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With expansion underway, Nick Sakiewicz's NLL plan is becoming reality

When NLL teams hit the floor Friday, it will feel quite familiar. The same nine teams the league has fielded the last three years will return to action, rock songs of old will blare through the speakers and the hard hits and electrifying goals fans have come to expect will be on full display.

Despite the customary actions, the diehards know changes are coming. After a year of alluding to advances, commissioner Nick Sakiewicz's plan is finally in motion. Two expansion teams are joining the league in 2018-19 — the Philadelphia Wings and the San Diego Seals.

Expansion isn't unfamiliar territory for the NLL despite the lack of added teams since 2007. The league has seen teams pop up in Boston, Chicago, New York, Portland, Edmonton, Minnesota, Vancouver, Columbus, New Jersey and Calgary since 2000. Besides Calgary, all the other franchises have either moved or folded.

Under Sakiewicz, who was named commissioner in January 2016, the process has been more calculated and backed by wealthier ownership groups. Joe Tsai, San Diego's owner, is the executive vice chairman of the Alibaba Group, a Chinese e-commerce group with $129 billion of total equity. As of September, he's personally worth $9.8 billion according to Forbes. The former Yale lacrosse player recently purchased 49 percent of the Brooklyn Nets for $2.3 billion and has openly stated his interest in bringing an NBA team to San Diego.

Comcast Spectacor, in charge of Philadelphia, also owns the Flyers and the Wells Fargo Center.

“That’s the new NLL," Sakiewicz said. "That’s the standard for which we’re aiming to bring new owners in. NHL and NBA operators, world-class operators of buildings and facilities."

The Bandits, entering their 27th season, are an example of the success teams enjoy with financial backing. All three franchises owned by NHL or NBA owners — Buffalo, Colorado and Calgary — are in the top half of the league in attendance.

In addition to an existing model for success, Sakiewicz said there are a number of factors leading to dozens of interested ownership groups. First, the NLL is the top tier in its sport. It isn't like the Arena Football League, which plays second fiddle to the NFL. There isn't a professional lacrosse league that brings in attendance numbers like the NLL.

Investors have also enjoyed the on-field product and have taken interest in the league's digital-first mindset.

NLL TV, the league's online game-streaming and video service, is entering its second year of existence. Sakiewicz said year one was a beta of sorts, and teams are planning on investing more money into production this year. The NLL also hired Joel Feld, formerly of NESN, ABC Sports, and CSTV (now CBS Sports Network), as a production adviser.

"I think you'll see a pretty significant increase in production quality," Sakiewicz said.

In addition to NLL TV, the league also started streaming games through Twitter in March. Those airings averaged 344,000 viewers per game according to Bloomberg, leading the league to expand the Twitter schedule this season.

"Those are unprecedented numbers for lacrosse," Sakiewicz said. "What we proved with the Twitter Game of the Week last year is that large numbers of people will watch the NLL on TV. For pro sports and entertainment, the holy grail is television. The fact that we own our own network now is a great initial investment. ... It will continue to increase in value."

Tuesday, the NLL announced a partnership with CBS Sports Digital to stream live and archived regular season and playoff games on the subscription service SportsLive.

All the positive factors were enough to get the Wings and Seals ownership groups to part with a hefty chunk of change. Expansion fees for the two franchises were reportedly $5 million each.

With franchise 10 and 11 now in the fold, Sakiewicz continues to look forward. The first round of expansion is over. Round two is more expensive, with five shortlisted cities vying for two expansion spots for the 2019-20 season.

It's the second step toward the eventual ambitious and lofty goal — a 30-team league.

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