Some athletes go pro because of the money. Oliver Marti retired because of it.
After playing lacrosse at Brown in the early 1990s, and finishing fifth all-time in the NCAA for goals per game, the British Columbia native joined what was then called the Major Indoor Lacrosse League in 1994. He played for two seasons. An economics/business management double major at Brown, Marti was trying to juggle an analyst gig at Morgan Stanley with his athletic career.
“I wanted to continue playing pro lacrosse,” Marti said in a recent interview, “but at the time, the pay was very low for a pro lacrosse player and with the work demands of an investment banker, I really couldn’t commit myself to playing.”
Having left lacrosse to focus on finance, he became a healthcare analyst and later a hedge fund portfolio manager. As a partner at Columbus Circle Investors, he helped create their hedge fund business including starting and overseeing a healthcare-focused fund managing $1.5B, before going on to found Akera Capital in 2018.
Then, 2020 brought the opportunity to return to what is now called the National Lacrosse League, this time as an owner.
How do you buy a sports team? Well, you start by answering the phone.
Last fall, NLL commissioner Nick Sakiewicz called Marti to let him know the New England Black Wolves were available. The team had been playing at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun since 2014, but the casino and resort was looking to get out of the lacrosse business while capitalizing on the league’s growth.
Sakiewicz said there was plenty of competition for the franchise, with three main suitors and five potential new host cities vying for the club.
How do you buy a sports team? Well, you do your research first.
Sports franchises have shifted from being seen as ego-driven splurges to sound investments, thanks largely to the digital revolution that has increased the demand for engaging content and allowed teams to connect with fans all day anywhere. Marti had looked into European soccer teams in 2014 at the invitation of a partner, but Marti didn’t know the sport. Two years later, he explored buying an NLL club.
At the time, the NLL was still looking for stability. Between 2009 and 2015, franchises stopped playing or moved eight times, with the total number of active clubs declining from 13 in 2007 to nine in 2018. Sakiewicz, a former soccer player with experience growing Major League Soccer as an executive, was brought on in 2016.
The most common issue Marti found at the time was the rent fees and tenant agreements that NLL teams had with their home arenas. They could pay as much as $75,000 per event without getting much ancillary revenue (from things like parking and concessions) in return, and were often secondary or tertiary concerns in buildings that hosted larger franchises. In 2018 and 2019, he continued his due diligence along with lawyer Russ Sheppard, who had gained notoriety in the lacrosse world for building a high school program in the remote Inuit town of Kugluktuk. The two looked into potential markets spanning from Kansas to New England, but declined to jump in.
Still, Marti was interested in the sport. He had a passion for it, but also saw a business case. A 2018 NCAA study found lacrosse was the fastest growing collegiate sport among both men and women, with the number of programs doubling between 2001 and 2015. Indoor, or box, lacrosse presented its own signs for optimism.
Generally played on a converted hockey rink without ice, the sport’s roots were in Canada, and so were a bulk of its pro players. As more Americans learned the game, more would go pro, which would attract more fans and therefore more players in a virtuous cycle.
Marti decided to start his own Connecticut Collegiate Box Lacrosse League to support those up-and-coming players while also helping with an ownership buyout and taking a majority stake in equipment manufacturer Epoch Lacrosse.
One day, Marti invited investor and former Syracuse lacrosse player Brett Jefferson to his office. Marti wanted to discuss NLL opportunities with Jefferson. “He threw a deck in front of me for the (Premier Lacrosse League),” Marti said, referring to the soon-to-launch outdoor league. “I ended up becoming a major investor.”
Marti’s years picking healthcare investments had taught him that identifying macro-opportunities or sector-wide factors wasn’t enough. Specifics mattered, too. Buying a sports team meant waiting for the right time. By 2020, the fundamentals had changed.
Sakiewicz altered the NLL’s trajectory. The league started growing again, to 11 teams by 2019 with plans for 15 by 2022. Overall league revenues are up over 700% from 2017 to 2021, compared to the previous five-year period. And those bad arena contracts became a thing of the past.
“Before I came to the NLL, my research showed the league was in and out of a lot of cities despite strong attendance,” Sakiewicz said. “The reason was poor arena deals and weak ownership. Over the last five seasons we’ve corrected all of that and now we have strong owners from A-Z and arena deals that allow the teams the opportunity to run good businesses. We will never again allow an owner to enter into bad arena deals.”
Sakiewicz also signed a record-setting media deal with Turner Sports, which expires in June, leaving the league ready to capitalize on a competitive streaming marketplace.
And since the PLL’s debut in 2019, he said, the NLL has collaborated with the summer league to ensure schedules didn’t overlap, allowing players to compete in both, earning more than Marti had been able to back in the ‘90s.
