San Diego and Philadelphia in a span of two weeks, the National Lacrosse League is trending in a direction of growth.

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Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz and the NLL will formally announce the league's return to Philadelphia on Thursday.

Even Biggest Skeptics Can't Deny NLL's Growth

After announcing the addition of expansion franchises in San Diego and Philadelphia in a span of two weeks, the National Lacrosse League is trending in a direction of growth.

Even the biggest skeptics — those who followed the professional indoor lacrosse league through changes in leadership, the relocation of several teams, low-quality broadcast productions, a lack of access to the product and financial peril for big markets — would be pleasantly surprised to see where the NLL is now.

After the Boston Blazers ceased operations in 2011, the NLL had not expanded until recently. There were plenty of relocations — Washington to Vancouver, Philadelphia to New England, Minnesota to Georgia, Edmonton to Saskatchewan — but the idea that the league would ever stretch beyond its current nine teams seemed far-fetched.

"We want 18-20 teams quickly. Ultimately, over the next decade, I believe 30 teams or maybe more. I see us being the biggest Canadian top-tier league."— NLL commissioner Nick Sakiewicz

Over the last year, however, commissioner Nick Sakiewicz, who was hired in January 2016, is seeing that change.

San Diego, announced Aug. 30, was just the first team in the first wave of NLL expansion. On Tuesday, it was reported that Philadelphia also would be a part of the league, welcome news for a passionate fan base that lost the Wings (now Black Wolves) to New England in 2014. Both teams will begin play in 2018-19, with the expectation that a 12th franchise will be added to the fold between now and then.

“It’s the first year of a five-year plan,” Sakiewicz said. “After 12 months in, we are on schedule. There’s a lot more to do. We view it as two five-year strategic plans. We want 18-20 teams quickly. Ultimately, over the next decade, I believe 30 teams or maybe more. I see us being the biggest Canadian top-tier league. We’re the best lacrosse league in the world. I can see us adding 7-8 teams in Canada.”

The current plan leaves room for one more team to be added for next season, with that third club widely speculated as being Halifax (Nova Scotia), an area Sakiewicz has visited often in hopes of expansion.

“I knew we were on the cusp of breaking out,” New England Black Wolves general manager Richard Lisk said. “We’ve been looking for that break. I thought we had the foundation, and when Nick came in, he injected what the league needed.”

Joseph Tsai, co-founder of Alibaba Group, and Comcast reportedly paid $5 million for expansion franchises in San Diego and Philadelphia, respectively. Two weeks ago, the league set pricing for the second wave of expansion. The talk has been that a return to Edmonton is likely going to be a part of that next wave, and eyes also are on Dallas.

San Diego was a fit for the first wave, not only because of the stable ownership of Tsai, a former Yale lacrosse player whose net worth is reportedly $9.1 billion, but also the league’s desire to have a footprint out west — specifically, the Southwest, which has been neglected for nearly a decade since the Arizona Sting folded in 2007. Previous forays in Anaheim (2004-2005) and San Jose (2004-2009) also failed.

This the first time the NLL has targeted the West Coast in the U.S. since then.

For a new market to be considered by the league, Sakiewicz said, it must meet three criteria.

“A blue-chip owner, like Joseph Tsai,” he said. “Second, an arena. A lot of arena deals in the league haven’t been very good, for whatever reason. And third, a good sports and entertainment market. We’ve seen, even in markets without the biggest lacrosse community, about 75 percent of our fans don’t come from a lacrosse community background.”

The ownership factor is a big one for the NLL, and the league has focused on bringing in only those “blue-chip owners,” like Tsai, or NHL/NBA owners with stable groups behind them, like the Pegulas and Kroenkes.

The last time the NLL has seen such a surge was the mid-2000s, when the league expanded to Boston, Chicago, Portland, Arizona and Anaheim, all of which were unsuccessful. Ownership shortcomings were a major factor in their demise.

But in its 32nd year of operation, the NLL seems to be in a better place to handle impending growth this time around.

“Nick is doing a great job sticking to that plan,” Lisk said. “The league is showing growth. It’s smart to get off of having nine teams. It’s going to make us stronger.”

The NLL’s visibility also has grown thanks to a digital-first strategy deployed by Sakiewicz. The NLL Game of the Week on Twitter averaged nearly 350,000 viewers last season and has nearly 50,000 subscribers with access to NLLTV and its other digital platforms.

“This shocked us,” Sakiewicz said. “It showed people will really watch our game. We think there’s more who will, too. The next improvement is in production quality, which we have invested money into. We know now that people will watch it.”


The U.S. Box Lacrosse Association, established in 2010, hosts regional and national championships — a model Sakiewicz considers to be "exportable" in developing an NLL feeder system to sustain growth.

With the league schedule recently being announced, and games beginning in early December, it appears the NLL also is pivoting toward a different format altogether. There has been plenty of talk in recent years about ending the overlap between the NLL and Major League Lacrosse (professional outdoor league) schedules. While discussions have ensued, that wasn’t necessarily on the NLL’s mind when lengthening the season by three weeks.

The NLL wants to address the overlap and also to capitalize on an uptick in American talent in the Canadian-dominated league. MLL MVP Tom Schreiber joined the NLL last season and was named NLL Rookie of the Year. Many more U.S.-born players have confirmed their interest leading up to the Sept. 18 NLL draft.

“We want to make the NLL playing experience the best it can be,” Sakiewicz said. “I know how important it is to the players, as a former player, but in soccer and not lacrosse. We attempted to collaborate with MLL, and we couldn’t set an agreement. But there will be some tweaks to help eliminate crossover.”

The league office also has taken notice of the success of the U.S. Box Lacrosse Association, co-founded by University of Denver assistant Matt Brown and former 12-year NLL veteran Shaydon Santos, and similar efforts to boost indoor play in the states. The NLL has its eyes on a similar model.

“The work of Matt Brown and USBOXLA is phenomenal work,” Sakiewicz said. “That’s exportable. It is of tremendous interest for the league. Canada has a system in place, but we have an expansion team doing something similar because it is so exportable.”

If the NLL does expand to 30 teams or more, as it hopes, it will require a feeder system to avoid putting watered-down talent on the floor. In the 1990s, American players were more prominent in the league, and the pendulum seems to be swinging back in that direction.

“There’s no such thing as old or young, indoor or outdoor,” Sakiewicz said. “There is only good or bad. And these players are good. The American player is vital to our growth.”

“We’re in our 32nd season, but in a lot of ways, we are still a startup,” he said. “A lot of this is starting over again.”