By Ted Montour, Canada/NLL Editor
NLL on NBC - All-Stars Put Up a Number
Barely a month ago, and the shortest month of the year at that, NLL Commissioner Jim Jennings announced that NBC Sports would broadcast the All Star Game from Calgary, live on the national and international network. The numbers are in, and they are more than respectable, showing a 0.8 audience share, which translates into 800,000 US households. By comparison, in the same time slot, NBC's Arena Football telecasts average a 1.0 share (1,000,000 homes), and last year's ABC National Hockey League game of the week about a 1.1 . Jennings and the League are very pleased, and they should be. Everyone in lacrosse should be too. E-Lacrosse enjoyed its best readership ever for the week starting on that Saturday and has been deluged with e-mail asking "Where do I sign up to play lacrosse?"
The first and only Major Indoor Lacrosse League All Star game was played in 1991, when a crowd of 7,658 at the Philadelphia Spectrum were the only ones to see the National Division defeat the American Division 25 - 20. That match featured a couple of Detroit Turbos rookies named Gait. Since the NLL debuted in 1998, there have been three more All Star fests, in '99, '02 and last season, when 16,742 Mammoth fans filled the Pepsi Center to near-capacity, and The Score cable sports network in Canada provided the only live broadcast. Last week-end, the venue was the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary, and although the turn-out of 11,500+ fans, for a noon local start, may have been a disappointment to the Roughnecks, the round-the-world carriage by NBC Sports provided a major boost to the profile of the NLL.
Notwithstanding the temporary adjustments to fit the game into the two-hour time-buy, this first foray into US network broadcasting looked good. The production values were good but obviously not the quality of even the weekly golf coverage on NBC or other national US networks. Vonage and KFC®, plus the new official "rapid response rehydration system" drink of the NLL, Aquis, were on board as "title" sponsors. This proves the NLL can sell ads to out-of-lacrosse advertisers which, take our word for it, is extremely hard. While the number of local commercials would seem to indicate that the NLL did not sell out its spots, the overall response from advertisers bodes well for the Champion's Cup broadcast. But not any time soon for weekly broadcasts. Glaringly missing were the lacrosse advertisers, with the exception of ; others included US Lacrosse, UniversityLacrosse.com, Gary Gait's National Development Program, FinishLine Sports. No one else couched up the 8 to 10 thousand dollars for a 30 second spot. In the Lax industry's defense, that's how much it costs to sponsor E-Lacrosse for 6 months and then they would have been hard pressed to develop broadcast-quality commercials with about two weeks notice. But with lots more lead time, we may see some lax ads "on the tube" on May 14th. I hope we also see more pre-promotion for the Championship game from NBC. I saw nothing until the day of the event, though there may have been something I missed, but how many people would watch if a couple Thursday night ads preceded the next NBC game. We'll never know because NBC is harder to sell on lacrosse than those advertisers who didn't show up.
The game itself was full value for the League's investment. Play-by-play announcer Mike Emrick, color commentator Brian Shanahan and roving side-line reporter Mark Morgan did a good job of presenting the game for new fans, and none "got in the way" of the action. There was ample attention to the career and accomplishments of Gary Gait. The broadcast team emphasized the US collegiate roots of the players, including the All American status of the likes of Gait, Tom Marachek, Casey Powell, Ryan Boyle and John Grant Jr., and the national scoring title of Calgary's Tracy Kelusky at the University of Hartford.
There were high-light reel moments, notably Gavin Prout's one-legged-hop fake before scoring on Pat O'Toole on his way to the Dieter Turf. We saw stellar goal-tending again, with special mention to Dallas Eliuk's acrobatics in the second-half. Indeed, the pace of play did not really pick up until the second half, but when it did, it built to a furious finish.
O'Toole and San Jose's Anthony Cosmo yielded the cages to Eliuk and Colorado's Gee Nash, who proceeded to turn aside just about everything the opposition shooters threw at them. With all due respect to last season's Goalie of the Year Nash, Eliuk should have won his second ASG MVP in a row. During one sequence in the third, he stopped four consecutive, excellent shots from the hometown trio of Kelusky, Kaleb Toth and Lewis Ratcliff, before Ratcliff rolled one in through a screen. At the other end, Gee Nash made a classic, when-you're-faked-off-your-feet-put-your-stick-in-the-middle-of-the-net save to rob John Tavares.
The climax was at once a highlight and a problem --- overtime. There were no more than five minutes left in the broadcast when regulation time ran out with the score tried at 10. No sooner did Shanahan point out that NLL overtime was often over quickly, than Tavares made him clairvoyant. 1:40 into OT, JT dragged no less than Jim "the Axe" Moss to the crease, did a reverse spin to clear his hands, and buried a falling-down bouncer behind Nash. It was his third goal of the afternoon (the only other multiple-goal scorer was Arizona's Dan Dawson, also with a hat-trick), and punctuated the contest perfectly. No sooner had Commissioner Jim Jennings presented the fan-voted MVP trophy to Calgary captain Tracy Kelusky, then it was on to American Cup gymnastics.