With the Black Wolves available, Marti considered the markets that might best support a team. He inquired about Providence, where he’d played in college. Had it not been for COVID restrictions, he said, Montreal could have ended up as his top choice. Instead, he and the league focused on Albany. The city had an NLL team from 2000-2003, and in the interim, the University of Albany’s lacrosse program had developed into one of the country’s most popular.
At the same time, executives in Albany were eyeing the NLL. After the Arena Football League folded in 2019, former Albany Empire president George Manias went on a scouting mission for the team’s owners, looking to see what new team could take its place. He considered indoor soccer and junior hockey but ultimately decided the NLL would’ve been his recommendation. That process stalled when COVID-19 hit, he said. (The Empire returned as part of the National Arena League this spring.)
This time, he sold Marti on the town. The Empire regularly led the AFL in attendance, and without another major pro sports team in the area, Manias was confident fans would flock to the NLL. “It’s kind of the perfect market,” he argued.
It helped that Albany’s Times Union Center was ready to play ball, too. The arena had previously signaled its interest in hosting a team during a 2018 NLL survey.
These days, you don’t buy a sports team alone. Marti connected with Sol Kumin, who played lacrosse at Johns Hopkins and had looked into bringing the NLL to Boston before failing to find a potential arena. Kumin had also become a PLL investor, and had been impressed when that traveling league’s trip to Albany was one of the top five in terms of attendance.
Marti enticed a number of existing minority investors to stay with the team, and also brought in investors Joe Dowling and Zach Schreiber, as well as Jefferson and Sheppard.
“To me, the most exciting team in the league is Halifax,” Jefferson said. “There are no other sports teams in Halifax, and they go crazy for this team. I hope Albany is the next Halifax.”
“To me, the most exciting team in the league is Halifax… I hope Albany is the next Halifax.”
—FireWolves co-owner Brett Jefferson
OK, so you own a sports team. Now what?
According to Sakiewicz, Marti’s group won the bidding contest for the Black Wolves thanks in part to his history with the sport, the financial and operational strength of his proposed ownership group, and the relationship he quickly built with the leaders in Albany, including Manias, who came on as team president.
The group signed a letter of intent for the sale by January. The price was roughly $5 million, then a record for an existing franchise sale (the NLL and ownership declined to comment on the financial terms of the agreement). Sakiewicz said franchise values have increased 600% since 2017, with the Saskatchewan Rush recently selling for over $10 million and expansion fees eclipsing $5 million.
The NLL announced the deal in February, but Manias said a lot of groundwork had already been completed by that point as the team prepares for its debut in December. He helped finalize the lease with the arena, which included office space for the organization he was tasked with building. Several of his first hires were ex-Empire employees.
While he was with the AFL, Manias served on a committee created to launch new teams. “Literally, I wrote the manual on how to do that,” he said. “It’s basically a step-by-step guide and timeline for what to do and when to do it.” He rattled off the various departments that he will have filled by this week: sponsorships, ticket sales, marketing, community service relations, media relations, sponsorship fulfillment. Then there are the actual coaches and players relocating to Albany, who need to be shown around town and told which sponsor gym and restaurants to support.
New ownership also led a name and logo change, taking input from members of the local indigeneous community. FireWolves, they decided, would tie into the franchise’s past while offering something new. “We spent a lot of time going back and forth over email and text message,” Kumin said. “What should the FireWolves look like? What color should they be? How ferocious should the logo be?”
Kumin remembered the first call he got after the sale was announced, from a prominent sports executive with ties to Boston, asking how they could get a team in the city.
In person and online, Marti and Manias have spent time scouting potential locations for the FireWolves’ youth training program. A key to their success, they say, is growing the game of box lacrosse.
“There were some logistical issues with moving from Uncasville, CT, boxing up team equipment, supplies and things of that nature,” Marti said, “but that’s a pretty small component. The main focus is getting set up and integrated in the market.”
In August, the PLL returns to Albany. All the new owners plan to get together, tacking on a strategy retreat in Saratoga Springs, 45 minutes from the arena. “Not everybody has met in person yet given COVID,” Marti said.
Marti and Manias will get a better sense of how well the FireWolves have rooted themselves in the community—and how much work remains—when their inaugural season starts in December. But as much focus as Marti put on identifying and developing the Albany market, the investment goes well beyond the so-called Capital Region.
“The whole real play is, down the road, is this sport really growing and having a tailwind?” Kumin said. “Are there going to be more kids dreaming about playing in the PLL and NLL than basketball or baseball?”
Sakiewicz makes another comparison. “I see a lot of similarities between MLS, NLL and the sports of soccer and lacrosse,” he said. “In 1995 you could’ve bought an MLS team for $5 million. Today their franchises are trading for hundreds of millions.”