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Photo courtesy JennPierce, Calgary Roughnecks

National Lacrosse League commissioner optimistic about the growth of the sport

By Kristy Koehler, November 30 2018 —

A new five-year agreement was ratified between the Professional Lacrosse Players’ Association (PLPA) and the National Lacrosse Leage (NLL) on Nov. 24, resolving a labour dispute that put the season in jeopardy.

The underlying theme of the dispute seemed to rest with expansion, as rumours swirled about the potential growth of the league. The NLL recently awarded franchises to Halifax, San Diego and Philadelphia.

Player salaries were also an issue. Lacrosse players are among the lowest-paid professional athletes — the average salary of an NLL player in 2013 was just over $19,000 for the season, yet the league claims the third highest average attendance for professional indoor sports worldwide, behind only the NHL and NBA. But the NLL says the future of the league is bright with the new agreement in place.

“This agreement has created a clear path for incremental growth, not just for the players and the existing clubs, but for the sport of lacrosse as well,” NLL commissioner Nick Sakiewicz said in a statement.

The Calgary Roughnecks, a member of the NLL, cancelled the first two games of their season during the dispute. A series of press releases followed the agreement, announcing that the games lost at the beginning of the season would be rescheduled. Other releases included a new season schedule and the announcement of a partnership with the Arena Lacrosse League, a development league.

Sakiewicz held a Facebook Live Q&A on Nov. 29 to answer media and fan questions about the announcements. There, he made it clear that expansion of the league is his priority.

When asked about the current two-division system — the NLL is divided into the East and West divisions — Sakiewicz said he’d like to explore more regional rivalries.

“As you know, we have Halifax coming in next year as our 12th team and we’re getting ready to announce our 13th team. We are looking at divisional realignments for next season,” he said. “As we add more teams over the coming years we’re going to evaluate potentially going to even four conferences.”

Sakiewicz said that as the league expands, he hopes athletes will be able to play lacrosse as their full-time job.

“That’s the goal. Listen, ultimately we want to make this league as big as it can possibly be so that athletes can play it in on a regular basis, 12 months a year,” he said. “The goal ultimately is to be like an NHL or NBA — a big team league with 30-plus teams and full-time athletes.”

But the NLL soon won’t be the only major lacrosse league in North America. The Premier Lacrosse League will debut on June 1, 2019. The PLL is a new six-team league announced in September that has players earning full-time wages and having an ownership stake in the league. The PLL will be presented live by NBC. The NLL recently announced a partnership with Bleacher Report Live, an online streaming service.

Sakiewicz was mum about any potential competition from the PLL.

“The most important thing is that the sport grows,” he said. “The market will tell us it whether there are too many professional lacrosse leagues or there’s not enough professional lacrosse leagues. I think the market always speaks, the fans always speak.”

He believes lacrosse is on the verge of an explosion.

“It’s just not a northeastern sport or a Canadian sport anymore. We have huge growth rates in Northern California, Southern California, Texas, the Midwest, Florida, Georgia — the [Georgia] Swarm were pioneering for us in that part of the country,” Sakiewicz said. “I believe without a shadow of a doubt that we are a 30-team league someday soon in the next decade or so. I see nothing but growth.”

The Roughnecks season opens on Dec. 15 as the team takes on the Vancouver Warriors at 7 p.m. at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

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