By Ted Montour

Wednesday January 19th, National Lacrosse League Commissioner Jim Jennings made it official --- the NLL had finalized an agreement with NBC Sports to televise, live on the national network, the 2005 All Star Game from Calgary, and the Champion's Cup final. Daily sports writers (in Canada at least) and fan forum faithful have since weighed in with their opinions, by no means unanimous, on the deal. As someone whose childhood television selection was three Canadian stations and three US networks from Buffalo, I feel qualified to offer my views on television coverage.

In 1998, the first year of the revamping NLL, there were no game broadcasts, daily print coverage was next to nothing, and the first post-MILL expansion team was the Ontario Raiders, playing out of the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton and financed by Chris Fritz and Russ Kline. Les Bartley and Johnny Mouradian, the helmsman and architect, respectively, of the champion Bandits squads, were running the team that lasted one season, missed a play-off spot by the slimmest of margins - the third or fourth tie-breaker - and was subsequently purchased by an ownership group assembled by Toronto Maple Leafs front office guru and former player agent Bill Watters. Mouradian, while inching along in Toronto's infamous rush hour traffic, was doing some free associating; St. Louis Blues, New Orleans Jazz, hmmm --- Toronto Rock [!!], and the NLL's first dynasty was born.

Watters and company bought time on Sportsnet, one of three Canadian cable TV sports networks (TSN and The Score being the other two), and set about selling advertising spots on the game broadcasts. This approach was successful to the point where, today, most of the original sponsors are still with the team, and, while The Score is the current Canadian League broadcaster, the Rock still have their own side deal with Sportsnet. Seven other clubs have since made some sort of local TV agreement; the only exceptions are Anaheim and, ironically, Buffalo.

One of those original sponsors is the Sun newspaper group, specifically the flagship Toronto Sun. This is why I was a little surprised to see the piece by Ty Pilson of the Calgary Sun, headlined NLL Pays NBC for Airtime, who, in the process of "breaking" the story, felt the need to point out that the League was paying for the air time and his editors felt that fact merited headline status. While he did go on to note that the NLL was doing this "as many other sporting events do", why make a point of it at all? This is a paper that should know that it has already worked, especially when the media helps a little by not headlining that detail?

So now that the cat is loudly out of the bag, the key questions focus on advertising and audience.

Q: How much, if any, (air)time and effort will NBC Sports devote to promoting the broadcasts?

Q: What involvement will NBC have in the sale of advertising for the broadcasts? Will, for example, any of NBC Sports' existing sponsors' spots be appearing in the NLL broadcasts?

Q: Who will handle production and select the broadcast team?

The lacrosse manufacturers, the Brine's, Cascade's, DeBeer's, Harrow's, MIL's, STX's and Warrior's of our world, are stretched thin when it comes to marketing (we know!). I would be pleasantly surprised if any of them could come up, on short months' notice, with the cash to buy US network time and producing network quality spots. Commissioner Jennings, when I asked about sponsors, cited Vonage ("The Broadband Phone Company"), recently signed by the League, as an example. A quick scan of the sponsors pages yields some other possibilities, Molson, Mazda, Black and Decker, Canon, Wendy's, Yahama, but presumably, any of these companies with a US network TV component to their North American advertising budget is already committed to series or events, unless their contract allows for flexibility in placement. Looks like it's time to work the lacrosse old boys' network.

I raised the three points above with NBC, and got the following responses:

A: NBC will promote the NLL broadcasts as part of its NBC Sports programming promotion schedule;

A: The NLL is solely responsible for the sale of advertising under the terms of the "time-buy" agreement; and,

A: NBC will provide the production and the talent, to be announced later.

Another vocal criticism of the NBC deal has been the potential of having to make changes to the game to suit the network.

Lest we forget, the NLL is already a hybrid of box and field lax, particularly with respect to what constitutes a dead-ball situation. Box rules call for a time stoppage on change-of-possession infractions, field rules, for the most part, do not. In the NLL, it's the box rule.

Is there an older, or more ubiquitous, change made in pro sports for the sake of TV, than the TV time-out? Current NLL broadcasts are no exception: --- likewise with play- and shot-clocks. Don't forget about night baseball, particularly the prime-time World Series, or the no-blitz rule in the NFL Pro Bowl, or the abolition of the four-corners offence in collegiate basketball.

Changing the game for television is as old as TV sports. The most successful North American pro sports, starting with the NFL, have been the most successful at adapting, to the point where changes in the game are no longer even perceived in terms of being driven by television.

Jim Jennings' mandate is to expand, adapt, and take the NLL into the North American pro sports mainstream. That is exactly what he is doing with the NBC deal, and based on a business model that already works for most NLL clubs in their local markets. Major League Lacrosse would kill for a deal like this. In fact, with New Balance and their deep pockets now in the primary ownership role, such a buy would prove to all that the league wasn't just a ploy to give legitimacy to Warrior equipment by forcing players to use it. If the league is for real, expect to see them follow suit. They have always made a comparison to the indoor league in their marketing from the days of "Take it outdoors" and to let the NLL get such a huge leap ahead just by spending more money would be disingenuous.

And it is a huge leap. If I understand NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer correctly, NBC's national network coverage extends to some 112 million US households, and the NLL can expect carriage by local affiliates at somewhere between 95% and 100% of stations. This is a massive potential audience by any measure, and I for one would very much like to see the "overnights", the next-day preliminary audience stats, for both broadcasts. As to what this might mean for existing and potential NLL markets, the implications are clear. The viewer demographics for the two broadcasts will yield invaluable information, particularly in terms of potential expansion markets. Paying whatever it may cost for the deeper number-crunching will be as beneficial an investment for the League as buying the broadcast time. The implications for the growth of box lacrosse in the United States are not nearly so clear, but consider this. Every province in Canada has seen growth in box and field lacrosse since the Toronto Rock began appearing on TV. Here in Ottawa, where growth was already trending up in two minor box associations, it has continued, even after the demise of the Rebel, and we have now added the new Junior A Ottawa Titans to the mix.

Consider the 2000 Champion's Cup match between Rochester and Toronto. Anyone who saw that game remembers the tie-breaking, winning goal, when the Rock's Kaleb Toth blew an outside shot past Pat O'Toole with 1.1 seconds to go. That kind of moment in front of millions could change the game and the fortunes of many. Barely two months earlier, this very same NBC had changed its broadcast schedule, dropping a Pistons-Bulls game in favor of a Suns-Raptors game in Toronto's new Air Canada Centre, to showcase Slam Dunk Contest winner Vice Carter, who rewarded the network with a 51-point performance and a 103-102 win. Carter was an instant superstar.

What will it mean for Delby Powless Jr., or John Grant, Jr., or Mark Steenhuis if they go off in the All Star game in front of a few million viewers. A player, team or even a big sponsor could become part of the lure of lacrosse in just one day and this is new to lacrosse. Think about what a glorious swan song a Champion's Cup would be for Gary Gait. Gait dominated the era just ending. He owned the era before what appears to be the new television era in lacrosse. His place in lacrosse history is already assured, BUT if he were to take over the Championship game in only the way he can before the first huge national audience, he could indelibly mark that new era, literally on his way out of the indoor game. My guess is that the Mikey Powell of 2017, perhaps the first million dollar draft pick in pro lacrosse, will watch his first lacrosse game on May 14th of this year and he may have no idea what lacrosse even is right now. That's exciting.

January 21, 2005