After spending about eight years in the professional soccer business, Ashley Dabb recently was named Chief Marketing Officer for the National Lacrosse League.
What’s it like to switch sports in mid-career?
NLL Commissioner “Nick Sakiewicz said it best: it’s like drinking from a fire hose,” Dabb said. “The business side is similar to soccer. I’m learning the nuances of the sport - we don’t have full-time players, some players don’t live in their markets. But the passion for lacrosse is unrivaled. My time in soccer was great, but I’m really excited.”
Dabb worked with Sakiewicz with the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer, where she was vice president of marketing and communications. It’s been a busy initial few weeks for Dabb with the NLL.
“For me personally, I’ve been gathering information,” she said. “Nick had laid out a strategy for the league going forward, so there are things on my plate. I’ll focus on the digital perspective, and look at the NLL’s branding. Where do we go from here? That’s where I come in.”
Dabb’s biggest problem as she takes on the challenge of trying to help indoor lacrosse grow is the matter of familiarity. In the United States, virtually no one has ever played the game. That means there’s no natural base of supporters in most places.
While outdoor lacrosse is popular in pockets of the country, the indoor game is virtually unseen except in cities with NLL teams.
“It’s a different sport, although there are some similarities to soccer,” Dabb said. “Our biggest challenge in soccer was to get people in the building, so they could experience the sport. Lacrosse is even better entertainment, because it’s non-stop action. In soccer, the players are good. In lacrosse, they are the best in the world. Lacrosse has a lot going for it. We must ask, how do we unlock that?”
One obvious way to expand indoor lacrosse’s reach is through expansion. There are nine teams in the NLL, and four of them are in Canada. That leaves plenty of open U.S. territory. The league tried to expand quickly in the past, and many teams fell in the trash-can of history along the way. The list includes franchises in such areas as Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington.
The trick is to find cities and ownership groups who can survive the initial years of operation, which can be difficult. The NLL had 13 teams in 2007, but four teams have moved to other cities and four others have folded.
“It’s a key focus for us and for Nick as Commissioner to find the right cities for expansion,” Dabb said. “It’s something we're looking to do, and not just do for the sake of expanding. We don’t want to dilute the product.”
If new American cities can be found, then interest by television outlets might follow. It’s tough for the league to sell games involving only Buffalo, Rochester, Denver, New England and Atlanta teams on a national basis.
On the other hand, the landscape for broadcasting is changing by the minute. The league took a step in that direction last season with the creation of NLLtv.com.
“The larger conversation now is digital vs. linear TV,” Dabb said. “I read an article about how Twitter has paid for the rights to some NFL games on Thursday. ... All of the leagues are exploring their options right now. How do you create that mix in order to get maximum exposure?”
All of that activity will require planning, and league officials will be doing that from suburban Philadelphia in the future. The NLL is moving its offices there from New York.
“I think it does a lot for us,” Dabb said. “It gives us an opportunity to make more noise. In New York, we were one of many businesses. ... Being in Philadelphia gives a larger voice, and it’s in the middle of an wide area that could host some teams.”