This event could have been better tailored to a US audience, lax fans and neophytes alike, by featuring more US-born players and familiar names from the college game instead of hometown Calgary players and All Star coaches' team players behind the voted starters. Maybe next time the League could take a page from the NCAA football broadcasters' book and even line up some adverts from star players' alma maters; and certainly the hunt for more sponsors will be easier for Jennings and the League with this experience under their collective belt.
The acknowledgement of Gary Gait's monumental contribution to the pro indoor game, and the opportunity for him to deliver his "leaving the game in the capable hands of the new generation of NLL stars" message, were handled with grace. But he also said that the most important thing this year is winning a championship. The Mammoth will have to improve over their first half performance to get there but if they make it to the final game, bet on a show and don't bet against Gary Gait.
NLL Mid-Season 2005 - Whither the West
I started out to do a good bit of number crunching, but I stopped after my first set of calculations. Based on figures from the NLL's new game sheets (and when are we going to get loose ball numbers?), attendance for the first half of the schedule looks like this:
West Division, 20 games, 185,349 total attendance, 9,267 average;
East Division, 20 games, 223,698 total attendance, 11,185 average.
The differential in average attendance is 1,918, the difference in totals is 38,349, both in favor of the East; if you take Colorado and Toronto out of the mix, the differential in average jumps to over 3,000.
In the East, Toronto once again leads the way, averaging 16,732 for their first four home games, with expansion Minnesota second at 10,732. Philadelphia has averaged 10,395 for three games at the Wachovia Center, while Buffalo and Rochester trail with averages just under 10,000. Only the Wings are trending up, with an opening-night crowd of 8,849, and 12,311 for a February 18th OT loss to the Knighthawks.
NLL All-Star Game MVP Tracey Kelusky
The only team in the West with a five-figure average is the League-leading Mammoth with 16,862, while the Sting is the only club with steady growth since their opener at the Glendale Arena. The champion Roughnecks are averaging just a tick under 10,000, and their best turnout is 11,511 for the All-Star Game. Anaheim trails the League, with 13,944 total and an average of 4,648 for three games.
The Storm have five remaining home dates to reverse their fortunes at the box office, if not on the scoreboard, but the League-wide downward trend has to be alarming to Commissioner Jennings and the Governors, particularly since there are greater problems among the West Division threesome of Anaheim, San Jose and Arizona. While there are some encouraging signs in the Southwest, especially with the quantum leap to stardom of Daniel Dawson, and the apparent increase in interest by star owner Wayne Gretzky, nothing in the way of an immediate solution leaps to mind. The loss of the National Hockey League season has not been reflected, so far, in attendance, and certainly not in the West. NLL lacrosse is as tough a sell as NHL hockey, in California and Arizona.
I hope that the NLL, in acknowledging and analysing this situation, had the foresight to order up some focused viewership numbers in their weaker markets, especially the expansion-driving West, coming out of the All Star Game broadcast. A repeat look at these markets, since presumeably the first was done during the due diligence leading up to the franchise moves, would be a sound investment at this point, particularly to compare with an end-of-season "snapshot" following the Champion's Cup telecast. Not to overstate the obvious, but viewer numbers drive the TV business, never more so than in pro sports, where the networks, cable carriers and production companies have no "creative control" over the quality of the on-screen product.
Overall parity in the League is improving, and, the vagaries of scoring stats notwithstanding, the quality of the play has never been better. More attention must be paid to bringing in US-born players, especially playing in their "hometown markets". Owners need look no further than San Jose's Johnny Mouradian for guidance. Stocking the Toronto Rock with local players was a slamdunk, but more of a challenge in Ottawa, where Brad Watters pulled the plug on Mouradian, and then the team, before Johnny's plan could bear fruit.
HUGE NEWS IN 2005: Gary Gait's retirement
But, in two seasons in northern California, he has key Canadians living in the Bay area, a healthy proportion of British Columbia products just a short hop away in the same time zone, and seven US college grads on the roster, lead by rookie of the year candidate Ryan Boyle and let's not forget Mike Powell waiting in the wings. In the 2004-05 draft, Mouradian selected five Americans in the first three rounds, and eight of nine in total. Boyle (1st round, Princeton), Eric Martin (2nd round, Salisbury), Matt Alrich (3rd round, Delaware) and Drew Virk (5th round, Maryland) are on the active roster.
That's how it's done.
All photos are stills from the NLL All-Star Game broadcast.