National Lacrosse League commissioner eyes further Canadian expansion

Nick Sakiewicz has overseen the addition of four teams to the National Lacrosse League since becoming its commissioner three years ago. That might seem like a lot for an 11-team league, but as far as he’s concerned, he’s just getting started.

The NLL added teams in San Diego and Philadelphia this season, and franchises in Halifax and New York will begin play in the 2019-2020 season. Sakiewicz plans to add teams on both sides of the border in the coming years, but recognizes that the sport’s base will always be in Canada.

“I’m really bullish that we could be a seven- or eight-team league in Canada,” said Sakiewicz on Friday. “I love the country. I think the fans are some of the best fans that we have in our league. Box lacrosse is a 150-year-old sport and has a great heritage and history in the country.

“But we’re going to go slowly and we’re going to go carefully and we’re going to go one team at a time.”

The NLL announced on Sept. 13 that the new Halifax franchise would be owned by current Rochester Knighthawks owner Curt Styres, who in turn sold the Knighthawks to the Buffalo, N.Y.,-based Pegula Sports and Entertainment. The as yet-unnamed Halifax team will take on the Knighthawks’ roster and staff while the team in Rochester, N.Y., will be restocked from an expansion draft.

Halifax brings the total Canadian teams up to five, joining the Toronto Rock, Sasktchewan Rush (based in Saskatoon), Calgary Roughnecks and Vancouver Warriors. Ottawa, Montreal, and Edmonton have had short-lived NLL teams in the past and Sakiewicz is willing to return to those markets if the right owners come along.

“Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton, are fantastic cities we’d love to be in, I’ll put Winnipeg and Quebec City in there too,” said Sakiewicz. “In (Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton), either the owner wasn’t right or the arena deal wasn’t right. I’d say in none of the cases was the market not right because all of those markets are fantastic markets.

“Great fans in each one of them. Passionate fans in each one of them. It’s not a market issue in any of those cities.”

Although not a true expansion team, the Vancouver franchise was bought by the ownership group of the NHL’s Canucks in the off-season, moved from Langley, B.C., to Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver, and renamed the Warriors. Having an NHL or NBA team own NLL franchises is an arrangement Sakiewicz prefers.

“When you look at the history of the NLL over 33 years now, we have not had one single failure of a team that’s owned by an NHL or NBA team,” said Sakiewicz. “It’s a 1000 per cent batting average with NHL or NBA teams.

“If you think about it, it makes sense. They own their arenas, they own their economics in their arena, they have all the infrastructure, and it’s nine or 10 dates tucked into an arena’s schedule.”

The boom period of indoor lacrosse in the United States — with San Diego, Philadelphia and New York joining the NLL — reminds Sakiewicz of other growth periods in North American sports history.

“It reminds me a lot of what soccer was in the 1970s and 80s, when I was a player and growing up,” said Sakiewicz, who played soccer professionally and was a founding executive in Major League Soccer starting in 1995. “(Lacrosse) is exploding here in the lower 48 states. We’re perfectly positioned to take advantage of that explosiveness and growth so you’ll see more teams in the U.S.

“I kind of feel like it’s the NHL in the 60s. A Canadian-born sport that’s slowly dripping south of the border. It feels really good to be in lacrosse right now.”

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