuitive way,” he added.

READ MORE: Saratoga Race Course Drives Sponsorships with Strong Attendance

As for gauging success and building the future of “The Series,” CHR will analyze feedback from fans along with overall acceptance rates in its markets.

Harris said, “We will judge our success by how people relate to the format of the competition and listen to their feedback. We are totally customer- and market-orientated in our approach, and we genuinely want to shape a series of events that the fans feel a part of.

“Our aim is to eventually take the competition to other parts of the world, but we must first make sure we give our audience a great show in year one.”

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Innovation

Seahawks Set the Standard for Concession Ingenuity at CenturyLink Field

After taking their concessions in-house, the Seahawks have found success with a more local and sustainable approach.

Adam White

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If you hadn’t noticed, your favorite sports team probably has a few more local flavors on their main concourse.

In a shift that has happened over the course of the past few years, teams are turning to local vendors to bring a new flavor to their fans.

The most prominent of the venues doing this might just be CenturyLink Field. Home to the Seattle Seahawks and the Seattle Sounders, CenturyLink Field has become home to one of the more diverse food offerings in the country.

The change from standard stadium thoroughfare to unique options that may only be found in the city came after the Seahawks became one of only four NFL teams to take their concessions in-house, meaning instead of relying on the Aramark’s and Delaware North’s of the world, they built their own food and beverage company.

First and Goal Hospitality was born in March of 2017 and currently operates all general and premium concessions for CenturyLink Field, CenturyLink Field Event Center, and WaMu Theater.  

Zach Hensley, VP of venue operations and guest experience for the Seahawks, points to the flexibility that comes with operating their own company that allowed the Seahawks to be more open to trying different things.

“As opposed to using a traditional concessioner model, it really gives us ultimate flexibility to be able to source products and partner with local partners. We are then able to tailor our business to what our fans are expecting when they come to CenturyLink Field.”

And what they expect is vibrant food offerings that the Pacific Northwest has become known for, and that can be found right outside the gates to the venue.

To further enhance its local offerings, the club built out the aptly named “Stadium Street Market,” an area where it rotates in and out four different chefs, restaurants, or food trucks. The team provides whoever is cooking that week with all the equipment they need, with the idea of using the space as a way to give back.

“They come in and produce their own cuisine in that area,” mentioned Hensley. “We rotate partners in for both Sounders and Seahawks games with the goal of providing an opportunity to give back to the community, give the partners the chance to market their product, and ultimately allow people get to know their brand a bit better and drive more traffic to their location.”

SEE MORE: How the Seattle Storm Social Team Pulled at Community Heartstrings

Taking the local approach even further, the team has also created what they call the “Night Market,” a similar idea to the “Stadium Street Market,” but only focusing on business surrounding the stadium. This “hyper-local” approach is done in part because Hensley knows that while they could get inspiration for food items they could create on their own, they would rather have purveyors and the experts come in and “do it themselves.”

Their local efforts continue beyond just the gates of the venue, as sustainability is a major part of their efforts. This includes being the only stadium that is Smart Catch certified, with 93 percent of the fish used at the stadium caught using sustainable methods as well as sourcing most of their meat from local farms and ranches that practice humane and sustainable farming in the region.

The part that Hensley is particularly proud of is the fact that the Seahawks have taken it one step further by creating a “closed loop” system in which their waste is turned into compost, which is turned into fertilizer, which is then used on a farm where the Seahawks buy a good portion of their vegetables.

“We did a sustainability game last November where we served over 6,000 pounds of potatoes from that farm. We have another one coming up in November of this year where every french fry, every potato in the potato salad and anything else in the venue made with potatoes will come from that farm. It’s a really great opportunity for us to give back, reduce our emissions, and provide a great quality product as well.”

Known for the Legion of Boom for the past years, the Seahawks and First and Goal Hospitality are proving that it only takes a look outside your venue to find creative, engaging, and sustainable ways to provide the fans with a culinary experience that is second to none.  

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