ESPN will air every National Lacrosse League game this season, on ESPN+ or one of its linear networks, after signing a multi-year broadcast deal with the expanding league.
Financial terms have not been announced, but NLL commissioner Nick Sakiewicz said the agreement takes “what our rights are worth to a new level.”
The NLL’s national media coverage has grown significantly since 2015-2016, when games were limited to the occasional Fox Sports Go or ESPN3 airing. NLL TV was created before the following season to test the market, using relationships with Twitter and Facebook to generate exposure. From there, the NLL spent two seasons on B/R Live before skipping last year due to the pandemic. “Over five years we’ve gone from nothing… to this,” Sakiewicz said. “I get asked all the time, like, How does a league like ours get exposure? How do we play with the big boys? And it’s an evolution.”
ESPN+, too, has undergone a transformation since its launch in 2018. “When you launch anything, you have a vision, and you sell that vision,” ESPN senior director for programming and acquisitions Dan Margulis said. But now Margulis can sell something measurable, ESPN+’s roughly 15 million subscribers, to potential partners, as well as the platform’s established relationships with the likes of the NFL, the NHL and UFC. In the NLL’s case, the league also joins existing lacrosse properties across professional, college and high school competitions. Major League Lacrosse aired on ESPN+ in 2020 before merging with the PLL, which airs across NBC platforms.
“As we’ve developed first ESPN3 and now ESPN+, we’ve seen that as a sport that has a very diehard, sophisticated audience that’s used to digital as a platform,” Margulis said. A minimum of 10 NLL games will air on ESPN’s linear networks.
The new deal comes as the NLL continues to expand, planning to add a 16th team after recent additions in Rochester, Fort Worth and Las Vegas. The next franchise could cost twice as much as the last expansion spot thanks in large part to the league’s growing media business. In July, the NLL announced a multi-year partnership with TSN to air games in Canada.
“Media distribution and the media business for a sports league is the No. 1 driver of franchise value,” Sakiewicz said. “This combination of TSN and ESPN deal really gives us yet another proof of concept that the NLL’s content and the value of its content is growing, and so subsequently the franchise values are growing.” At the league level, Sakiewicz said media and sponsorship accounts for more than 60% of revenue.
As the NLL continues to evolve its media plan, its teams still have the ability to experiment with their own direct-to-consumer product locally. Meanwhile, the league has retained “Watch & Bet” rights to allow a potential sportsbook partner to air games as well. “We… forced the marketplace to pay attention to the NLL product, and here we are today,” Sakiewicz said. “But we’re not done yet.”