Lacrosse scoring with sponsors

It may never replace pro hockey in the hearts of beer-chugging males. But Canada's 'other' national game is definitely coming into its own as a sports marketing property....

It may never replace pro hockey in the hearts of beer-chugging males. But Canada’s ‘other’ national game is definitely coming into its own as a sports marketing property.

The Toronto Rock of the U.S.-based National Lacrosse League (NLL) has been in existence for just two years now, and the team has captured the league championship in both of those seasons.

Last year, the Rock attracted roughly 13,500 fans to each of its eight home games at Maple Leaf Gardens – nearly 4,000 more than the league average. And expectations for the coming season, which commences Dec. 21, are even higher (not least because the team is relocating to the more prestigious Air Canada Centre).

Among the blue-chip sponsors that have flocked to the Rock are Nike, General Motors of Canada, Bell Canada, Motorola, Pizza Pizza, Ontario Lottery Corporation and the Sun newspaper chain.

Most prominent, however, is Molson Canada, which recently announced plans to extend its Export brand’s initial two-year sponsorship of the franchise by an additional four years. The brewery’s television production arm, Molstar Sports and Entertainment, also has a four-year deal in place to produce live game broadcasts that air nationally on CTV Sportsnet. (Viewership for Rock games last season averaged 115,000.)

So successful has the team been that the NLL is now launching a second Canadian franchise, the Ottawa Rebel. And this new team already has similar multi-year sponsorship deals in place with the likes of Molson and Bell.

Unlike such big-name pro sports franchises as the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Rock doesn’t have an extravagant budget for marketing and promotions. According to vice-president, business, Bryan Black, the team’s marketing strategy involves shrewd leveraging of its various partnerships in order to create exposure and build support at the grassroots level.

Molson, for example, works with the Rock on in-bar promotions featuring draws for game tickets and souvenir jerseys. In addition, the team gets on-air plugs from Sportsnet, and regular half-page ads in The Toronto Sun promoting ticket sales.

Black, who is also president of the newly christened Ottawa Rebel, says both teams have established close ties with the Ontario Lacrosse Association. As the governing body for amateur lacrosse in the province, the association has been enlisted to sell game tickets to its members.

Sports marketing expert Sean Cunningham, the marketing and business development manager with Toronto-based Bronskill & Co., says the Toronto Rock organization has done an impressive job of generating word-of-mouth publicity with limited resources.

‘[The team] has gotten a little bit of press, but for the most part it’s the buzz on the street,’ he says. ‘And I think the sponsors recognize the value of that street buzz. They know they have a winner there.’

Black, for his part, says the success of the Rock has a lot to do with the high energy and fast pace of the game. The team’s moderate ticket prices ($10-$25) also help draw young sports fans who can’t afford the high price of a seat at a Leafs or Toronto Raptors game.

Norm Webb, director of business development at Toronto-based Molstar, says the Rock does an admirable job of attracting the brewery’s core constituency.

‘It’s young adult, sociable, male – and that’s the target audience,’ he says. ‘Certainly for Export, it presents an opportunity outside of hockey where the brand can take ownership of a property that has some substantial staying power.’

The game of lacrosse was invented centuries ago by Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.

The NLL is headquartered in Lyndhurst, N.J. In addition to Toronto and Ottawa, the league has franchises in Albany, Buffalo, Washington, New York, Columbus, Philadelphia and Rochester. Commissioner Jim Jennings says he would like to see the addition of new Canadian teams in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal and Winnipeg over the next three years.