Major League Lacrosse will open its third season next month with a new TV partner and a raft of fresh sponsors.
The six-team outdoor league, founded by fitness guru Jake Steinfeld, struck a two-year "strategic partnership" relationship with ESPN2. The pact, which does not include a rights fee, calls for taped coverage (from the prior Sunday) of 10 regular-season games on Tuesdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., beginning on June 3. MLL's All-Star game (July 17) and championship match (Aug. 24) will be carried on a same-day delayed basis in primetime.
The league averaged 4,000 fans per game last season.
The deal with ESPN2, which Steinfeld said holds a renewal option, switches MLL from its primary TV home during its first two seasons: Fox Sports Net and a number of its regional sports networks. That coverage for MLL's game-of-the-week action and postseason, was secured by time buys.
"Lacross is a growth sport and this is a league that has established credibility and expanded the lacrosse fan base," said ESPN vice president, program planning David Berson. "We look forward to presenting national coverage of the best outdoor lacrosse players in the world."
Acknowledging afternoon regular-season time periods don't generate the greatest viewing levels, Steinfeld served up another sports metaphor in commenting about the ESPN2 schedule: "We're in the 14th, not the pole position. But we're in the race and have opportunities to get on SportsCenter. This is a great place to begin."
This season, MLL is selling advertising on the games and has increased its sponsorship/media roster considerably from last year's group, comprising Anheuser-Busch (Bud Lite), Merrill Lynch, SoBe Beverages, Warrior Lacrosse (equipment supplier) and Cascade Sport Helmet.
Newcomers include The Sporting News, Gatorade, Oxford Health Plan, Buick, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures and Joe Boxer apparel. New Balance succeeds Reebok as the circuit's official shoe-and-sideline apparel provider, while Bud Lite is developing dedicated MLL creative.
Northeastern-based with clubs in Rochester and Long Island, N.Y, New Jersey, Boston, Baltimore and Bridgeport, Conn., Steinfeld said MLL wants to tap the sport's rapidly growing participation base and is looking to add six more squads in the western U.S. in 2005.
Steinfeld said he has contacted executives at Major League Soccer and the Women's United Soccer Association, including league and Discovery Communications founder John Hendricks, about the possibility of building stadia that teams could share to save costs and erect exposure. A WUSA spokesman said the league would be interested in participating with entities that help the sport grow.